Bach: Mass in B minor

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Virgin Veritas
WORKS: Mass in B minor
PERFORMER: Emma Kirkby, Emily van Evera (soprano), Christian Immler, Michael Kilian, Panito Iconomou (alto), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), David Thomas (bass); Taverner Consort & Players/Andrew Parrott
CATALOGUE NO: VMD 5 61337 2 Reissue
It’s nearly thirty years now since Nikolaus Harnoncourt set out to change the way we listen to Bach. ‘We must attempt to hear and to play the masterpieces of Bach as if they had never been interpreted, as if they had never been shaped or distorted in performance,’ he declared. must attempt an interpretation which ignores the whole Romantic performance tradition. All questions must be raised anew…’

Advertisement

Harnoncourt’s 1968 version of the Mass in B minor (reissued on Teldec in 1994) was the first recording of that work to use period instruments and to adopt a historically ‘authentic’ approach. Employing faster tempos and a smaller number of performers than were then the norm, Harnoncourt unveiled a Bach of dancing rhythms and bright, transparent textures. Traditionalists were predictably shocked, seeing the new ‘lighter’ style as lacking in profundity and genuine emotional commitment. Others, however, who found previous ‘heavier’ styles ponderous and oppressive, delighted in this vivid, revitalised Bach.

The ‘authenticity’ movement quickly gathered momentum and in 1982 reached at least one kind of extreme when Joshua Rifkin recorded the B minor Mass with choruses that had only one voice to a part. (Rifkin’s researches into Bach’s work at Leipzig led him to conclude that choral pieces had often been performed there with these minimal forces.) Andrew Parrott’s 1985 EMI set, newly reissued on Virgin Veritas, follows Rifkin’s example except that he also adds a ripieno group of one extra voice per part – a decision partly in accord with period practice, since we know Bach himself divided his singers into concertists (ie soloists) and ripienists, though both Parrott and Rifkin ignore Bach’s stated desire to have at least three and preferably four voices per part in his church choirs.

Even with the ripieno, Parrott’s small-scale forces leave Bach’s music shorn of much of its majesty. Though there are gains in terms of clarity of line and rhythmic litheness, most notably perhaps in a jubilant ‘Cum sancto spirito’, these are outweighed by a concomitant loss of textural contrast and dramatic power. The brisk tempos also seem inappropriately lightweight at times, turning the opening Kyrie into a jog and failing to convey the expressive depths of the Agnus Dei. Singing and playing are of a uniformly high standard but Parrott’s treatment of the Mass as virtually a chamber work results in a two-dimensional performance that is hard to enthuse over.

1985 also saw the release of John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Mass (on Archiv), a set that for many people still remains the top recommendation. Using four and five voices to a part (close to Bach’s ideal), Gardiner retained the vitality and flair of period performance while also recapturing much of the splendour and gravitas associated with more traditional approaches. In particular, his was a supremely well-paced performance; the tempos fluent yet always sensitive to the music’s subtleties. It is this version of Bach, what we could call a balance of new and old values, rather than the radical minimalism of Rifkin and Parrott, that has proved the more influential model for subsequent period performances of the Mass in B minor.

The excellent new recording by Robert King and the King’s Consort can be said to take a further, albeit small, step back towards older performance traditions: his tempi are generally a shade slower than Gardiner’s, his choir and orchestra are a little larger and the overall effect is a touch more solemn. To risk an oversimplification, where Gardiner brought out the drama in the score, King emphasises its sense of mystery. He finds in the music a rapt yet calm spirituality that provides coherence to what is basically a collection of pieces in disparate styles, written at different points in Bach’s life.

Musically, King’s most telling move is to use boys’ voices for all the soprano and alto parts, solo and chorus. This was standard practice in Bach’s day, when women were not allowed to sing in church choirs, but is less often attempted in recent times, since boys’ voices now break at a much younger age than they did in the 18th century. (Even Harnoncourt in 1968, though he used a boys’ choir, retained a female contralto for the solo parts.) There are moments here when King’s boy soloists sound a little out of their depth, either technically or expressively, yet I think he is right to insist that ‘the sound of unbroken soprano voices and the astonishing timbre of boy altos is inimitable and, in the end, seems so utterly right for Bach’s music’. The haunting tone – a kind of viscous brightness – that Maximilian Fraas brings to the Agnus Dei proves King’s point, as does the distinctive sound quality of the choruses. These are all sung superbly, none more so than the closing ‘Dona nobis pacem’, the finest I’ve heard, as it moves from an evocation of sublime tenderness to a climax of ecstatic grandeur.

Advertisement

King has, I think, succeeded brilliantly in reclaiming the profundity and emotional commitment of traditional Bach performance, without any of the attendant ‘heaviness’ of rhythm or texture. His is definitely a post-Harnoncourt sound-world! This new Mass in B minor is a magnificent achievement and a joy to hear.