Bach: Mass in B minor

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

WORKS: Mass in B minor
PERFORMER: Jenny Hill (soprano), Janet Baker (contralto), Peter Pears (tenor), John Shirley-Quirk (bass); New Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra/Carlo Maria Giulini
They certainly don’t make them like this any more. Giulini’s large-scale, ultra-reverential way with the B minor Mass was already old-fashioned in 1972. Nearly three decades later it sounds antediluvian. The vast, swimmy acoustic of St Paul’s Cathedral may, of course, have prompted Giulini to choose some funereal tempi; and it’s not entirely the performers’ fault that Bach’s intricate contrapuntal textures frequently degenerate into a soggy blur. That said, the New Philharmonia Chorus was past its Wilhelm Pitz-inspired peak by 1972, and often sounds sorely stretched here, with tremulous, out-of-tune sopranos and raw tenors and basses. The Kyrie’s lugubrious pacing, gluey, all-purpose legato phrasing and intermittent choral flatness (the initial alto entry had me wincing) epitomise all that is worst about the performance. In fairness to Giulini, some of the jubilant D major choruses – ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, ‘Et resurrexit’, ‘Osanna’ – catch fire; and for all their improbable slowness, the ‘Gratias’ and Sanctus do generate an imposing marmoreal grandeur. But the chief redeeming features here are the soloists, above all John Shirley-Quirk, gravely eloquent of tone and line, and Janet Baker, whose fervent, burningly direct ‘Agnus Dei’ is the high point of the whole performance. Richard Wigmore