JS Bach: Mass in B minor

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: NAIVE
WORKS: Mass in B minor
PERFORMER: 104:01 mins (2 discs)

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With nearly 50 current recordings to choose from, yet another has to offer something special. Marc Minkowski is among the lean providers – ten voices, so largely two-to-a-part and reduced to one at times. But his orchestral strings are more numerous – four each of first- and second-violins.

I’ve commented before (Kuijken, June 2009) on the phenomenon that, in complex scoring, individual voices’ diamantine sparkle is so similar to that of solo instruments that details become obscured. Minkowski’s larger orchestra solves the problem, his strings producing the denser ‘chorus’ effect against which voices weave their transparent counterpoints. Though SACD sound would have added a further clarifying dimension, even in two-dimensional stereo the audible detail is striking.

Minkowski’s second claim to distinctiveness lies in extremes of tempo. While the Gloria’s headlong vivace is exhilarating, the first ‘Credo’ knocks ten seconds off the fastest of the dozen other versions I’ve checked. Several listenings cannot quite
dispel the sense of excess urgency.

By contrast, the Agnus Dei is the longest since Karajan 57 years ago, though Nathalie Stutzmann’s countertenor-ish quality is so riveting that one can’t help feeling the longer time stands still, the better.

Minkowski comments that ‘Bach turns everything into an orchestra’; his mind is ‘symphonic’. As a result, the singers are required to match the instrumental virtuosity of players, as they do with breathtaking effect in ‘Et resurrexit’, ‘Et expecto’.

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Recording quality, in a warmly reverberant church in Santiago de Compostela, matches the performance, making this the best of the minimalist B minor Mass recordings. George Pratt