JS Bach: Mass in B minor

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Challenge
WORKS: Mass in B minor
PERFORMER: Gerlinde Sämann, Elisabeth Hermans (soprano), Patrizia Hardt, Petra Noskaiová (mezzo-soprano), Bernhard Hunziker, Christoph Genz (tenor), Marcus Niedermeyr, Jan Van der Crabben (bass); La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
CATALOGUE NO: CD 72316 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Sigiswald Kuijken’s notes describe his gradual conversion to one-to-a-part Bach, from Joshua Rifkin’s first hypothesis, through the vicious polemics in Early Music between Rifkin and the champion of choral performance Ton Koopman.

This recording effectively demonstrates the freshness of single voices – the gossamer transparency of ‘Et incarnatus’; the clarity of every strand in the textural warp and weft of ‘Et resurrexit’, (its concerto-like vocal episodes strong evidence of Bach self-borrowing from a lost concerto).

But curiously, in richer scoring, the individual voices’ diamantine sparkle is so similar to that of solo instruments that, even in SACD, details become confused. I compared it with Ton Koopman’s 1995 recording, the 27 voices of his Amsterdam Baroque Choir a model of translucent clarity, but their warmer (so-called) ‘chorus effect’ providing clear tonal contrast with his instrumentalists.

The true solo numbers are superb, from both voices and obbligato instruments – a fresh, rasping hand-horn in ‘Quoniam….’; admirably matched voices in ‘Christ eleison’; the ‘chiff’ of a charming chamber organ continuo in the ‘Agnus Dei’ (though the alto’s pathos is at some cost to intonation).

Kuijken dispenses with 16-foot bass, using only an eight-foot ‘bass violin’, so that, where bass line rises above tenor, the harmony becomes inverted – a strange decision.

His tempos are generally on the fast side, with a remarkably athletic host of angels singing the ‘Sanctus’, while skilful recording controls the long reverberation-time of a recently completed Spanish theatre.

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An admirable lean account, then, though Koopman’s performance is powerful advocacy for the choral solution. George Pratt