JS Bach: Mass in B minor

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Channel
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: Mass in B minor
PERFORMER: Dorothee Mields, Johannette Zomer (soprano), Matthew White (alto), Charles Daniels (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass); Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven
CATALOGUE NO: CCS SA 25007 (hybrid CD/SACD)
This sumptuous production contains a hard-back book with comments on the structure and symbolism of the Mass, and photos of liturgical objects – chalices, ampullae, censers – from Utrecht’s Catherijneconvent Museum. It includes observations on the recording, notably van Veldhoven’s approach to dividing sung parts between soloists and choir. He has 15 singers in all, with eight strings, continuo, and Bach’s specified wind. At best, the resulting transparency and texture is strikingly effective. ‘Et resurrexit’, probably re-worked from a lost wind concerto, is splendidly fluent when the cruelly florid lines are tackled by soloists – Peter Harvey is superb in the vocal contortions of ‘et iterum venturus est’. Elsewhere the temptation to play with density has gone to van Veldhoven’s head, with tutti/solo at times alternating at bewildering and unpredictable intervals (‘Confiteor’, ‘Gloria’…).

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There are problems of balance, too, despite the added spatial dimensions afforded by SACD. Charles Daniels and Matthew White are powerful in chorus mode but, as the number of parts build up in the opening Kyrie fugue, subsequent soprano entries are barely audible; subdued violins in the first ‘Credo’ obscure the sheer glory of Bach’s eight-part polyphony.

Solo numbers are admirable – an alluring flute above the duet of ‘Domine Deus’; exemplary horn over buzzing Baroque bassoons in Harvey’s fine ‘Quoniam’; flute again floating above Daniels’s lovely tone in ‘Benedictus’. Orchestral playing is lithe and well-sprung – the delivery of ‘Cum sancto spiritu’ is thrilling.

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Gardiner’s epoch-making account of 1985 remains unmatched, with Naxos’s re-mastered Karajan recording (1952/3) a nostalgic delight. But this new offering has rewarding moments of originality within its spectacular packaging. George Pratt