The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists sing JS Bach

'Without compromising the monumentality of the work, he finds an intimacy too'

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LABELS: Soli Deo Gloria
WORKS: Mass in B minor
PERFORMER: Hannah Morrison (soprano), Esther Brazil (mezzo), Meg Bragle, Kate Symonds-Joy (alto), Peter Davoren, Nick Pritchard (tenor), Alex Ashworth, David Shipley (bass); Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner


It’s 30 years since John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir first recorded the B minor Mass. How times change. Few then could have predicted that the minimalist approach to Bach would turn mainstream, and even if Gardiner has no intention of going down that route (a ‘B minor Madrigal’ was never going to happen), something has rubbed off. Without compromising the monumentality of the work, he finds an intimacy too.

The choir (and orchestra) is actually larger than the class of 1985. The sound-world however is lighter, less well-upholstered, and all the soloists bar two are regular Monteverdi Choir choristers. Instead of a stop-start assembly of choral numbers spliced with vehicles for star soloists, there’s a communal, organic feel to the performance that Gardiner compounds in his pacing and sense of flow from one section to the next. Meg Bragle’s Agnus Dei is more detached than was Michael Chance’s back in 1985, but Hannah Morrison brings an almost flirtatious playfulness to the Laudamus Te.

Give or take a few seconds, movement timings are surprisingly consistent between the two recordings but how Gardiner energises or relaxes the music is entirely different, as are the ear-catching details he chooses to highlight. The opening of the Credo marches to the beat of the Church triumphant; the whirling, swirling Sanctus is discharged in an Osanna that rises like billowing clouds of incense, while the dazzling virtuosity of the Cum Sancto Spiritu makes the exuberant motet Singet dem Herrn sound positively funereal in comparison. The Monteverdi choir recently turned 50; it gets younger by the year.


Paul Riley