musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Mass in b minor (BWV 232)

Gli Angeli Genève
Dir: Stephan MacLeod

rec: Oct 2020, Geneva, Studio Ernest-Ansermet
Claves - CD 50-3014/15 (© 2021) (1.41'12")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Aleksandra Lewandowska*, Zoë Brookshaw*, Marianne Beate Kielland*, Anne-Kathryn Olsen, soprano; Christelle Monney, contralto; Alex Potter, alto*; Valerio Contaldo*, Olivier Coiffet, tenor; Stephan MacLeod*, Jaromír Nosek, bass (*) soloists
Alexis Kossenko, Sara Boesch, transverse flute; Emmanuel Laporte, Seung-Kyung Lee-Blondel, Claire Thomas, oboe; Tomasz Wesolowski, Hugo Rodriguez, bassoon; Olivier Picon, horn; Guy Ferber, Xavier Gendreau, Emmanuel Mure, trumpet; Leila Schayegh, Eva Saladin, Adrien Carré, Stéphanie Erös, Claire Foltzer, Angelina Holzhofer, Nadia Rigolet, violin; Sonoko Asabuki, Murielle Pfister, Bettina Ruchti, viola; Roel Dieltiens, Oleguer Aymami, cello; Michaël Chanu, double bass; François Guerrier, harpsichord; Francis Jacob, organ; Thomas Holzinger, timpani

Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in b minor has a status which is close to that of his St Matthew Passion. No wonder, then, that hardly a year goes by without at least one new recording of this masterwork, which in the form in which it is performed today, dates from the very last year of Bach's life. Therefore it is rightly considered one of his musical testaments, alongside the Kunst der Fuge. This also means that we cannot rely on any information about a performance in his lifetime. It is even questionable whether it has ever been performed in its ultimate form. The consequence is that no performance can claim 'authenticity' as far as the size of the performing forces are concerned. Joshua Rifkin, who is one of the main advocates of the view that Bach's sacred music was usually performed with one voice per part, recorded the Mass in b minor in this manner. It certainly represents an interesting approach, and offers a worthy addition to the performing tradition, but has no stronger foundation in history than performances with larger ensembles.

That said, it would be wrong to suggest that it does not matter with how many singers and instrumentalists this work is performed. Some performers use choral forces which Bach very likely has never seen in his life, and were quite uncommon in his time. Stephan MacLeod, who directs his ensemble Gli Angeli Genève in the recording to be reviewed here, takes a pragmatic approach to this issue. Since the foundation of his ensemble, he has opted for a line-up of two singers per part. In this recording ten singers are involved. However, "we did not approach the Mass in B minor with an ensemble of ten singers for the sake of authenticity, nor to assert our point of view on how things should or should not be done. We sometimes forget in the quest for authenticity that musicians, then as now, have always been pragmatic and have always been willing to adapt to different constraints: budgets, tuning forks, numbers, available instruments, etc."

There is one factor that is more important to MacLeod. "In Bach's time, singers in Leipzig, regardless of their precise numbers, sang in front of the instrumentalists and not behind them. Religious music existed according to the verb it magnified, since instrumentalists and singers shared the same language and culture at the time. By placing the singers in front of the instruments today, as we do with Gli Angeli Genève, we are restoring the word to its rightful place: the first, the one that founds and inspires this vocal music. And if the choir sings in front of the instruments, it doesn't need to have many members, as the balance between voice and orchestra is much easier to achieve." This is in line with the fact in Bach's time all music was fundamentally ensemble music, scored for voices and instruments as a unity. If a work included episodes for one or more solo voices, such as arias or recitatives, singers from the ensemble took care of them. Today, even in many performances with larger forces, the solo parts are sung by members of the choir or - putting it the other way around - the soloists are also participating in the tutti parts. In this performance, all the singers act as soloists, some in the arias and duets, others in an ensemble of four or five voices.

There are many recordings in the catalogue with which this performance has to compete. However, the number of recordings with a comparable line-up is not that large. An important factor is that the ensemble comprises singers who work together on a regular basis. As MacLeod expresses it in the booklet: "[They] are the voices of a group of friends who have decided to sing together, and to let their respective timbres express their happiness and pleasure in letting music speak for itself." That has its effects as in most cases the voices blend beautifully. In the 'Christe eleison', for instance, Aleksandra Lewandowska and Marianne Beate Kielland are a perfect match. The same goes for 'Et in unum Dominum', in which the former is joined by Alex Potter. It is a little surprising that Ms Kielland is not entirely free from a slight wobble in 'Laudamus te'.

One thing is notable as far as the tempi are concerned. In general the solo parts are taken at a relatively swift tempo; they are mostly slightly faster than in other recordings in my collection, among them those by Philippe Herreweghe (PHI, 2011), Hermann Max (Capriccio, 1993) and Masaaki Suzuki (BIS, 2007). In most cases I find them satisfying, probably with the exception of the 'Christe eleison', where I would prefer a somewhat slower tempo. I missed some depth here. On the other hand, the 'Benedictus' is surprisingly slow - a little too slow, in my view, but beautifully sung by Valerio Contaldo. Alex Potter is excellent, as always, in his solos, 'Qui sedes' and especially in the moving 'Agnus Dei'. I am not a great admirer of Stephan MacLeod's singing, and in 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' his vibrato is disappointing. He is much better in 'Et in spiritum sanctum'.

Whereas the solo episodes are mostly rather fast, in the tutti episodes MacLeod sometimes takes a slower tempo than other performers. In most cases I have no problems with that. Examples are 'Et incarnatus est' and 'Crucifixus', which both receive incisive and expressive performances. The 'Kyrie I' and 'II' are also performed at a modest tempo, and that seems well justified. However, the orchestral episodes at the start are too flat; stronger dynamic accents would not be amiss. The 'Sanctus' may require a faster tempo, although this section and the two 'Osanna' sections have plenty brilliance and jubilation.

The balance between the singers and the instrumentalists is very good. To what extent this is indeed the effect of the placement of the singers in front of the orchestra is hard to say on the basis of a recording, as an unsatisfactory balance can easily be corrected with technical means. It is only possible to assess its effect in a live performance.

Although I am not satisfied with this recording in all its aspects, all in all I am quite happy with this performance, and it seems one of the best in the category of recordings with a comparable line-up. If you look for such a recording, as an alternative to performances with a larger ensemble, this is a good candidate.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Gli Angeli Genève

CD Reviews