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

[A] Carolyn Sampson, Rachel Nicholls, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Gerd Türk, tenor; Peter Kooy, bass
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki

rec: March 2007, Kobe, Shoin Women's University (chapel)
BIS - SACD-1701-02 (2 CDs) (© 2007) (1.46'19")

[B] Netherlands Bach Society
Dir: Jos van Veldhoven

rec: Dec 2006, Amsterdam, Waalse Kerk
Channel Classics - CCS SA 25007 (2 CDs) (© 2007) (1.46'19")

[NBS] (concertists) Dorothee Mields, Johannette Zomer, soprano; Matthew White, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass; (ripienists) Amaryllis Dieltiens, Marieke Steenbrink, Lauren Armishaw, Klaartje van Veldhoven, soprano; Daniel Lager, alto; Elena Pozhidaeva, contralto; Immo Schröder, Simon Wall, tenor; Matthew Baker, Donald Bentvelsen, bass

Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor by Bach is generally considered one of the greatest monuments in music history. And 'monumental' it is indeed, not only because of the scoring for up to 8 voices and a full range of the then current instruments, but also because of its proportions and architectural character. One of the most remarkable features of this composition is that it is structured with an almost mathematical precision, and nevertheless is full of expression.

There are many unanswered questions about the B-minor Mass: why was it composed, why did it take so long to reach the form in which we know it today, and had Bach planned a complete Mass setting from the beginning? In its present form it is one of the last works in Bach's life: in his last years he extended and reworked the existing sections at the same time he worked at his Kunst der Fuge. And as Bach was increasingly under the stress of his deteriorating health, one may assume that he didn't expect it to be performed during his life - or ever, considering the fact that music of the past was seldom performed in those days. This could lead to the conclusion that Bach didn't have a particular performance in mind, and that he was merely aiming at leaving a musical testimony of his art to the world. As in the later stages of his life musical taste and style started to change he must have felt he was the last representative of an era which was soon to be gone for ever.

This makes it difficult to decide how to perform it. There is difference of opinion in regard to the number of singers which were involved in Bach's own performances of his works. Scholars like Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott argue that usually religious vocal music was performed with one voice per part. This view meets support and resistance. The Dutch keyboard player and conductor Ton Koopman strongly disagrees with this view, generally called one-voice-per-part (OVPP), and has recorded all of Bach's cantatas with a choir for the tutti. His Japanese pupil and colleague Masaaki Suzuki apparently looks at it the same way. In his recording project with Bach's cantatas with his Bach Collegium Japan he so far has also used a choir and and he does so too in his recording of the B-minor Mass. Jos van Veldhoven, the director of the Netherlands Bach Society, leans towards the view of Rifkin and Parrott: some years ago he disbanded its choir and decided to work with solo voices and additional ripienists, depending on the repertoire. But it seems he doesn't take the one-voice-per-part theory too litterally: both in his recording of Bach's St John Passion (2004) and in this new recording of the B-minor Mass he uses more ripienists than someone like Joshua Rifkin believes Bach has ever used. The fact that the Mass in its present form has never been performed during Bach's life and that in its original form - consisting of Kyrie and Gloria only - it was first and foremost composed for the court in Dresden makes it difficult to decide how many singers one needs. The theories of Rifkin and Parrott may be correct in regard to performances in Leipzig, the circumstances in Dresden could have been different. From this perspective one could argue that any scoring is plausible as long as it doesn't move too far away from what was common practice in Germany around 1750. In the liner notes of his recording of the B-minor Mass of 1982, however, Rifkin argues that there are enough reasons to perform the work with one voice per part. He also sees no reasons to believe Bach ever had the addition of ripienists in mind. In his remarks about the performance Jos van Veldhoven doesn't tell much about his decision to use ripienists: he only states that he believes the performances of Bach's vocal music were part of a long tradition in Germany, which included, for instance, the use of favoriti - solo voices - and capellae - a 'choir'. With the use of five solo voices, which in some sections are joined by two ripienists per part, the result isn't that much different from the recording by Masaaki Suzuki with his Bach Collegium Japan, who uses a choir of 3 to 4 voices per part, but whose soloists don't sing in the tutti sections.

As far as the overall performances are concerned there are not that many differences, and most of them concern matters of tempo, articulation and dynamics and the quality of the singers in their respective solos and duets. In all these aspects there is little to choose between them. On the whole Jos van Veldhoven's tempi are a bit brisker, in particular the 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' (Gloria), the Sanctus and the 'Dona nobis pacem' which concludes the whole work. I think Van Veldhoven's tempi are more satisfying in these particular sections. I could imagine an even faster tempo in the Sanctus. Sometimes the playing of the orchestra of the Netherlands Bach Society is a bit lacklustre, in particular the strings. The violin solo in 'Laudamus te' (Gloria) is a little bland, but the other obbligato parts are very well played. The orchestra of the Bach Collegium Japan are generally impressive, although sometimes I had liked the articulation a little sharper now and then. Here the obbligato parts are also played well.

As far as the soloists are concerned, this is partly a matter of taste: some people like a particular voice, others don't. Both recordings show mixed results in this respect. Jos van Veldhoven has Dorothee Mields, who is very difficult to surpass; Carolyn Sampson sings quite well, but because of a slight vibrato which sometimes creeps in I prefer Ms Mields. Johannette Zomer is giving fine performances, but in 'Laudamus te' I am very impressed with Rachel Nicholls: not very often I have heard this particular aria sung better than here. In the alto department Robin Blaze is ahead of Matthew White. I can't say that I like Blaze's voice in itself very much, but his performance of the Agnus Dei is very moving and subtle. In comparison Matthew White is too straightforward and less expressive.
Charles Daniels and Gerd Türk are both excellent singers, but the latter is a bit disappointing here, in particular because of his vibrato, which makes his duet with the soprano, 'Domine Deus' (Gloria), less satisfying. Dorothee Mields and Charles Daniels are blending far better, and the latter gives a brilliant account of the Benedictus. Lastly, the basses: no real competition here. I never liked Peter Harvey, and in this recording he doesn't anything to win me over. Peter Kooy is a seasoned Bach singer and one of the best in the business, and that is what he shows here again.

It is the tutti sections which tip the balance slightly in favour of Suzuki. Van Veldhoven's use of concertists and ripienists seems to me rather arbitrary. I regularly wondered why all of a sudden the ripienists came in. Another thing is that in the tutti sections the soloists tend to dominate the proceedings. The unity of concertists and ripienists is historically totally justified, but by using solo singers in combination with what are basically ensemble singers there is always the danger that the former are too dominant, and that is sometimes the case here. In some sections where all concertists are involved, like in 'Et in terra pax' in the Gloria, the balance between them isn't always ideal. In the said case the upper voices tend to overshadow the lower ones. Historically speaking the use of soloists and a choir by Suzuki is without foundation, but the actual result - at least here - is more satisfying: the choir produces a greater unity of sound and the balance within and between the various voice groups is very good.

Lastly, why Van Veldhoven uses the Italian pronunciation of the Latin text is a mystery to me. The soloists seem to find it a bit odd as well, as some are not quite consistent here. Suzuki, to his credit, has rightly opted for the historically only justifiable - German - pronunciation. Both sets contain interesting and informative essays on matters regarding the Mass in B minor.

To sum up: I have enjoyed both interpretations and I wouldn't like to miss any of them. But if I would like to listen to the Mass in B minor I probably would take Suzuki's recording from my shelf than Van Veldhoven's. But whatever you decide to purchase it won't be a bad bargain.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Bach Collegium Japan
Netherlands Bach Society

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