musica Dei donum

CD reviews

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

[I] Dorothee Mields, Johannette Zomer, soprano; Patrick Van Goethem, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Peter Kooy, bass
Cappella Amsterdam; Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century
Dir: Frans Brüggen
rec: March 2009 (live), Warsaw, Lutoslawski Radio Studio
Glossa - GCD 921112 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (1.46'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/S; lyrics - translations: E/D/F/S
Cover & track-list

[II] Dorothee Mields, Hana Blaziková, soprano; Damien Guillon, alto; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Peter Kooy, bass
Collegium Vocale Gent
Dir: Philippe Herreweghe
rec: May 14 - 17, 2011, Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus Kirche
PHI - LPH 004 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (1.41'18")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/N; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[III] Meike Leluschko, soprano; Franz Vitzthum, alto; Ulrich Cordes, tenor; Lucas Singer, bass
Kammerchor Consono; Rheinisches Barockorchester
Dir: Harald Jers
rec: May 2005 (live), Düsseldorf, Johanneskirche & Cologne, Trinitatiskirche
Spektral - SRL4-11100 (2 CDs) (© 2012) (1.45'00")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

[IV] Bethany Seymour, soprano; Sally Bruce-Payne, mezzo-soprano; Jason Darnell, Joshua Ellicott, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass
Yorkshire Bach Choir; Yorkshire Baroque Soloists
Dir: Peter Seymour
rec: April 16 - 18, 2010, York, University of York (Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall)
Signum Classics - SIGCD265 (2 CDs) (© 2011) (1.43'06")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

The Mass in b minor by Johann Sebastian Bach is one of his most impressive works. Since long it has been part of the standard repertoire of choirs of all sizes. With the emergence of historical performance practice the use of large oratorio choirs was fundamentally questioned. When this way of performing early music had established itself it became common to sing this work with a choir of about 16 to 20 singers. But then Joshua Rifkin launched his thesis that Bach mostly performed his vocal music with one voice per part. He applied this theory in his own recording of the Mass which for a while found little response. It was probably only after the publication of the book The Bach Choir which he wrote with his British colleague Andrew Parrott that performers started to look critically at the habits of performing the Mass in b minor which had established themselves. It has to be added that in this case it is especially difficult to determine how many performers are needed as no performance in Bach's time has been documented. It is quite possible that it was only performed considerable time after his death.

That said, if more voices per part were used in Bach's time it is very unlikely that the number of singers exceeded 16 or 20 - the size of what in our days is called a 'chamber choir'. So when one is used to hear a performance with either a small choir or solo voices the recordings by Harald Jers and Peter Seymour - and even Frans Brüggen - come as quite a shock. Jers uses a choir of 39 singers, Seymour's Yorkshire Bach Choir comprises even 59 singers; Brüggen's Cappella Amsterdam is a little smaller with 27. It is as if nothing has happened in the world of performance practice. In the liner-notes of the respective booklets the whole issue is not discussed. Does the size of a choir damage a performance? Let's see.

Let us begin with the performance under the direction of Harald Jers. I had never heard of the conductor or of the choir and the orchestra. As far as the soloists are concerned, I knew Franz Vitzthum who is a fine male alto, and I also vaguely remember having heard Ulrich Cordes before. The contributions of the soloists are among this recording's weaknesses, I'm afraid. One of the positive aspects is the German pronunciation of the Latin text.

The opening Kyrie eleison is very slow: it takes more than 10 minutes. In particular the first tutti episode is heavy and sluggish. Even so Jers manages to create some light but clearly audible dynamic accents which do justice to the rhythmic pulse. In the 'Christe eleison' the soloists don't blend very well, and there is a lack of agility; Meike Leluschko is too dominant and uses too much vibrato.

In the Gloria 'Et in terra pax' is disappointing: there is a lack of dynamic accents and the balance between choir and orchestra is not good. For a choir of this size a string section of 10 (3/3/2/1/1) is probably too small. In 'Laudamus te' the trills are not fluent enough, Meike Leluschko again uses too much vibrato and the strings are rather bland. The vibrato is a problem once again in the duet of soprano and tenor, 'Domine Deus'. The flute part is beautifully played by Annie Laflamme, though. 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' is again sluggish and is not transparent enough. In 'Qui sedes ad dexteram patris' there is a lack of accents, in the instrumental parts and also the solo part in which Vitzthum sings too much legato. 'Quoniam tu solus Sanctus' is a real letdown: Lucas Singer has little presence and his singing is pretty flat.

'Et in unum Dominum' (Credo) suffers from a bad balance between choir and orchestra, and in the next section, 'Et incarnatus est', the choir overpowers the strings. Lucas Singer has trouble with the top notes in 'Et in Spiritum Sanctum'. The Sanctus is too slow again; the rhythmic pulse is underexposed.
In the Osanna the articulation is not clear enough. The Benedictus is one of the worst parts of this recording. Ulrich Cordes' singing is technically shaky; he has considerable trouble hitting the top notes properly. He has also little presence; there is hardly any interpretation. Franz Vitzthum is the best of the soloists; the Agnus Dei comes off relatively well, but his low notes are too weak. Lastly, I don't see any reason why the last chord of the 'Dona nobis pacem' should be held so long. It seems another traditional element in this performance.

On balance, there is little which speaks in favour of this recording. I haven't commented on every single section of this work; that is impossible in a review of various recordings. There are certainly some episodes which I enjoyed, but they are few and far between. This recording is probably little more than a nice recollection for those who attended the performance. I don't think that it is up to the competition on the international market.

Whether Peter Seymour's recording can compete seems more than questionable. Apart from the size of his choir the Italian pronunciation is historically unjustifiable. With its 14 strings (4/4/2/3/1) the orchestra is also too small in comparison with the choir.
With less than 9 minutes the opening 'Kyrie eleison' is the swiftest of all four recordings, but there is a lack of dynamic accents, and the choir uses a slight vibrato, which further damages the transparency which is already problematic because of the its size. The 'Christe eleison' is reasonably well done; the two voices blend well, but the interpretation is too bland. The closing 'Kyrie eleison' is fast and rather superficial.

In the Gloria the 'Laudamus te' is not bad, although I don't like the slight tremolo in Bethany Seymour's voice. However, it is completely spoiled at the end when she adds a coloratura as a kind of cadenza. That is completely out of place here, also because in most other solos there is no ornamentation.
In the 'Gratias agimus tibi' the upper voices regularly sing staccato. This is one of the features of this performance. It violates the hierarchy of the notes just as legato singing does. 'Domine Deus' is damaged by the vibrato of soprano and tenor (the booklet doesn't specify which of the two tenor soloists sings which part). The rhythmic pulse is exaggerated and gives the impression of this piece being a kind of march. 'Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris' is sung by Sally Bruce-Payne. She has a beautiful voice, but the interpretation has little depth. In 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' the bassoons are hardly audible. Peter Harvey tries to sing expressively, but doesn't really convince.

In the opening section of the Credo the violins are largely overpowered by the choir. That is particularly bad as they add two voices to the five vocal parts, and the resulting seven-part texture has a symbolic meaning. The Seufzer figures in the string parts in 'Et incarnatus' come off well, but again they can't quite compete with the choir. 'Crucifixus' lacks depth, and there is too little contrast with the 'Et resurrexit' which is surprisingly slow. The bass line 'Et iterum venturus est' is sung here by Peter Harvey; in Jers' performance it is taken by the basses of the choir. A solo performance seems the better option.

The Sanctus has a rather swift tempo which suits it well; there is too little differentiation, though. The Benedictus lacks profile; it is all too smooth and not very speech-like. The frequent use of appoggiaturas is stereotypical. The following Osanna is too feeble. Although Sally Bruce-Payne uses a little too much vibrato her reading of the Agnus Dei is expressive and actually the best part of this whole recording. I particularly liked her dynamic shading.
All in all, this recording gives little reason for joy.

The Cappella Amsterdam in Frans Brüggen's recording may be considerably smaller than the Kammerchor Consono and the Yorkshire Bach Choir, but it is still too large from a historical point of view. The balance between choir and orchestra is much better here than in the previous two recordings, though, which is due to the size of the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, comprising 26 strings (7/9/4/4/2). The size of the performing apparatus could be one of the reasons that the tempi are often slowish, in particular of some tutti movements (Et in terra pax, Gratias agimus tibi). Another reason could be the acoustic of the hall where this live recording has been made. Here again the Italian pronunciation of Latin is practised; it is rather odd that in the duet 'Domine Deus' Jan Kobow sings 'Agnus' in German pronunciation, probably a matter of habit.

The balance between choir and orchestra may be generally quite good, but that is not always the case in the duets. In 'Christe eleison' Johannette Zomer is overshadowed by Dorothee Mields, and the balance between Mields and Patrick Van Goethem in 'Et in unum Dominum' could have been better too. The performances of the soloists are uneven. Dorothee Mields is good, and so is Peter Kooy, as is to be expected. Johannette Zomer sings 'Laudamus te' pretty well, but unfortunately a vibrato creeps in now and then. Jan Kobow is a bit of a disappointment in this recording. In the Benedictus he is very uncomfortable in his high register, which manifests itself in a nervous vibrato. That also effects his performance in the duet 'Domine Deus' where his voice doesn't blend very well with Ms Mields's. Patrick Van Goethem has a nice voice and sings well, but not always as expressive as one would like. 'Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris' is too straightforward, with too few dynamic accents. The Agnus Dei is too much down to earth at first; the second half, largely sung piano, is far more expressive.

Not only the contributions of the soloists are uneven, so are the tutti sections. The opening Kyrie is disappointing: the playing is rather flat, the articulation not very pronounced, and dynamic accents are largely absent. The same goes for 'Gloria in excelsis Deo'; the next section, 'Et in terra pax', is sluggish. 'Credo in unum Deum' is better; here the violins are clearly audible. 'Et incarnatus est' and 'Crucifixus' are among the best parts and are sung with much expression; 'Et resurrexit' makes up a good contrast to them. The tutti sections in the last parts of the work - Sanctus, Osanna and Dona nobis pacem - are largely convincing; the Sanctus could have been a bit faster.
Despite the good things which this recording has to offer I am not that impressed about the performance as a whole.

Philippe Herreweghe has recorded the Mass in b minor for the third time in his career. The first recording dates from 1988, the second from 1996. This third is definitely his best, and I also would rate it among the very best recordings with a small choir which are on the market right now. The main minus is the Italian pronunciation of Latin. On balance it doesn't withhold me from considering this recording as very close to an ideal interpretation of Bach's masterwork. Let us look at it in more detail.

The opening 'Kyrie eleison' immediately shows one of the performance's greatest virtues: the transparency of the tutti sections. That is due to the relatively small number of singers but also to the excellent balance of the voices and the lack of any obtrusive vibrato. The dynamic differentiation and the articulation are also impressive. In the instrumental episode which follows the opening statement I noticed a lack of dynamic accents, though - as in so many performances.
The duets are often problematic as we have seen, but not here. Dorothee Mields and Hana Blaziková have different voices - the first smooth and light, the latter a litter darker, with some sharp edges - but together they bring one of the best performances of the 'Christe eleison' I have ever heard. It is a really speech-like performance, with a maximum of expression.

In the Gloria there is an effective contrast between the 'Gloria in excelsis Deo' and the following 'Et in terra pax'. Hana Blaziková is impressive in the 'Laudamus te': there are good dynamic accents in the solo part and dynamic shading on the longer notes. One could argue that her performance is probably a little too introverted; I could imagine a more exuberant approach. In 'Domine Deus' the balance between soprano and tenor is perfect. The dissonances in 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' are quite penetrating. Damien Guillon and Peter Kooy are outstanding in their solos, 'Qui sedes' and 'Quoniam tu solus' respectively. In the latter the balance between voice and instruments is immaculate.

In the opening section of the Credo the violins are fully integrated in the ensemble. 'Et in unum Dominum' is another beautifully constructed duet, with a good balance between soprano and alto and between the singers and the orchestra. 'Crucifixus' is sung with much expression; Herreweghe creates an effective contrast in the following 'Et resurrexit'. Like in Seymour's recording 'Et iterum venturus est' is performed by solo voice. It is easy to understand why Peter Kooy has been involved in all three of Herreweghe's recordings (and also in those by Suzuki and Brüggen). That is once again demonstrated in 'Et in Spiritum Sanctum'; his diction and his treatment of dynamics is brilliant, and the text is always fully explored.

The Sanctus is taken at moderate speed; it is satisfying, but I could imagine a swifter performance. The Benedictus is given a very fine reading by Thomas Hobbs. I like his relaxed manner of singing and his speech-like interpretation. The tempo is perfect here. Damien Guillon comes up with a most expressive performance of the Agnus Dei, sung with great intensity. He really makes the text sink in. The recording ends with a majestically-sung 'Dona nobis pacem'.

Herreweghe easily comes out on top from this investigation of the four recordings. As we can impossibly be sure how many performers Bach had in mind - provided he considered public performances - Herreweghe probably has found the best way of approaching this work, using a rather small vocal and instrumental ensemble, whose members also take care of the solo parts. With his latest recording he has set a standard which will be hard to surpass.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Cappella Amsterdam
Collegium Vocale Gent
Kammerchor Consono
Orchestra of the 18th Century
Yorkshire Bach Choir

CD Reviews