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

Lucy Crowe, Joanne Lunn, Julia Lezhneva, Blandine Staskiewicz, soprano; Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto; Terry Wey, alto; Colin Balzer, Markus Brutscher, tenor; Christian Immler, Luca Tittoto, bass
Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble
Dir: Marc Minkowski

rec: July 2008 (live), Santiago de Compostela, San Domingo de Bonaval
Naļve - V 5145 (2 CDs) (© 2008) (1.47'08")

Recently I reviewed two recordings of Bach's Mass in b minor, directed by Masaaki Suzuki and Jos van Veldhoven respectively. The latter of the two explicitly bases his performance on the theories of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrot in regard to the size of Bach's vocal ensemble. In practice the difference between the two interpretations wasn't really fundamental. Here we have another recording which is founded on the one-voice-per-part principle. Minkowski even uses less singers than Van Veldhoven: 10 to 13. There is another difference. Van Veldhoven made a distinction between concertists - singing all solo sections - and ripienists who only participate in the tutti sections. Minkowski has divided the solo sections over all singers: they all have at least one solo to sing and all participate in the tutti sections.

Is the theory that Bach usually had only one singer available for the vocal parts of his sacred cantatas and his oratorios applicable to the Mass in b minor? This is questionable: the theory is based on evidence of the common practice in Leipzig - and other German cities - in Bach's time. But no performance of the Mass in b minor during Bach's life is documented, not even of the first version, which consisted of Kyrie and Gloria only (and usually referred to as Missa 1733). The Mass was written for the court in Dresden, but there is no evidence it has ever been performed there. It is even questionable whether the Mass as we know it was intended to be performed. Its length and complicated character makes it difficult to be performed as part of a liturgy. So if one looks for the most historically justified performance practice, there is hardly anything to go by. This gives the interpreter quite a lot of freedom in the scoring of any performance. The only principle one could lay down is that any scoring should remain within the boundaries of what was possible or plausible in Bach's days.

In an interview which is included in the booklet Minkowski wisely doesn't claim the one-voice-par-part performance to be most 'authentic' or 'historically justified'. He is convinced because of the musical outcome. "Its [the mass's] music is so dense, so complex, so breathtaking, that in my view it gains in grandeur from the use of soloists. All of a sudden, you no longer have the massed forces on one side and the individual on the other, but a single imposing vocal instrument which sings the same faith in the same language from the 'Kyrie Eleison' to the 'Dona nobis pacem'". It has to be said, though, that Minkowski - like Jos van Veldhoven - doesn't apply Rifkin's theory in a strict way. Rifkin argues that Bach didn't have the use of ripienists in mind. Minkowski decided on purely musical grounds that some tutti passages worked best with one voice per part, whereas others - in particular those with trumpets - faired better with a more full-blooded sound, meaning that all singers are participating.

If all singers are supposed to take part in the tutti sections and the vocal ensemble as a whole is this small, then the quality of those singers, in particular in regard to the ability to sing in an ensemble, is essential. When I saw the list of singers I was afraid they would blend rather badly. Especially Nathalie Stutzmann, known for her pretty heavy voice and consistent vibrato, singing with the alto Terry Wey, who has a much lighter voice and uses very little vibrato, gave reason for worry. But the result is much better than I had expected. In fact, in most tutti sections the voices blend rather well. It is only in some passages, for instance when only four voices are used or when one voice starts a fugue, one notices the differences between the voices. In 'Pleni sunt coeli' the blending leaves something to be desired. In other tutti passages it is the tenor Markus Brutscher who causes problems: his voice is a bit too penetrating and sometimes is too clearly audible.

This doesn't mean this performance can be recommended without hesitation. There are a couple of things which give reason for criticism. The first is the choice of tempi. The backside of this set says that this recording lasts 1.41', suggesting Minkowski's tempi are rather fast. But in fact his performance doesn't fundamentally differ from Suzuki's or Van Veldhoven's. But within the performance as a whole there are some remarkable differences. Generally speaking one could say that the tutti passages are mostly faster than in both recordings I mentioned, whereas many solo passages are slower. Most notable in this respect is the 'Agnus Dei' which here takes 6'29", whereas in most recordings this section lasts a little over 5 minutes. An example of a tutti section which is too fast in my view is 'Cum Sancto Spiritus' which closes the Gloria and sounds rather hectic.

The second minus of this performance is that many solo passages are a bit flat and lack expression. In 'Laudamus te' (Gloria) Julia Lezhneva sings beautifully, but the expression is under par, and the balance with the solo violin - excellently played by Thibault Noally - is less than ideal. In 'Domine Deus' (Gloria) there is an excellent balance between Joanne Lunn and Markus Brutscher, but again the expression could have been better. Luca Tittoto is the least satisfying of the singers in his solo 'Quiniam tu solus sanctus', being too operatic and a bit pathetic.

Terry Wey ('Et in unum Dominum', Credo) has a beautiful voice and sings well, but here again a bit more expression hadn't been amiss. 'Et in Spiritum Sanctum' (Credo) is very well sung by Christian Immler, whereas Colin Balzer gives a good account of the 'Benedictus', although the slight tremolo in his voice isn't very nice. Probably the highlight of this recording is the 'Agnus Dei': although I think Nathalie Stutzmann uses a bit too much vibrato at some moments, her performance is really enthralling and explores the emotional depth of this aria to the full. Despite the slow tempo she and Minkowski are able to keep the intensity of this piece.

This is a live recording, but that is barely noticeable. Minkowski is very happy with the venue where this recording took place, but I beg to differ. I find the space too large, and it is probably due to the combnation of a large church and a small ensemble that I find the recording as a whole a bit subdued. In my experience the impact of this performance is limited, and only now and then I felt really involved and moved by this recording.

Time to sum it up: this recording has many merits and is definitely interesting. In comparison with the two recordings I have mentioned before this new production has enough to offer to be a real alternative. But there are quite a number of disappointments as well, and in particular in regard to expression this performance falls a bit short.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Les Musiciens du Louvre

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