J.S.Bach, Mass in B-minor, Suzkuki / Bach Collegium Japan / Sampson, Nicholls, Blaze, Türk, Kooij
October 30, 2007
The enemy of excellence is greatness? True, generally – but not when it comes to Bach’s Mass in B-minor which would still be a masterpiece in the least of performances and is a gift to humanity when performed as well as I’ve now had the pleasure of experiencing trice in short succession. First courtesy of the Netherlands Bach Society and Jos van Veldhoven on Channel Classics, then as I received the newly released Masaaki Suzuki recording on BIS, and then just before Christmas when Ton Koopman directed the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Herkulessaal in Munich – which was also broadcast live on radio.
When the work was about to be published around 1820, Hans Georg Nägeli announced it as “the greatest musical work of art of all times and all peoples”. Publisher Nägeli may have aimed more at boosting subscriptions rather than trying to divine the true ramification of the rediscovery of the Mass in B-minor – but unwittingly or not, he was pretty close. I am hardly alone in thinking the B-minor Mass, along with the St. Matthew Passion, as one of the cultural pillars of Western Civilization. Whether it is a complete patch work or put together from pieces with a design in mind (most musicologists strongly suggest the latter), this music is – certainly metaphorically and possibly literally – divine.
J.S.Bach, Mass in B-minor, van Veldhoven / The Netherlands Bach Society / Mields, Zomer, White, Daniels, Harvey
Channel Classics CCS SA 25007
April 10, 2007
Now I have two “HIP” versions on my desk, both of them on hybrid-SACDs, and both by renown Bach conductors. Jos van Veldhoven on Channel Classics in the most luxurious CD box imaginable. The accompanying book was produced in collaboration with the Museum Catharijneconvent and boasts near 100 pictures, reprints, and illustrations. The sturdy packaging with the golden imprint makes the space-saving slim box of the Masaaki Suzuki recording on BIS look downright humble.
Exteriors and superficialities should not be underestimated – but ultimately it is the content that matters. And here the two recordings are more alike than different. The total timing of van Veldhoven is 105 minutes, Suzuki clocks in at just over 107. That’s similar to Harnoncourt , Brüggen, Rifkin, Koopman, and Gardiner and just a tad speedier than Herreweghe’s wonderful (second) recording on Harmonia Mundi. (Junghänel is the fastest I am aware of, nearly staying below 100 minutes.) But it is a far cry from the 2-hour-plus performances of Karl Richter, Celibidache, Scherchen, Jochum, von Karajan, Shaw, or Klemperer – and for all those who insist on their B-minor masses big-boned and with might choruses, neither Suzuki or van Veldhoven with their two and three ripienists to a part will do. That said, anyone who is not ruling out the “HIP” approach but isn’t quite sold on it yet, will probably be converted by either recording and agree that the historically informed approach can offer some of the finest and most exciting music-making.
The sound and impact of both recordings is similarly excellent, their singers outstanding, and the choral parts that we love in the Kyrie, the Sanctus, or the Gloria come through with surprising opulence and splendor. Yet differences in detail abound between Suzuki and Veldhoven – often a matter of Suzuki taking a marginally more relaxed pace than his Dutch colleague or sounding more restrained even when he is technically a bit faster.
In the Quoniam tu solus Sanctus Suzuki uses the harpsichord as the continuo instrument of choice (with his son, Masato, playing) while van Veldhoven lets the strings free reign to support the bass solo. There is little to chose between the veterans Peter Kooij (BIS) and Peter Harvey (Channel Classics) – the latter perhaps with a more open, regal voice. The horn might be a tad more stable on the Dutch production (Teunis van der Zwart) but clearer and more in front of the bassoons with the Japanese band (Olivier Darbellay).
Dorothee Mields is a lovely soprano for van Veldhoven. But the recording of the Bach Collegium Japan has Carolyn Sampson and there simply isn’t anything better than her tasteful, lean, and full voice - whether it is live (as with Koopman) or on record. The Christe Eleison between Sampson and Rache Nicholls (both also sing in the soprano I and soprano II chorus parts, respectively) is one of those moments that feel like Bach himself is smiling.
Similarly, the countertenors Robin Blaze (BIS) and Matthew White (Channel Classics) turn the alto-oboe duet Qui sedes ad dextram Patris into something that might appease those who would rather hear a mezzo soprano in this role (which might actually be historically accurate, regardless of what the British-influenced Belgio-Flemish-Dutch historical performance tradition has come to accept as the HIP-gospel). Blaze has a slightly more nimble, more feminine voice – White’s a more dramatic ring to it. Masamitsu San’nomiya’s oboe-playing meanwhile, devoid of extraneous noises, air, or hiss and full of sweetness, is exemplary.
Ultimate splendor is achieved in the Sanctus. Suzuki and the BIS engineers make the 14 singers and 20 instrumentalists involved sound like a grand ensemble – and he gives his forces all the time to draw on the sumptuous qualities of the pinnacle of the Mass. Van Veldhoven and the audiophile crew of Channel Classics achieve an equivalent impression (he's given slightly more reverberation; both have ample space around all musicians), and he does it by pushing along at a brisk pace. Different means but with the result every bit as exciting.
The Osanna in Excelsis is a great moment of trumpet, timpani, and chorus imbued splendor – and a highlight among the string of thrilling moments of the Suzuki recording. It may also be one of the few miscalculations on van Veldhoven’s part because his extraordinarily swift take might well be exciting but also sounds a tad rushed.
As regards tempi in general, though, I could put it unkindly thus: Wherever Suzuki is slower than van Veldhoven, he seems to drag (in comparison, only!) – wherever Suzuki is faster, van Velhoven seems to have more momentum. It is this subtle impression that I take away from the two issues more than any of the more obvious little differences – and an impression I would never have gotten from Suzuki had it not been for direct comparison. Either are a match for the best of the HIP B-minor masses out there, whether Herreweghe (II) or Gardiner or whatever else your current preference may be. There’s an embarrassment of riches of great recordings of this work available now – but if pressed, I’d rank both among the handful of best recordings made, regardless of style and alongside Richter and Rilling.
Just how good these recordings are became clear when Ton Koopman's live performance, despite a stupendous performance of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Choir, Carolyn Sampson, and Charles Daniels (he is also the tenor on the van Veldhoven recording) seemed strangely foursquare. Victim of this rigidity was largely the Kyrie. Matters were starting to gel at around the Ladamus te, where – if my memory serves me right – Mlle. Sampson took the second soprano part (alto/countertenor Daniel Taylor had ably doubled as soprano II in the Christe).
Things were well on there way when – in the Domine Deus, and alongside Sampson and Daniels – Henrik Wiese proved that he is one of the foremost flutists (modern instruments for the reduced forces of the Bavarian Symphony Orchestra, of course) any orchestra can count among its ranks. There was not a noise to be heard in the Herkulessaal when the choir took to the Qui tollis peccata mundi, or when the masses of the choir rose to the Cum Sancto Spiritu after the ‘Bullfrog quartet’ of the Quoniam tu solus Sanctus. Klaus Mertens, also one of the usual suspects in HIP Bach performances, delivered the Et in Spiritum Sanctum with gentle, unexaggerated nobility.
During the Sanctus, the performance had come from perfunctory all the way to explosive and rousing. Henrik Wiese and Charles Daniels let go in the Benedictus, Daniel Taylor capped an impressive performance with the Agnus Dei, even if the lowest notes on “peccata mundi” were a toil. Although I reckon that many audience members were inspired to their thunderous ovations for the choir by being related to members therein, they would have deserved and gotten an equal amount of appreciation from a neutral crowd as well – not just for the superb closing Dona nobis pacem.
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