Bach, Mass in B Minor, Les Musiciens du Louvre • Grenoble,
M. Minkowski ($25.19)
(released on March 31, 2009)
Naïve V 5145
George B. Stauffer, Bach:
The Mass in B Minor
Mass in B Minor (BWV 232)
Marc Minkowski has finally undertaken a recording of the B Minor Mass (in an interview with Minkowski in the liner notes, Rémy Louis describes this set as the first installment of a "long-term Bach cycle") with his group Les musiciens du Louvre • Grenoble, whom we have admired many times before especially for their opera recordings, such as Gluck's Armide and Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie. The version to be beat is the second recording made by Philippe Herreweghe (2007, Harmonia Mundi), which at the moment is about twice as expensive ($45.98) as Minkowski's. Jens has also reviewed two of the other newer HIP recordings, also from 2007, by Bach Collegium Japan ($43.98) and Netherlands Bach Society ($57.98), which are in competition. The older HIP recordings like the pioneering Harnoncourt or Gardiner still sound great but are no longer at the top of the list in terms of musical quality, although they tend to be heavily discounted.
The speed of Minkowski's recording is right in line with all of those 2007 recordings, nearly as fast as van Veldhoven's Dutch recording and a little faster than Herreweghe. Not all of the voices are quite right for the many demands, although there are pleasing turns for soprano Lucy Crowe, countertenor Terry Wey (a former chorister with Vienna Boys Choir), and the molten contralto of Nathalie Stutzmann (in an Agnus Dei that stops time), and the sweet-voiced tenor Colin Balzer (matched nicely to the traverso of Florian Cousin in the Benedictus, an obbligato line that was not specified by Bach in the score, so it is sometimes given to a solo violin, although the range is better suited to the transverse flute). In general the singers sound best in the chamber-sized movements, in various combinations like the Et incarnatus est and Crucifixus movements, but are sometimes pushed to stridency in the full sections like the Cum sancto spiritu and Et resurrexit.
Least pleasing in the orchestra are some tuning infelicities in the grouped strings, but the winds and brass generally have the best possible balance of accuracy and period-instrument "authenticity." Minkowski's choice of tempo is often fleet, but not as manic or edgy as Rinaldo Alessandrini, for example, and he has sculpted the instrumental sound as much as possible to conform to his ensemble of voices, especially allowing cantus firmus voices to emerge from the texture (gliding above the other voices in the Credo in unum deum and Confiteor sections, as if disembodied in a different time signature). It may not be quite the perfect B Minor Mass, if such a recording even exists, but it is exceptionally good and its discounted price seals the deal.