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Minkowski's B Minor Mass

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Bach, Mass in B Minor, Les Musiciens du Louvre • Grenoble,
M. Minkowski
(released on March 31, 2009)
Naïve V 5145

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George B. Stauffer, Bach:
The Mass in B Minor

Online score:
Mass in B Minor (BWV 232)
Many years ago now, musicologist Joshua Rifkin stirred up the performance practice pot by suggesting that much of Bach's choral music should be performed with one singer on each part, and he proved his point by recording the B Minor Mass in just that arrangement. Because early performances in the 19th century treated the work as a slobber-fest for oversized chorus, that conception has lingered even into performances in this century. In the liner notes of this new recording, Bach specialist George B. Stauffer, who has published a fine book on the B Minor Mass, lays out the historical evidence to believe that "the B Minor Mass was conceived as a chamber piece rather than a massive choral-society work," saying that the vocal parts required for the solos "point to a chorus of ten to fifteen singers" and the instrumental parts call for "a modest ensemble of twenty to twenty-five players." While an old-school Romantic version can be enjoyable, for me the superior recording to own is one that fits with the work's intended mode of performance.

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.



A.C. Douglas said...

While an old-school Romantic version can be enjoyable, for me the superior recording to own is one that fits with the work's intended mode of performance."Intended" is not quite the right word here. Bach didn't "intend" a work for the chamber-music-sized forces correctly spelled out by Stauffer, but was forced to accept forces of that size as it was the largest available to him despite his fervent appeals for forces of double those numbers. Same deal with the Matthäus-Passion.


Charles T. Downey said...

You mean that he "intended" a performance by larger forces (if not a modern symphony orchestra and 200-strong choral society) but "settled for" the forces at Dresden. This would be a strange "tribute" to the Dresden musicians, whom he obviously admired. In any case Bach, being eminently practical, ultimately crafted the music precisely to the forces he had available.

One could think that Bach might have somehow wanted to have the full Philadelphia Orchestra perform the Brandenburg Concertos, just as one could make calculations of angel populations on pinheads. The fact is that the Brandenburgs were most likely a musical portrait of his orchestra at Köthen, and as with the B Minor Mass it would be, at best, a distortion to perform them with a larger ensemble.

Not that there is really anything wrong with distortion. I am not really bothered by hearing the Bach keyboard works on the piano, or the B Minor Mass in the versions conducted by Richter or von Karajan. If I were to own only one recording, however, I would want it not to be a distortion. That's all I'm saying.