Johann Sebastian Bach
SACD Number: Harmonia Mundi HMC 801813.14
Bach's B-Minor Mass holds the place in music that Dante's Divine Comedy holds in literature or Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling holds in art: it is a staggering act of the imagination that both embodies and transcends the culture that produced it. It is both monument -- one of Bach's last works -- and monumental: over two hours long, it could never have been practically performed in a liturgical service. Scholars still puzzle over why the devoutly Lutheran Bach wrote this massive Catholic mass. In part he seems to have intended it as a showpiece for the Catholic Elector of Saxony, from whom he was seeking patronage. But, given how the work swelled in proportions and his own sense of musical legacy, he may have produced a full-blown mass to enroll himself in the ranks of the great Christian composers of the past, almost all of whom had written masses. Considering its credentials and its subject, it's always tempting to serve the B-minor Mass up in grand style as a foretaste of the Heavenly Hosts, where the sheer mass of the sound coerces you reverently to your knees to assent that, amen!, this is Culture and this is Holy.
But there is a more restrained approach. Following the practice set by Joshua Rifkin, who argues that historically informed performances of Bach's choral music should reflect the small church choirs available to him, Konrad Junghänel mounts this performance using a choir of just ten voices (four sopranos, two altos, two tenors, and two basses) backed by an equally small orchestra (six strings and about a dozen winds and brass, which seldom play as a full ensemble). This is definitely not one of those "heavenly choir" versions of the Mass. Instead, we get a much more intimate experience. A band this size can really reveal the counterpoint and textures of the vocal lines -- no small advantage in a piece that regularly makes its musical arguments through canons and fugues.
This is a well-conceived and well-executed performance. Junghänel maintains a sense of the larger lines of the Mass, always a challenge in a piece this long and varied. Though he adopts tempos that are on the brisk side, they don't feel rushed, except for the "Gratias agimus tibi" in the "Gloria" and, especially, the final "Dona nobis pacem," which has a "here's-your-hat-what's-your-hurry" feel to it, hastening us to an end when we want this noble music to linger a bit. The vocal work is notably persuasive throughout. I especially enjoyed Stephan Shreckenberger's well-judged bass solo in "Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum," but all the soloists, though not name-brand, are expressive and intelligent performers. Likewise the instrumentalists. Some of the Gloria's nine sections are small quasi-concertos: for instance, the violin, oboe d'amore, and horn solos of the "Laudamus te," "Qui sedes," and "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" respectively, or the beautiful, almost playful flute obbligato accompanying the "Domine Deus." All are played excellently here, though overall the Cantus Cölln is not quite as virtuoso as the English Baroque Soloists in John Eliot Gardiner's 1985 recording (Archiv), which is my benchmark here. Some might worry that forces this small will produce a puny sound, blunting the power of the music. But when the choir and orchestra join forces in full-scale passages like the "Gloria in excelsis deo" or "Et resurrexit" their sound is robust and majestic.
The recording, made in the church of St. Osdag in Neustadt-Mandelsloh early last year, has a warm, full sound. The SACD's surround sound nicely reproduces the venue's reverberant, churchy atmosphere, though this doesn't always work to the performance's advantage. Especially in the big tutti passages, voices, instruments and textures can get a little muddied, and the sound space isn't always as well defined as it could be. To a degree this slightly echoing sound world undermines the clarity of line that should be the hallmark of a performance by an ensemble this small.
Nevertheless, this is a thoughtful, committed, and thoroughly enjoyable interpretation full of insights into this musical monument.