BACH Mass in B minor. Various/Collegium-Vocale/Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Mass in B minor, BWV232Johannette Zomer soprano
Vronique Gens
Andreas Scholl alto
Christoph Pregardien tenor
Peter Kooy bass
Hanno Mller-Brachmann

Choir & Orchestra of the Collegium Vocale directed by

performing on period instrumentsIncludes full Latin texts with translations in French, English and German.
Reissued Sep 1999.

HARMONIA MUNDI Bach Edition HMX 2901614.15
2 discs [1h 49’22”] mid-price

by Chia Han-Leon

Are you ready for Y2K? This is quite simply the most melifluous, most enjoyable account of the Mass in B minor I’ve ever heard. The widely acclaimed Gardiner reading on Archiv Produktion (DG 415 514-2) has never caught my full attention, never won my love as it were. Somehow, it was proficient, but devoid of, shall we say, “musical spirituality”. Here in Herreweghe’s turn-of-the-millenium reading, things spring to life, never momentum wasted, nor a tone colour unpainted. But, the meaning of the music (if any) or the words of the liturgy aside, what I enjoyed most is that Herreweghe makes it all so very musick, sustaining most satisfyingly the pure melodious inspiration of the music, inspiring both admiration for its ingenious architecture, as well as its wondrous aural jewellery. What satisfying ways Herreweghe’s team has with the shapes of phrases, beginning, middle or end! – all this produces a performance of this human masterpiece of great unity.

In the opening Kyrie, the majestic solemnity of the combined choir and orchestra is amply showcased. Herreweghe sculpts the musical shapes with a kind of almost distant sensuality – from the humming, gently throbbing bass lines up to the undulating choral lines. I am full of admiration for his success at bringing out every section/line clearly – primary choral lines surface from the combined choral soundscape, singing. I am starstruck with awe as the performers sustain the music with unfaltering belief and pacing.

All the soloists are magnificent. Early on we’re given a gorgeous treat in the duet for the sopranos (Christe eleison) – rounded, light yet intensified, the voices sail above the classic Bach stringwork most deliciously. Vronique Gens, the brilliant Fiordiligi in Harmonia Mundi’s superb Cosi fan tutte CD/CDROM thingey, impresses with her firmly powered voice backed by a very pleasant tone, which I might describe as religiously beautiful in an attractive feminine way (try the Laudamus te).

Andreas Scholl appears on three tracks, most impressively in the mystical tranquility of the Agnus Dei. His intensely “emotionless”, passionately angelic voice, adds tremendously to the mysterious tone of the music, floating with expectancy, lethargy (of the beautiful sort) and a sort of faintly anguished peace. Scholl’s incredible control of his voice allows him great nuances of dynamic, tone and vibrato – all matched by the equally responsive orchestra. And don’t miss the absolutely divine performance of the Et in unum dominum, where he duets with Zomer – the way their voices match is purity incarnated!

The Collegium Vocale orchestra is, needless to say by now, a far- and well- established group. What superbly assertive strings, chugging enthusiastically in the Gloria (very satisfying and simply magnificent), the Credo, the Et resurrexit and Ossana choruses, with the rounded bright trumpets forging ahead with their Brandenburgian parts above the choir. Elsewhere, the horn matches the dark tones of its companion bassoons in the Quoniam.

As for the instrumental soloists, I need only cite the people highlighted in the Gloria, say the solo violin in Laudamus te, or the pastoral sweetness of the flute, almost heady with innocence. The latter is demonstrated in the set’s beautiful rendition of the Domine Deus [I:8] – and afterward the Benedictus [II:12]; add to this the regal tones of duettists Johannette Zomer and the princely companionship of the indefatigable Christoph Pregardien (surely by now one of the Bach Tenors) – ah pure heaven!

In fact, come to think of it, what I find very difficult to describe in this performance is the apparent contradiction of sensations I perceive. The singing is both lightly innocent, yet impassioned; the celebration is loud yet religious, devout yet festive. The emotions are solemn yet sometimes almost sensual in feeling and/or fervour; the architecture Baroque, the soul Romantic. It is these combined qualities which impress me so much in Herreweghe’s vision – for the simple reason that in Bach, we find the perfect balance of the different (so-called “opposite”) human qualities – form and feeling, mind and soul.

It is not surprising to know thus that the Mass in B minor, never heard in performance by the composer, did not appear to be actually written for liturgical use, as were Bach’s sacred cantatas. The Mass began life as the pair consisting of the Kyrie and Gloria (together comprising a Missa), written in 1733. Bach was required as Thomaskantor to feature a mass on important church occasions, but prior to 1733 he had always employed masses not of his own pen.

Finally, when he produced this Missa, it was to be a richly scored work with a five-part choir, the two sections which together exceeded 50 minutes. The spectacular result is most often cited as catering to the work’s role as an “audition piece” for the royal post of Hofkapellmeister at the court chapel of the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II (1696-1763).

But that done (he was appointed in 1736), Bach the completist could not have “finished” with the Kyrie and Gloria. Nope, he added to this Missa the Credo, Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem, and he was still working on it up till around 1748. The interesting thing that well-known Bach scholar Christoph Wolff says is that the composer apparently completed this Mass for no “discernible practical purpose” (which is a fine reason for an artist creating art, if you ask me).

Wolff explains that the Mass could not be performed in a Protestant church, since Luther had banned the sections of the ritual relating to the sacrifice, retaining only the Sanctus. On the other hand, the Mass was also unusuable on the Catholic side, because of textual and formal differences. The size of the forces required for the work was also unheard of.

It is not surprising at all to suggest that Bach probably wrote (or rather completed/refined) the Mass in B minor as an example of compositional art, the summation of his thoughts on the genre – one only needs to remember The Art of Fugue, or the Clavier-bung.

About half the Mass includes parodies or adaptations from earlier compositions; as such, as the (somewhat, um, riddlesome) Harmonia Mundi sleeve notes describe, the Mass is the “fruit of a rational and perfectly balanced ‘montage’ that… asserts itself as an original and unique creation.” (Alberto Basso, trans. Derek Yeld). More significantly, Wolff notes that the earlier material was carefully selected, refined and fused together as a whole (of the Mass). In addition, in some cases, Wolff asserts that “the existing music possessed a substance and a potential which had not yet been fully exploited.”

Knowing Bach’s penchant for perfection, it was only the most natural thing for him to do to take up the challenge of creating a “montage” using the best of his experience (the tons of cantatas behind him), new thoughts, new music and old music, in the form of the oldest and most established form among all sacred vocal genres. As far as all this is concerned, Herreweghe’s reading is one of the finest I’ve ever encountered – the Missa section blazes gloriously, and the rest and the whole is superbly unified, one section moving on to the next with uncommon naturalness.

And unity is one important quality I would award the Collegium Vocale choir with too – singing not only together within, but with the orchestra. The choir responds to Herreweghe’s direction with flow and grace, as well as power and conviction. Such a bright sound they create for the celebratory choruses, and such fluidity in which they shift dynamic and tempo – I need only cite their absolutely enjoyable readings of the Sanctus [II:10] and the Osannas [II:11/13].

The way the musicians rise into the opening of the final Dona nobis pacem, from the depths of the Agnus Dei‘s dissipation, is subtle and highly effective – full of expectancy, aspiring towards the triumph of conclusion; the cathedral chorale seems to flow straight out of the Renaissance, and evolves fugally into the High Baroque splendour of trumpets, drums and celebratory peace. A Great Mass this is, from the Great Bach. Nothing can be simpler.

Major References:

  • WOLFF, CHRISTOPH. Kantorenmusik, Kapellmeisterstil und gelehrte Kunst: Anmerkungen zu Geschichte und Auffhrungspraxis von Bachs h-moll-Messe. (“The Kantor, the Kapellmeister and the Musical Scholar: Remarks on the History and Performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor”. Trans. Mary Whittall. CD Sleeve notes from DG Archiv Produktion 415 514-2. Germany, 1985.
  • BASSO, ALBERTO. The “Great Mass” in B minor. Trans. Derek Yeld. CD Sleeve notes from Harmonia Mundi HMX 2901614.15. 1999.

  • 579: 1.10.1999 Chia Han-Leon

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