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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Mass in B minor, BWV 232

  • Lucy Crowe, soprano
  • Julia Lezhneva, soprano
  • Joanne Lunn, soprano
  • Nathalie Stutzmann, alto
  • Blandine Staskiewicz, mezzo soprano
  • Terry Wey, countertenor
  • Colin Balzer, tenor
  • Markus Brutscher, tenor
  • Luca Tittoto, bass
  • Christian Immler, bass
Les Musiciens du Louvre/Marc Minkowski
Naïve 5145
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This is a lavishly-produced B Minor Mass with ten soloists and Les Musiciens du Louvre under Baroque specialist, Marc Minkowski. In addition to two CDs, there is a hardback (CD-size) booklet of nearly 100 pages to accommodate an interview with the conductor, background to the work by distinguished Bach and Baroque scholar George Stauffer, written portraits of the performers, and the text – in abbreviated Latin, and English, French and German versions.

Minkowski has embarked upon a Bach cycle. The conductor feels that the B Minor Mass is the work he is closest to, having learnt it as a player (of the bassoon) in Herreweghe's ensemble, La Chapelle Royale. He sees it as a "conductor's work" in which the most profound spirituality co-exists with vocal and instrumental profusion – as in Bach's suites and concerti. This is certainly how he has approached the work – as opposed to either dramatically on the one hand, or as an intimate devotional experience on the other.

This approach only works to a degree. In the style of highly dramatic performances such as Giulini's (on BBC Legends 4062) the chief tension is between movement and architecture. Each reveals and is revealed by the other: the parts of the music surge forward and yet hold in place like an adventurous swimmer battling an incoming tide. In the case of more intimate accounts like those of Rifkin, of course, and Suzuki (on BIS 1701), we almost feel as if we're taking part ourselves; the emphasis is on the details rather than the architecture. But the latter is there by implication as the work progresses. To have tried to occupy the middle ground between these distinct visions, as Gardiner does so successfully (on Archiv 415514), was a risk taken by this performance. It hasn't quite paid off.

The singers are by and large up to the task – Lucy Crowe deserves special mention, as does Nathalie Stutzmann. Though there are places (the tenor at the end of the et incarnatus; the chorus in the same movement, and the Crucifixus, and at the opening of the Agnus Dei) where the singers do seem overstretched. On the other hand there are moments of great instrumental (particularly woodwind and brass) persuasiveness. The solid and consistent tempi which Minkowski gets from his players is a plus as well.

A reliably-paced infrastructure is also one of this set's advantages. Though its very invariability is a limitation. That sense of forward movement and almost peristaltic motion (the great surges and passionate swells so characteristic of the opening Kyrie, for example) are missing. For this is a very linear recording without climaxes or pauses in pace and tension. Were the players and singers determined to impale themselves, as it were, on a vision that treated such consistency as a prime virtue and let it dictate the thrust from start to end, it could have worked very impressively indeed. At the very least Minkowski and his musicians have a crispness, a distinctiveness in phrasing that add much to the clarity of the work. Nevertheless, while not sounding casual or careless in any way, an inner dynamic that would otherwise compel us from one movement to the next is all but absent.

Such movements as the Credo exemplify this approach, and its drawbacks. The Credo opens briskly; every word is audible; the counterpoint develops at an even and logical pace – yet is not devoid of a certain passion… towards the end of the Patrem omnipotentem, for example. Yet when the Et in unum Dominum follows, we expect something of a contrast; if for no other reason than actually to highlight, so to put it, varieties of belief. The forward movement of this four-and-a-half-minute duet, though, is dictated as much by an almost mechanical impetus as by the conviction that is conferred upon it by the text. Not that the music is in any way lifeless. Or over-driven. Just a little too dogmatic.

It's almost as though Minkowski has noted the spiritualism of which we speaks in his interview, and of which he is clearly so aware; but has stepped away from it almost by accident, having made a resolution to ready it for another day. And then gone on to complete this recording with elements of what had been planned and what… just happened. Not that this recording represents any sort of compromise. Just that it doesn't have the atmosphere or drive that we have come to expect from the greatest interpretations. Nor is this in any way a scaled down conception. Indeed, as Stauffer advises, the Mass is probably performed here with the numbers of musicians for which it was was originally written. Note, though, that a continuo accompanies parts of the work (the Credo, for example) which we are not used to hearing it quite so prominently. At the same time, that means that there is an immediacy, a gentle presence of the singers ensconced with their instrumentalists that, while not being exactly cosy, is almost relaxed; familiar certainly. That relationship never lacks rigor; although a couple of wrong notes from the brass in the Et resurrexit have been left in. Minkowski has made a virtue of shunning an over-dramatic approach; in concealing his virtuousness some of the impact of Bach's great power to penetrate and affect are lost.

For some listeners this blend in itself may well convey everything that's needed. The lack of pressure will leave room for both breath and reflection. But for others, the conviction that the Mass itself has to generate and control our reaction since it's intended as a devotional stimulus in which we are participating will mean that something is missing from this excellently-recorded B Minor Mass.

If you have no other recordings of the B minor Mass, then Gardiner's or Suzuki's (see above), and Herreweghe's own (on Harmonia Mundi 5901614) deserve serious consideration. Minkowski has insights to be sure. Less on the "innards" of the music or on the great, sweeping act of faith and joy which the B Minor Mass represents. More on the act, perhaps, of understanding and performing it as a Baroque milestone. But his performance is still rather raw. To describe this release as a disappointment would be wrong. Just as misleading as to describe it as the first choice in a rich field. As an indicator of how Minkowski's Bach cycle may develop, it is certainly too small a sample – for all the magnitude of the work. It's to be hoped that the conductor's conceptual and realization skills are brought into play in future recordings too. Just that, perhaps, he is able (allowed? encouraged?) to find something unique to say and brings all available resources and imagination to bear on saying it.

Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey