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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Mass in B minor

Elly Ameling, soprano
Yvonne Minton, soprano
Helen Watts, contralto
Werner Krenn, tenor
Tom Krause, bass
Wiener Singakademiechor/Karl Münchinger
United Classics T2CD2013026
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These were originally Decca recordings, and are classic in every sense of the word. The conductor's Bach recordings were in a big 10-disc box on the same label, then in a nine-disc set on Newton Classics. The Magnificat was included in "The Decca Sound" as well, but overall, these readings aren't especially easy to track down today. Along with Karl Richter on Archiv, Münchinger pioneered the presentation of Bach's choral works on LP. Both conductors feature slow, measured tempi that sit miles away from period practice. As a tradeoff, both men also had warm, full sounds, complimented by an unquestionable love of the music at hand.

Bach's Mass in B minor is a staggering achievement artistically. Much has been written about why a devout Lutheran would write perhaps the greatest Roman Catholic mass setting that music has ever seen. Who cares? From the imposing solemnity of the Kyrie to the eternal hope inspired by the Dona Nobis Pacem, everything about the music feels right. So too does the performance. Like Richter's own readings, there are reduced forces here that suggest a willingness to scale down from the heavier sounds that were the norm in the first half of the last century. Make no mistake, though; this is old-fashioned Bach, even for 1970. The quicker sections of the work do have a sense of alacrity, but both the playing and singing have a sense of legato, of unhurried spirituality that modern listeners may find alien.

Still, this is less heavy than either of Robert Shaw's famous readings, or Jochum on EMI. Both men led excellent versions, but I feel that Münchinger balances the old and new with reasonable success. Recorded in Vienna, everything has a warm glow about it. The soloists are all superb, with the women deserving special mention. The orchestral contributions are scrappy, but lovingly phrased. Münchinger never did get first-rate choral singing either, and it's unpolished and a touch coarse. Despite being recorded eight years earlier and being more deliberate overall. Richter gets the better efforts on both counts (not buying his version of the Mass for about five dollars in high school remains perhaps my biggest regret as a collector). That said, I respect and admire Münchinger for his ability to move the music forward more naturally. It feels more organic in than Richter in places, and I prefer Münchinger's handling of transitions between sections. There are even some unexpected accelerations here and there that I found surprisingly effective and wholly serving the music.

United Classics has a reputation for not only carefully restoring historical recordings, but also giving collectors a way to purchase discs that are – like this one, and Stokowski's Mahler Symphony #8 – generally to be found only in large sets. This recording of the Mass is deserving to stand alone as a profoundly affectionate take on a masterpiece. Yes, in many places, Bach sounds wonderful on period instruments. But the humanity and depth of the musical expression is often rushed over, or forgotten altogether. That never once happens here. A delight.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman