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DVD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Mass in B minor, BWV 232

Ruth Ziesak, soprano
Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano
Daniel Taylor, alto
Paul Agnew, tenor
Dietrich Henschel, baritone
Maîtrise de Notre Dame de Paris
Ensemble Orchestral de Paris/John Nelson
Virgin Classics DVD 370636-9
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon JapanOrder Now from ArkivMusic.comFind it at CD Universe

Yes, this is first and foremost a film, 'a film by Olivier Simonnet' as the credits on the single DVD make plain. It's 108 minutes from multiple performances of one of Bach's greatest works as they took place between March 27 and 30, 2006, in the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. Subsequent productions will include the 'St. John Passion' and the 'St. Matthew Passion'. If that aspect (the siting of the music in that location for that purpose) doesn't interest you, then you'll probably want to look elsewhere for a visual presentation of the 'B Minor Mass': there are at least four other DVDs of the work in the catalog, two of those performed and recorded in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, the place most closely-associated with Bach's work (the B minor Mass was one of Bach's last works, and its composition was finished there). If the visual aspect of the music isn't important to you at all, then Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists on Archiv Produktion (DG 415514 - Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe ) is the reference recording.

If you browse the other parts of this DVD, you'll quickly realise that its real focus is the cathedral of Notre Dame itself, not Bach, still less the B minor Mass. Indeed the DVD cover (and marketing) have 'Bach In Notre Dame de Paris'. As conductor John Nelson explains in one of his interviews, this opportunity was the culmination of eight years working with the Maîtrise Notre Dame de Paris. All credit to them for mounting the event, for filming it and for making it as widely available to the public as this reasonably-priced (around $25) Virgin Classics DVD does.

The film of the performance itself opens with ambient sounds and sights of tourists visiting Notre Dame and moves inside to convey the always breathtaking height and solemnity of the building. There is an audience; the orchestra is spread out; there is atmosphere. Then the stupendous Kyrie. At this point you'll either be swept along by the music and the performance, or find the camera's albeit restrained movement distracting. It's worth sticking with it: the producers have avoided self-conscious attempts to over-present the spectacle. Quite the opposite in fact. The atmosphere, the dignity of Notre Dame have been very well captured, although at times some of the performers (Nelson in particular) do seem conscious of the cameras. The sense of committed singing in a spacious acoustic has also been conveyed very well, although the textual subtitles appear somewhat sporadically.

The performance itself is competent, even thrilling at times. The tempi are never rushed. Top of any list for honors will be the five soloists, DiDonato and Agnew in particular. Nelson is content to let the musicians themselves convey what the music itself capable of communicating. The one attribute that might have suggested itself for a performance in this environment is grandeur. In fact something more interesting emerges after watching and listening the entire Mass: humility. One knows Bach would have been pleased with that!

The singing is otherwise clear(ly articulated), rounded, and enthusiastic, passionate even. There is a purity of approach by chorus and orchestra alike, though the ensemble work as a whole lacks the drive of, say, Giulini (BBC Legends 4062 - Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic ) or Parrott (Virgin Classics 62068 - Amazon - UK - Germany - Canada - France - Japan - ArkivMusic - CD Universe ) and the solemn gait of Gardiner. At times the orchestra is under-recorded compared with the chorus, though not the soloists, whose presence is clear throughout. The Crucifixus is tenderly sung and the sublime Agnus Dei a little spare: quite effective. But it really isn't the singing or playing alone which would motivate you to buy this DVD.

There are no notes accompanying the DVD to speak of. A single folded insert lists the movements of the Mass, the singers and includes some still photographs together with extended credits. The DVD does contain 'bonuses', unashamedly lightweight glosses on such safe, immediate topics as composition, the mass, the supremacy of Bach and the supremacy of the Catholic liturgy in Notre Dame etc. from the Archbishop of Paris; a short, scene-setting 'interview' (really a monolog exposition) with John Nelson; a speech introducing the work by Jehan Revert, choirmaster of the cathedral (although the choirmaster of the Maîtrise de Notre Dame de Paris on the recording is actually Nicole Corti); and a nearly 20 minute documentary on the 'Music and Liturgy' at Notre Dame, which has nothing to do with the B minor Mass. Each of these (except Nelson's talk) is in French with English subtitles. Bach lovers and indeed classical music specialists won't learn much from these extras. They will get a sense of the atmosphere of Notre Dame and the occasion. They may be impressed with the beauty and stateliness of most of the images. Not all formalised either: there are sequences of tuning, bending down to pick up sticks and glimpses across the building's diagonals from places not normally accessible to the public, of whose reaction, though, there is surprisingly little.

To call this the musical equivalent of a coffee table book would be unkind. Music of perfection is hard to defeat. But one does wonder what the 'realisation' has achieved. Olivier Simonnet, who has also produced impressionistic films of Baroque music, – predominantly French: Versailles and Charpentier for example – is clearly gifted and sensitive to the music. But won't most people want to buy a recording of the B minor Mass for… the B minor Mass? If you want to be taken to a sacred and spectacular spot for committed music-making and hear the B minor Mass in unique circumstances, then you'll not be disappointed. But for something more authentic where the music is the only attraction, there are good alternatives.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey