Sunday, 8 July 2012

Bach's Mass in B Minor. Herreweghe

Johann Sebastian Bach's music will take almost anything you can throw at it. Perform it with a string quartet, a full symphony orchestra, or a brass band; and the music still triumphs. The first recording of the Mass in B minor I owned was conducted by Herbert von Karajan with the full Philharmonia Orchestra and chorus, with soloists including Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Then came others, including Budget Bach with Joshua Rifkin with the three instrumentalists also singing all the vocal parts as they played, or whatever. Reigning favourite has been Otto Klemperer with a small Philharmonia and chorus. New strong contender now is my second recording directed by Philippe Herreweghe.

To really succeed Bach needs: i) clarity of texture ii) sensible dynamics iii) expert singers and instrumentalists iv) sensible tempi. He does not require fiery, dynamic conductors such as Toscanini, Bernstein, Kleiber, Furtwängler, et al. He does not require baroque hocus-pocus with timpani batons made from Saxon yew trees, or woodwind made from north Italian forests. Bach himself was not too particular about exactly how his music was performed, thus the many, many pieces re-arranged for organ, keyboard, violin, or whatever. “If that violinist is drunk again, use the flute player instead” Bach may have instructed his band. Thus my lack of sympathy with the “authentic Bach” brigade and their chinless, acidic violins and reedy soloists.

Performance directors such as Philippe Herreweghe are ideal if they know their stuff. I listened to this new recording with great pleasure. No nonsense about having the great choruses sung by three people. I have rarely appreciated just how harmonically tortuous Bach's music could become. On the whole, this recording is an excellent rendition of what is one of the supreme summits of Western music, if not the summit. The soloists are all pretty good apart from the tenor, Thomas Hobbs, who sounds a bit weedy. The recording was made in a church, which gives a marvellous acoustic in the many choral passages, but texture and solo duets tend to blur a bit. The Agnus Dei is particularly successful. This recording now goes beside that by Klemperer as my one to keep.

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