Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Bach's Mass in B Minor

As I have recounted before in this blog, the very first concert I attended at the age of 12 or 13 was at St Wilfrid's Church in Rose Green, Sussex … and the work in question was Bach's Mass in B minor. St. Wilfrid was not there, nor was Johann Sebastian Bach: but I was, and that was some 62 years ago and I remember the occasion clearly since no one stole my bicycle that I left outside the church during the concert. The Mass in B minor is, quite simply, wonderful music. For some reason or other, Bach poured the best of his art into the work.

There are performances that are fashionable; there are performances that are eternal. Amongst the latter the Busch Quartet recordings of the 1930s spring to mind, together with many of the Busch-Serkin duo recordings. Fastest, slowest, loudest, softest: are all quantifiable adjectives. Greatest, best, favourite: are subjective and non-quantifiable. So when I am told I can have only one musical work buried with me in the treasure chamber of my after-death pyramid, there is no sure and uncontroversial choice. For me, in my pyramid it has to be Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B minor. I have been listening to my latest acquisition; Karl Richter and his Munich forces (recorded extremely well and stereophonically in 1961 by the then- DGG team).

I have Bach's Mass in seven different recordings: John-Eliot Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe (two different recordings), René Jacobs, Otto Klemperer, Karl Richter, and Masaaki Suzuki. I used to have Joshua Rifkin's minimalist recording for many years, but I seem to have ditched it along the way (probably to a charity shop that may still be trying to sell it for 50p). Karl Richter ticks all the boxes: clear melodic lines, excellent orchestral players (especially the solo violin), good soloists (though I am less keen on the soprano, Maria Stadler). However, I (unusually) welcome the bass, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. A vibrant, alert Mass in B minor that joins my top two. If I still prefer Otto Klemperer in this music, it's because of his stern gravitas and the sense of decades of thought-out tradition. Klemperer was – despite his erratic lifestyle – a thoroughly religious man (judaism, catholicism, finally back to judaism)

And where will you be able to find my final pyramid and resting place to which I will consign one copy of Bach's B minor mass? If I have to name a place at the moment, it will be Luang Prabang (Laos).

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