The B minor Mass is a tricky piece to be dogmatic about as Bach assembled it over many years, from 1733 to 1749. Some of the sections were rejigged from previously existing cantata movements and some were brand new, in the composer's mature style. These days, the only argument is (should be) whether he intended his religious music to be sung by a consort of soloists, a small choir, or something in between. Plenty of musicians do get dogmatic about this and some of my more academic friends will probably accuse me of revisionism for suggesting a flexible approach, i.e. that the music itself should lead one.
For me, the ideal performance of the B minor Mass (like the Monteverdi Vespers) has always been a bit of a holy grail but from the time I picked up Erich Leinsdorf's 1982 book "The Composer's Advocate", his thinking made every sense to me: study the orchestral score - this gives all the clues to balance and textures. The insert in this issue of Andrew Parrott's recording is minimal (in line with the budget price), so I cannot tell if he was guided by Leinsdorf (the recording came out three years after the book), but the performance broadly follows Leinsdorf's thinking. The question mostly revolves around the great fugal choruses with their highly complex counterpoint; how do you get all this musical thought across clearly, without running into the danger of timbral and textural monotony? Look at the score: in almost every case, the first exposition of each fugue is accompanied just by continuo and a couple of obligato instruments to add colour and punctuation. This is ideal for a group of solo voices to lay out the fugal material in all its subtle complexity. After that, the full orchestra enters, often doubling the voice parts, an indication that a larger group of non-solo singers is now involved, as a quartet of soloists would tend to get drowned by the trumpets and drums (even Baroque trumpets). Where the voices are doubled from the start (e.g. Kyrie 2), common sense says to use a ripieno choir; even if this is only eight singers the effect is completely different from a solo ensemble. Again, listen to the subtleties of the long and complex opening chorus; it could drone on and on (and in most old recordings it did), but in Parrott's hands there are continual shifts in texture with soloists and choir engaging almost in call and response. This helps to bring out the inherent rhetoric in Bach's music - and, in summary, it all just makes more musical sense.
This performance is by the A-Team, the classic Parrott line-up, and luminously and beautifully done by all. Some may say "Old Big Voice" David Thomas is a bit high in the mix but that's a very minor wrinkle - just adjust your ears a little.
This recording was first choice in BBC Radio 3's 'Building a Library', and gets a maximum 3 star rating in the 'Penguin guide to compact discs'. The soloists are excellent and include the wonderful Emma Kirkby, who has a very natural warm voice. The tempi are generally brisk and lively throughout, making a welcome change from some other more ponderous recordings.
There is considerable debate among Baroque scholars about whether or not Bach's choral works should be performed one voice per part (OVPP). Apparently, there is evidence that they were originally performed in this way, but I am not an expert so I will not pass any judgement on this. This recording is OVPP, and, at least here, it seems to work brilliantly. It is easier to hear Bach's individual lines of counterpoint, which are often more difficult to follow than, say, Handel's. The sound is altogether more intimate, and yet the performers also seem able to rise to the grandeur of movements such as the Sanctus and the jubilation of the following Osanna in Excelsis. Nevertheless, it is in the quieter, more serene sections where this recording excels. Listen to the Et Incarnatus Est and the heart rending Crucifixus for wonderful examples. The Symbolum Nicenum section as a whole is, quite simply, perfect. It is hard to imagine the Credo In Unum Deum in particular sung any better. Overall, the small choir is excellent (especially the bass, although sometimes I found the tenor too restrained), as is the orchestra. Andrew Parrott is praiseworthy too, choosing very successful tempos and fully conveying the power of this amazing piece. I do have some criticisms- the orchestra occasionaly seems to overpower the modest choral group, and there is the slightly weak tenor whom I mentioned earlier. Nonetheless, these are only small criticisms, which occur rarely during the performance, and the tenor actually has a very beautiful voice (listen to him at the opening of the Credo, and in his Benedictus aria). This recording will not be what everyone is looking for. If you want a more large scale, majestic performance, then Gardiner's recording may suit you better. However, this CD will disappoint few- if you are new to the work then Parrott will make an excellent guide, and if you already know it well then this will no doubt allow you to listen from a fresh angle, letting you feel like you are discovering one of Bach's greatest achievements all over again at a new level of authenticity. If you already own a more large scale recording, then this should sit alongside it perfectly, providing a delightful contrast. And really, who can resist this price? This is an innovative, full price performance at a super-budget sub-Naxos price. Outstanding.
In my lifetime the number of performers deemed necessary to perform Bach's major choral works has shrunk from a fairly mammoth scale to almost nothing. Now, while I accept the authenticists' arguments about contemporary performing practice, I am still left with a niggling feeling that the sheer scale and grandeur of Bach's inspiration and conception has been short-changed by the rigorous, somewhat puritanical application of these theories. I am not pleading for a return to the serried ranks of the Huddersfield Choral Society in their heyday - those sort of numbers certainly do muddy the waters of Bach's thrilling counterpoint. Nevertheless, at the back of my mind lies a strong suspicion that at the back of Bach's mind when he was writing these works lay a sound that was fuller and richer than we get from Andrew Parrott and the leanest of forces on these discs of the great B Minor Mass. (I admit I am a little less worried as it applies to the Passions which could be argued to benefit from a more intimate scale - though even there the choruses for the `turba' seem a little sparse for a crowd baying for blood as in the `Kreuzige, kreuzige' chorus from the John Passion.)
Certainly we know that contemporaries like Handel would pretty much take as many singers as they could get for any given performance of their choral works. Pragmatism like that applied to performances from the time of the Tudor and Renaissance church composers and were still necessary even for the supremely demanding Wagner who was frequently seeking to fill out the string sections of his orchestras with extra players. Did Bach really conceive the grand moments of the Mass - the Gratias agimus, the Credo, the Sanctus or the final Dona nobis pacem - with such a lean choral sound in mind, despite the added glories of trumpets and drums? Even quieter moments like the wonderful, mystical harmonies of the Et incarnatus or the heartbreaking, shifting harmonies of the Crucifixus with its amazing cadence and transition to the burst of joy of Et resurrexit seem a bit undernourished with such a small group of singers.
Having said that, the singers here are an impressive array of specialist performers, led by the likes of Emma Kirkby, Rogers Covey-Crump and David Thomas. I certainly have no quibble with the use of `authentic' singing techniques in Baroque music. The additional purity of intonation, the lack of Romantic appurtenances that they bring to a performance benefits this kind of music no end. And these are all - even the altos of the Tolzer Boys' Choir - top-notch interpreters of this music. I'm a little less happy about the direction of Andrew Parrott, though. In his efforts to remain true to a performing practice that eschewed modern over-interpretation, he ends up being a little four-square and plain-Jane. Certainly compared to John Eliot Gardiner's classic recording for Archiv. There, I think, you will find the best of period performance. The choir is large enough to give the necessary gravitas to the grander movements. And there is terrific lift and ebullience to Gardiner's rhythms in the faster movements (e.g. the Gloria, Cum Sancto Spiritu, Et expecto, etc.) It's not a matter of tempi - they are, for the most part, pretty similar in both performances - it's a more a question of (dare I say) spirit.
In summary, I would still choose Gardiner as the performance I return to most. However, at such a seriously low price, the Parrott is worth exploring if you want to hear for yourself the strictest period performance theories put into practice.
This recording dates from Bach's tercentenary in 1985. I had been used all my life to the B minor Mass given the epic treatment - not on the Crystal Palace Handel Festival scale, but with a large orchestra and chorus. To this day I'm only partially convinced that the new one-voice-per-choral-line style is the only way the work can be done. What Bach allegedly 'intended' doesn't seem to me to settle the issue - I suspect that if he had had any opportunity of any kind to give a performance he might have been quite flexible regarding its scale. This is true after all of much choral music of the time. Handel availed himself of big battalions when he could get them, and he had 500 performers for Zadok the Priest on one occasion, although that work makes its effect perfectly well with a small chorus. In general the pseudo-purist view that there is only one way of doing things was a later phenomenon. Had you known that nearly all the music of the B minor Mass is actually recycled from Bach's earlier works? There is a flaw somewhere in the romantic reasoning that so sublime a composition must have descended from on high, the composer swept along on a divine afflatus that dictated its unique perfection. Even the Sanctus itself, perhaps the greatest thing in a work where transcendental greatness seems the norm, dates from the composer's 30's. If the music itself was put together on such a mix-and-match basis, surely there can be more than one way of performing it. What a scholarly interpretation like this ought to do for us is to make our minds more flexible and our receptivity to the music more adaptable. The scale of the forces employed really has nothing to do with the scale of the inspiration or of its impact on us. Beethoven's string quartets are not lesser works than his symphonies, and those in their turn can be highly effective on the piano, as Liszt shows in the case of Beethoven and as Brahms shows in his own corresponding works. The mightiest effects in the B minor mass, such as the very start or such as the Sanctus or such as the conclusion, cannot be reduced in scale in any adequate performance. The most that can be said is that a small ensemble makes large concert-halls less suitable for hearing and performing them. There are obvious compensations too. Bach's vocal writing is often extremely difficult, its basis in instrumental thinking providing a severe test for single voices and more severe still when a massed chorus has to try to make it distinct any reasonable speed. Such is the calibre of the experts, scholars and specialists in 'ancient music' these days that it should not be hard for any of us to adapt to this type of performance, unfamiliar as it may be at first. Singers of the calibre we have here are not fatigued by the unremitting effort demanded of them, and the quality of their work stays at the highest level to the very end. Emma Kirkby's voice is of course highly distinctive, but if it doesn't suit you here it presumably wouldn't have suited you in a traditional reading of the work either. She and all the others combine superbly in the concerted numbers, and the tone of the period instruments is such as we have had time to get used to, surely, 20 years on from the time of the recording. No dawdling is allowed, but the tempi strike me as unlikely to give much problem even to conservative listeners, and there is really tremendous Bachian power and expressiveness in such numbers as the Crucifixus. I'm prepared simply to take the 'new' approach (new 20 years ago) on faith, and I didn't have to struggle to do that. Nor do I have any problem with how the B minor Mass, composed or compiled in the way it was, manages to be as transcendentally great as it does, because I simply do not ask myself such a question. For me it remains here as big a thing as it ever was. The recorded quality is not such as I might have wanted in Rimsky-Korsakoff or Mahler, but another extraordinary thing about this greatest (I often think) of all composers is that he can do with less in that respect as well without being in any way diminished.
Unexpectedly BRILLIANT I bought this CD for one reason ... the alto soloist is Panito Iconomou from the Tolzer Knabenchors ....but the `rest' is by the albeit brilliant Taverner Consort. However I discovered ALL THE ALTOS WERE TAKEN FROM THE BOYS CHOIR!!
In the UK boy altos are a rare commodity. Cathedral and church choristers are taught to sing in an entirely different way to the continental style. English choristers cultivate astounding high purity. If you have ever heard Connor Burrows onetime head chorister at St Paul's Cathedral, his voice is incredible. English trebles sing via the `head' they `hoot'!
However continental, especially German and Austrian boy singers are encouraged to develop the entire range. They are taught to sing more like female sopranos and contraltos, producing a less pure but richer sound (sometimes with vibrato that can be annoying in certain works.
This CD is just BRILLIANT for it is performed by a very few highly talented adults: just look at the line-up ... BUT the altos used provide an incredible richness yet freshness.
IN MY OPINION everything about this CD is fantastic from the clarity and pace to the tone and of course the wonderful harmonisation of Emma Kirkby's glorious voice with that of Iconomou (who sadly now sings bass). This rendition of the B minor mass is a sheer joy and it takes something as good as this to write a review. Snap it up at the bargain it is but you won't be disappointed even if you pay full price!
Another one VERY well worth considering if you can stand the Kvee tollis (Qui tollis) and AGnus dei instead of the more English rendition An-yous dei is The King's Consort which also uses the same boys choir as above
I am not surprised that this recording consistently tops the critics polls for the best recording of the Mass in B Minor. The smaller forces employed here really benefit the work giving it a clean, crisp transparent quality. This performance is in stark contrast to the muddied effect often created by large scale treatment. Here the approach feels completely natural and appropriate and the standard is high all round, particularly from Emma Kirkby who is thoroughly enchanting.
There has been so much debate about the efficacy of the 'one voice per part' approach. I believe this recording will cancel any doubts most people will have. It sounds more authentic to my ears and infinitely more sympathetic to the music than many of the large scale performances on disc. Clean, pure and always elegant. You will not be disappointed.
It was better than I expected - like new and with single voices per part, not a huge choir, so that I could learn my part easily from the recording. It came quickly and I have played it over and over again! I now can't sleep as it's in my head all the time!!
I am rehearsing Bach's B Minor Mass in preparation for a performance, and there are a lot of notes for members of the choir to learn! I bought this CD to help me get to know the work. It was not what I expected, as many of the choral numbers are actually sung by the four soloists (with or without a ripieno chorus where required). In a way this was disappointing but it was also very good for my particular purpose, as there was much greater clarity in the individual parts than there normally is in a choral number performed by full choir. Emma Kirkby was of course wonderful. I would have liked a more informative blurb with the CD, in particular explaining more about the reasons for performing it in this unusual way.