I have heard my share of "extra dozens of singers" performance of this music, and, no, to these ears the score doesn't gain from being sung by a few dozen more singers. On the contrary, bloated vocal forces often result in a less inflected, more homogenous quality in singing, unless the chorus is of the same calibre as Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir, of which few equals exist. Bach never once used the term "coro" in the manuscript to indicate the so-called "choral" movements, and one can only figure what that might have meant in terms of the forces JSB actually envisioned for this composition. Indeed, the mass in b was conceived firmly in the Baroque "spiritual concerto" tradition (since the times of Gabrieli's, Monteverdi and Schutz) which delights in various ways of combining solo voices or instruments to achieve changing textural or spatial effects.
Minkowski has realised all the above, and his interpretation is significantly more dramatic than most other minimalist performances on record. Apart from fabulous balances and textures, his interpretation paces through the movements so meticulously that it instills a strong sense of overall structure to music. This no doubt comes as a result of Minkowski's long experience as a conductor of baroque operas and dramatic works. Although lacking in an outward monumentality due to its relatively small performing forces, the present recording has struck me as among the most humane and luminously beautiful versions of Bach's masterpiece in vocal music.
Bach's B minor Mass speaks infinite truths in finite terms: it is, in a sense, an incarnation. This raises questions of performance styles. No answer can be absolutely perfect. The scope and intention of the work renders a perfect solution impossible. How can human terms express the inexpressible? Performance 'solutions' for this work are only ever provisional and approximate. You take your pick. To insist on a 'period' performance as alone 'correct' seems short-sighted, in the sense that the work is regarded merely as the product of a particular age; indeed a product of a particular place in time. However, a 'period' performance is a legitimate option. (But so too may be the approach of Klemperer, Vaughan-Williams or Celibidache. The only wholly unacceptable approach is to use the work egotistically, without humility: Gardiner?)
Minkowski is a sensitive and accomplished conductor. His response to the B minor Mass is in a period performance tradition but not in a period performance straight-jacket. His tempi and expressiveness respond intelligently (and religiously) to the truths that Bach at any point is expressing. Therefore the Kyrie is expansive, pleading; as are the Agnus Dei and Benedictus. While, for example, the Osanna and Confiteor go at boggling lick.
With a choir of (only) ten soloists clarity and dexterity are conspicuous virtues. But they also sing with weight and gravitas, achieved by intelligence rather than force of numbers. Time and again the singers create significant moments of powerful impact, tremendous yet intimate.
The orchestral contribution is a delight; beautiful, whether playing with delicate finesse or resplendent celebration.
A recoding more than fit to be placed high among the very finest efforts at an impossible project!
(It seems that the recorded level is lower than normal, at least I needed to turn the volume a good deal higher than my normal setting.)
This is an unashamed minimalist performance, with soloists doubling up for the 'choruses'. It's cleverly thought out and nicely performed. The balance is usually surprisingly good, though orchestral detail was sometimes lacking (I listened on a Cyrus/B & W hi-fi which finds details if there are any). And every so often the effect is exhilarating. But with the bigger choruses - Kyrie, Sanctus - it's like listening to a poorly attended rehearsal. There just isn't any power. Now minimalists, and the early music lobby in general, will argue that we should be content with what Bach might have heard in performance. I think we should aim to squeeze the pips out of the score, and if that means adding a few dozen singers, all to the good.