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The Choice is Yours
on 29 February 2012
Ten years separate this 1988 recording of the Bach B Minor Mass for Virgin Veritas from Philippe Herreweghe's later recording with Harmonia Mundi:it makes for an interesting comparison.Amazon reviewers on the other side of the Atlantic clearly love this first version for it's naturalness and purity - and one can understand why.Herreweghe's unique vision of interpreting Bach - a vision which even distinguishes him from other period-instrument performers - was evident in the early days when he was "discovered" by the late Gustav Leonhardt,and has remained virtually unchanged in the intervening years.So,to that extent,if you already have the later version,don't expect any surprises.
However,repeated listening to the two versions does highlight important differences,some of which - the choice of soloists for example - may be largely down to personal taste.Peter Kooy (bass) has been consistently part of Herreweghe's line-up for many years,and his performances can always be expected to produce singing of heart-felt commitment and faultless technique.Kooy in fact appears on both versions,the only difference being that he shares the lower voice honours with Hanno Muller-Brachmann in the later version.No tantalising choices to be made there then.In fact the only soloist from the version under review who would emphatically be my first choice is the principal soprano Barbara Schlick.That is not in any way to question the quality of Johannette Zomer's contribution,but Schlick for me is the unique Bach soprano of our time, and if for no other reason,might persuade others to reach for this version - even if they already possess the later one.For all the technical solidity of Charles Brett (alto),he is simply no match for the incomparable Andreas Scholl whose rendition of the Agnus Dei in the later version is simply sublime,notwithstanding some rather curiously inconsistent Latin pronunciation.As for the tenor part,who would want to choose between Howard Crook and Christoph Pregardien,except that some may find more beauty of tone in the latter's performance.
So,where does that leave us?This first recording of Herreweghe's is certainly full of charm and a kind of innocence, and for those qualities alone is probably worth having.However,by the time Herreweghe's Ghent forces tackled this masterpiece for a second time,one senses that we have a consummation of all that the Belgian master had learned during years of study and practice.One only has to listen to the richness of the instrumental and choral textures to appreciate that not everything is down to superior recording.Perhaps most telling of all,though,is the ethereal qualities which Herreweghe achieves in the choruses - qualities which this mystical masterpiece demands but which are rarely heard.
For Bach/Herreweghe afficionados,then this first version is well worth having - especially at this ridiculously low price - but not in preference to the later one which, for this reviewer at least,is one of the miracles in the history of recorded music.