Bach: Mass in B minor

Maria Keohane, Joanne Lunn, Alex Potter, Jan Kobow, Peter Harvey SSATB, Concerto Copenhagen, Lars Ulrik Mortensen
103:35 (2 CDs)
cpo 777 851-2

The way in which the first chord in the opening Kyrie  is placed tells you that this is a performance where each contributor, whether singer or player, listens before they plunge in, breathes as one (even the strings) and so questions of balance and articulation have been sorted almost by osmosis as it were. This is not to decry the hard work that must have gone into this performance, but it reveals the underlying quality of the string playing, where the players achieve an unusual degree of clarity. No-one who has heard this group’s recordings of the Bach violin concertos will be surprised at this: they play with 4.4.2.2.1. The numbers are, I think, reduced in the Laudamus te  as well as in the Credo. Every player as well as singer is (very properly) listed, and although there are no details of pitch and temperament given, nor of the actual instruments used, we get a fair idea of who is playing what, if not always when.

The balance and cohesion of the choral sound is equally impressive: the five concertinists are matched by a similar group of five ripienists, and care is taken in the darker four part concerted numbers to silence the upper sopranos. A careful scheme of where the vocal lines are doubled has been worked out, and is especially effective (and complex!) in the opening of the Gloria, the Cum sancto spiritu  and the Sanctus, while the divisions in the opening Kyrie, between the Credo  and the Patrem omnipotentem, the Confiteor  and Et expecto  are much as you might imagine. They are sometimes hard to spot because, as you would expect from performers of this quality, the vocal sounds are as well matched as the strings. This is rare achievement, as so many singers get used to singing ‘solo’, even when singing as part of an ensemble. What this means is that the full vocal group has a more solid and sustained sound, while only being marginally ‘louder’ in the traditional understanding of dynamics, like the difference between an Oberwerk  and a Hauptwerk  in a classical German organ. These ‘terraced’ dynamics balance the instrumental scoring for the most part, and the ten singers allow a OVPP Hosanna, which captures the antiphonal feel, if not an entirely doubled Sanctus, where a couple more altos would have completed the scheme. If you can manage a third oboe just for this one movement, why not have a couple more altos?

This all makes for a really good performance. Tempi feel unforced, and Mortensen is not trying to prove anything by introducing extreme dynamics or idiosyncratic phrasing. It all sounds natural, and very poised, even when really fast.

It is important to have two such well-matched sopranos in the Christe: they are distinct vocally, but beautifully balanced and equally assured in how they shape their phrases, and how get the word ‘Christe’ to hang in the air rather than being squeezed over the bar-lines. Joanne Lunn is an acknowledged star in this kind of singing, but the Swedish soprano, Maria Keohane, sings freshly and brightly and is clearly vocally extremely able; she seems to have sung an enormous variety of operatic roles as well as being perfectly at home in this style and repertoire, including having recorded BWV 51 with Mortensen and the EUBO. She has worked a good deal with Philippe Pierlot and Ricercar. All in all, I’ve never heard such a good performance of the Christe.

Joanne Lunn’s Laudamus te  is equally beautifully poised, and I suspect that single strings are being used here to give those accompanimental figures that degree of rhythmic flexibility to partner the voice exactly. The soprano/tenor duet Domine Deus has fine flute playing with the semiquavers paired inégales  but not over-Lombardised, as in the 1735 version, and the transition to the clear and lucid Qui tollis  with single voices is managed beautifully. Alex Potter balances his artistry with the d’amore in Qui sedes  – listen to how he shapes his phrases in bars 26 to 29 especially, and it is rare for the same bass singer to sound as convincing singing low in the thickly scored Quoniam  as in the lyrical Et in Spiritum sanctum  as Peter Harvey does. But it is not just in their more obviously solo passages that the quality of these singers’ phrasing and musicianship shines out. Listen to the way they tackle the Cum sancto spiritu  fugue: not a detail is lost, their breathing shapes the lines and the players follow them, yet nowhere does the impetus slacken.

The same qualities are apparent in the Credo  – spun between the five singers and the two – I think – single violins over the bass (but do I detect the 16’ before the Patrem?) and its junction with the full band and ripienists in the Patrem omnipotentem. Mortensen’s attention to vocal scoring brings out the chiastic structure of the Symbolum perfectly, and the slackening of the tempo at the end of the Confiteor  before launching into the Et expecto  seems near perfect.

There are numerous other recordings of the B minor – why don’t we call it the great Mass in D? – available, so why might you choose this one?

First, because although I have long favoured Andrew Parrott’s pioneering OVPP recording of 1985 for the absolute clarity of its voice parts, this is even better – especially in the playing. As well as the superb strings, the quality of the wind playing and Bob Farley’s trumpeting is matched nowhere. And while there are some things I find captivating about Collegium Vocale 1704 with Vaclav Luks (reviewed in EMR December 2013) – the swing of the Sanctus  in particular – Luks hasn’t got the vocal scoring as well thought out as Mortensen, nor are his enthusiastic players quite so polished.

Second, while you may instinctively prefer the ‘big choir’ sound of Gardener’s recent Monteverdi Choir version (EMR November 2015) or Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan, this performance is hard to beat for clarity, coherence and equal musicianship from every participant, and while the feeble packaging and pretty thin liner notes do not add to what we already know about the history and recension of the B minor text, they do hint at the underlying decisions that make this such a winning performance.

A further comment: with many performances of these frequently recorded works available, I would find it helpful to have a link to a website where some of these issues in performance practice can be discussed, and the director can lay out his critical decisions with more space to give us the details of his scoring, the temperament at which they are performing, the makers of the instruments used, and especially the details of the organ. This might not be what most of the punters need, but in the same way as John Butt is able to fill out a performance (like that of the Dunedin’s Johannespassion  or their recent Magnificat) with supplementary material, I would find this degree of detail useful when there are so many unresolved issues and the autograph score is the subject of much critical appraisal, as Uwe Wolf’s introduction to the revised NBA (2010) reminds us.

But hear this splendid performance as soon as you can, and keep it on the top of the pile.

David Stancliffe

4 Comments

  1. I’m instinctively suspicious of elaborate vocal scorings. As a matter of interest, where in the first Kyrie fugue does any doubling start, or where does it stop, if the opening entries are tutti?

  2. Lars Ulrik Mortensen February 29, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    There is no reason to be “instinctively suspicious of elaborate vocal scorings”, as Bach uses such himself….. This can be seen from a number of surviving original vocal ripieno-parts to 14 of his vocal works. Much more specific information can be found in Andrew Parrott’s “The Essential Bach Choir” (Boydell Press 2000), but – briefly! – three different ways of using ripieno voices are employed:

    • 1) Consistent doubling in (alla breve-) movements with few coloraturas
      (Bach-example: BWV 29/1, which of course is the “Urform” of Gratias  and Dona Nobis Pacem  from the Mass). We also used this principle in Kyrie II.
    • 2) Many of Bach’s “choral” movements consist of two grand fugal expositions, the first with “unspecified” instrumental support or for continuo only, the second with colla parte  instrumental doubling. Ripieno voices can be added in the second exposition.
      (Bach-example: BWV 21/11). We used this principle in Kyrie I, Et In Terra Pax, Cum Sancto Spiritu, etc.
    • 3) In concerto-like ritornello forms, ripieno voices are used to enhance the solo/tutti-contrast.
      (Bach-example: BWV 21/6, BWV 195 (with very “elaborate” and subtle changes of notes and text-underlay for the ripieno voices!))
      We used this in Gloria In Excelsis Deo, Cum Sancto Spiritu  (opening), Et Resurrexit  AND Kyrie  (Opening !), etc.
  3. Lars Ulrik Mortensen February 29, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    Pitch is a-415 Hz. We did not try to employ a specific tuning system, but the organ (a Klop 4-register positive) was tuned to the Neidhardt-temperament “for a big city”.

    Laudamus Te  is indeed played one-to-a-part, but the Credo  uses tutti-strings with 16′-violone throughout!

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