J. S. Bach: Messe in H-moll / Mass in B minor BWV232

Carolyn Sampson, Anke Vondung, Daniel Johannsen, Robias Berndt SATB, Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, Freiburger Barockorchester, Hans-Christoph Rademann
115:58 (2 CDs); Deluxe edition also has DVD (38:32)
Carus 83.314 (2 CDs)
Carus 83.315 (Deluxe)

This is an important recording, as it uses the new Carus edition by Ulrich Leisinger. This edition has been in the making over a considerable time, and the text of the Missa is based on Bach’s autograph Dresden parts. Disentangling the various hands at work on the many revisions of the score of the complete work that passed into the care of C. P. E. Bach on his father’s death, where erasures, poor quality paper and fierce ink have wrought havoc and caused almost total loss of certain passages, has been a monumental task, only made possible by recent X-ray florescence analysis. From this recent analysis, it is evident that C. P. E. Bach made a number of alterations as well as corrections, and Uwe Wolf’s discussion with the conductor on the DVD as they look at the original leaves in Berlin raises the question of how to determine the best source – is that the original score, or is the more mature version in the parts, where J. S. B. clearly had further ideas as he wrote them out; or is it in the version edited up by C. P. E., which we have come to know as the authoritative text?

As well as them discussing the text, the DVD also gives interesting clips of Rademann rehearsing sections with the choir; swapping the position of the voices, trying out different tempi and figurations for the Sanctus and trying to get the singers understanding the flow of the vocal figures and the interchange between the voices. We also see him communing with nature in a Wordsworthian way, and the resulting performance which is fresh and fluid, as well as textually novel in places, is almost romantic in its approach: the complete performance of the opening Kyrie on the DVD reveals Rademann chasing interchanges, highlighting swirling counterpoint and caressing small details. As far as the text is concerned, the Domine Deus and Quoniam are the most obviously different, and are given in their well known versions at the end of the first CD, just as the 1724 SSSATB version of the Sanctus forms an appendix to the second. Most irritating to the listener are the very poorly managed hiccoughs between the movements that have links: the Quoniam to the Cum Sancto Spirito, the Confiteor to the Et expecto and the Sanctus to the Pleni sunt cæli.

But among all the discussion about the text, and the care taken over the details of the performance, this is still a performance in the choral society tradition. The full choir – 6 first Sops, 6 second Sops, 7 Alt, 6 Ten, 7 Bass making a total of 32 – sings everything: there is no dividing the choral scoring into different levels depending on the instrumental forces – or even any discussion of the possibility of doing so. You can tell from the traditional placing of the singers – ‘soloists’ out front, accompanied by the orchestra and chorus behind the players, singing with them – that this ‘choral society’ tradition is how the conductor conceives the work in spite of the up-to-date text. And the ‘soloists’ are just that: a ‘traditional’ SATB quartet, so that the alto doubles as the second soprano and the bass has to manage the low-range Quoniam as well as the baritone Et in Spiritum Sanctum. I no longer find this inequality between the choral sound and the single voice numbers convincing. Of the soloists, the bass is not quite right for either range, and is not really flexible enough for the detail of this music; the tenor, Daniel Johannsen, is light, fluent and a good match for the flute in the Benedictus and the Soprano in Domine Deus. The alto has to do dual duty, and is a soloist with accompaniment in the Agnus Dei rather than an equal partner with the violins. But if you want a choral society performance, this is a very good one: though a rather over-polished sound, with none of the raw excitement of Václav Luks with Collegium Vocale 1704 on ACC 24283 (reviewed in EMR December 2013) nor the clarity of the early OVPP version by Andrew Parrott.

The Freiburger Barockorchester ( strings and single wind and brass with a sparkily played small organ) sound splendid: they are fluent and elastic when playing with the voices, but never lose their independent rhythmic impetus. My only query with them is the temperament: nothing is said in the glossy booklet, where a good bit of space is given to advertising Carus’ other productions, about which temperament is used or who made the instruments, but the trumpets clearly use finger holes even if the splendid horn player manages with handstopping.

Tempi are good, and the Sanctus – always a hall-mark for me – brisk, if not in the swinging 2 in a bar that was being tried out in some of the rehearsal clips. The balance and discipline of the choir are excellent, but the un-thought through nature of the choral scoring is shown up by the switch between the choir and the single bass in the Et iterum venturus est section of the Et resurrexit where his different tone and forward sound (the ‘soloists’ stand in front of the band with the choir behind) make an unbalanced contrast with the chorus. While the German material in the glossy booklet is translated into English, important questions about performance practice are left with no discussion: the booklet concentrates on the almost detective story-like establishment of the text and the usual biographical hagiography.

No-one who wrestles with the conundrum of Bach’s ‘great Catholic Mass’ as C. P. E. Bach called it should be without this version of the text and fail to study the Dresden parts, or the Carus score, when they consider the difficulties and obfuscations of the several facsimile scores that are now available. You will be enchanted by the singing of this choir and the playing of this band. But whether you will be convinced by all the stylistic solutions offered by Rademann’s performance, I rather doubt.

David Stancliffe