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BACH: Mass in B Minor

CD Button Sampson, Vondung; Johannsen, Berndt; Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and Freiburger Barockorchester/Rademann. Texts and translations. Carus 83.315 (2, plus 1 DVD)


Recordings Bach Mass Cover 216

THIS B MINOR MASS (BWV 232)—a very fine performance of its type—uses a distinctive performing version, though the notes muddle the point. The editor, Ulrich Leisinger, claims to have followed Bach's autograph score in the "Kyrie" and "Gloria”—written as a so-called "Lutheran Mass" in 1733—rather than the revised versions the composer made when he added the other movements in 1751. The notes, however, suggest that we're actually hearing the later version of the "Domine Deus," with its "charming Lombardic rhythms." (The German note is no clearer than the English translation on this point.) Alternative versions of this movement and the "Quoniam”—identified as from the autograph—are included in an appendix on the second CD, along with an earlier version of the "Sanctus."

Hans–Christoph Rademann's performance emphasizes speed and concision. After the opening proclamations of the "Kyrie," the instrumental interlude moves along, in a flowing, dignified manner. The second "Kyrie" and the "Gratias agimus" go at a true alla breve, with the half-notes treated as flowing quarter-note beats. Generally, the tempos are kept moving, with segmented phrasing of the back-and-forth instrumental motifs—most obviously in the first "Kyrie," the "Christe," and the "Agnus Dei”—providing definition and momentum.

Many parts of the score benefit from this treatment. In "Gratias agimus," the punctuations of the batteria now make luminous sense, where, at the slower tempo once customary, they sound stuck in midair. The start of the "Credo,” with its walking bass, is almost bouncy, a joyful rather than deadpan affirmation. The "Sanctus," with light, buoyant triplets, is shapely, and a similar sense of purpose carries over into the "Pleni sunt coeli" fugue. Only the "Laudamus te" misfires: at this speed, the whirling violin solo—well played, with a stunning pinpoint landing on the upward flourish—irresistibly suggests a dog chasing its own tail.

Rademann isn't merely obsessed with motility, however; he's also attentive to other musical values. His pacing between movements—seamlessly attacking "Qui tollis" directly from the "Domine Deus", and "Et exspecto" from the "Confiteor”—clarifies the piece's long, arching structures. As suggested, he consistently maintains buoyant rhythms, so, for example, the eruption into "Cum Sancto Spiritu" is an outburst of joy rather than of panic. The balance between sustained and moving parts in "Confiteor" produces a nice cantus firmus effect. And the introspective movements—“Qui tollis" and "Crucifixus”—register more strongly by contrast. 

The conductor's Gächinger Kantorei sing well, though individual parts sound too reticent in the comparatively quiet "Patrem omnipotentem." The orchestra plays firmly and alertly on what sound like modern instruments; their sonority is solidly grounded. The continuo organ engages in a fair amount of stylish but discreet noodling, surfacing occasionally in "Et resurrexit" and "Pleni sunt coeli."

Carolyn Sampson stands out among the soloists, deftly moving her clear, flexible soprano through the lines. She and Anke Vondung, a compact alto, relish the interplay of phrases in their duets; Vondung projects the "Agnus Dei" sensitively. Daniel Johannsen maneuvers his tenor easily at medium dynamics, though he closes his "e"s rather fiercely, as does the chorus. Tobias Berndt, more baritone than bass, struggles a bit, not only in the "Quoniam" but also in the lower-lying bits of the "Et in Spiritum Sanctum," which turn stiff and gravelly. The Latin is pronunced Germanically ("qvi," "Ag-nus") throughout.

The deluxe packaging includes a DVD containing a twenty-eight-minute film, Bachs geheimnisvolles Erbe ("Bach's Secret Legacy"), a concert recording of the first "Kyrie" with the same forces, and a PDF of Bach's manuscript of the 1733 parts. Carus also offers a simple two-CD album as 83.314, and has also made the printed music available as Carus 31.232. —Stephen Francis Vasta 


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