17 June 2010

CD REVIEW: Johann Sebastian Bach – MASS IN B MINOR (Dunedin Consort & Players; John Butt; Linn Records CKD354)

J.S. Bach - MASS IN B MINOR (Dunedin Consort & Players; John Butt - Linn Records CDK354) JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH (1685 – 1750) – Mass in B Minor, BWV 232: S. Hamilton, C. Osmond, M. Oitzinger, T. Hobbs, M. Brook; Dunedin Consort & Players; John Butt [recorded at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland, on 13 – 17 September 2009; Linn Records CDK354]

Lest matters of scholarship and disparate editions of the score distract from the merits of the performance at hand, it must be stated at the start that this new recording from Dunedin Consort and Players presents a superb performance of Bach’s monumental B-minor Mass.  As in their prior releases of works by Bach (Matthäus-Passion) and Händel (Acis and Galatea, Messiah), Linn Records have provided top-of-the-line sound, preserving careful balances among singers and players but also granting space within the Greyfriars Kirk acoustic for tonal expansion without troublesome echoes.  This is a performance that, examined solely on the grounds of the quality of music-making, is competitive with the best recordings of the B-minor Mass in the discography.  The soloists—sopranos Susan Hamilton and Cecilia Osmond, mezzo-soprano Margot Oitzinger, tenor Thomas Hobbs, and bass Matthew Brook—are a splendid lot, perhaps less inclined to seem individually triumphant because the overall level of their singing is uniformly high.  The timbres of Ms. Hamilton and Ms. Osmond are sufficiently contrasted to lend distinction to each voice when the ladies are singing in duet, and both Ms. Oitzinger and Mr. Brook bring firm tone and great involvement to their singing: Mr. Brook gives a particularly fine account of the spirited ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus.’  Especially deserving of praise, however, is tenor Thomas Hobbs, a fine young singer whose naturally beautiful, fresh voice—Evangelical, one might deem it in the context of the vocal music of Bach—is complemented by a technique that encompasses all the demands made by Bach’s music.  Maestro Butt and the Dunedin Consort and Players bring to the performance their usual precision and zeal, which is to say that one has the sense of being on the leading edge of historically-informed performance practices, as it were, but also that those numbers in the Mass which require unhurried grandeur receive it.  Musically, this performance is on the best possible footing, and this recording joins Dunedin Consort’s other Bach and Händel performances in the Linn Records catalogue as another of demonstration quality in terms of both musical integrity and sonic reproduction.

As with many Baroque scores, however, matters of scholarship and disparate editions are central to any discussion of Bach’s B-minor Mass.  Perhaps less is known about the life of Bach than about that of any other of the truly great composers of the Baroque, and much of the information pertaining to Bach’s composition of the B-minor Mass is based primarily upon conjecture and theorizing.  It is known that Bach composed the Mass in segments—the Missa consisting of the Kyrie and Gloria; the Symbolum Nicenum (the Credo); and a final segment consisting of the Sanctus, Osanna, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei—during the last thirty years of his life: what is not known is whether Bach ever consciously intended for these segments to be performed as a combined entity, a complete setting of the Latin Mass.  Much of the music in the B-minor Mass is recycled from Bach’s earlier works, but there is an unquestionable stylistic continuity maintained throughout the segments of the Mass.  Some scholars point to the differences in vocal and instrumental scoring among the segments as evidence that Bach never intended for the segments to be united and performed as a single, monumental Mass, the varying numbers and distributions of personnel involved in the different segments complicating performance to a degree that would have been virtually insurmountable during the Eighteenth Century.  It would surely have been atypical for the devoutly Lutheran (by personal practice and by employment) Bach to compose a full musical setting of the ordinary of the Catholic Mass, especially without commission, anticipation of aristocratic patronage, or expectation of performance.  Bach was, after all, an unfailingly practical composer whose works were carefully crafted to make full use of the abilities of the musical forces at his disposal.  It is possible to debate the sources of the creative impetus that led to Bach’s composition of the segments of the B-minor Mass, but the products of that creativity are of indisputable importance.

The present recorded performance is the first to use the 2006 edition of the score prepared by American conductor and musicologist Joshua Rifkin, published by Breitkopf und Härtel.  Mr. Rifkin was among the first scholars to propose the notion of performing Bach’s larger-scaled liturgical works with one voice to a part even in the most complex choral movements, as he believes was the practice during Bach’s lifetime, a theory also espoused by the British conductor Andrew Parrott and taken up by a number of influential conductors of Bach’s music during the first decade of the new millennium.  As stated at the start, the singers in the present performance are all capable of dealing competently and eloquently with Bach’s demands, both in their solo arias and ensembles and in the choruses, and there are unquestionable rewards in hearing the intricacies of fugal subjects and countersubjects executed with the clarity possible with single or doubled voices.  One of the most admirable qualities of the recording is that, even with the slim-lined vocal personnel, big-boned choruses avoid seeming conspicuously anemic because the singing and playing are so committed.  Maestro Butt and his band have found the most persuasive manner of realizing Mr. Rifkin’s concept of the B-minor Mass and achieve a performance of beauty, spirituality, and impeccable musicality that render the academic aspect of the enterprise unobtrusive.

Even in an era in which the musical environment is populated by many gifted Early Music specialists, Maestro Butt and his Dunedin Consort colleagues are surely exceptional, however, and the question of the suitability of Mr. Rifkin’s theories to the B-minor Mass lingers.  Without exploring the implications of Bach’s role as choirmaster-in-chief during his Leipzig tenure on his compositional modus operandi, there is surely evidence within the music of the Mass itself that provides clues to scholars and musicians alike about the nature of the music as Bach conceived it, despite the fact that very few passages in the Mass were newly composed specifically for their functions within the Mass.  What cannot be denied is that, whatever the circumstances of its conception and composition (matters upon which musicologists will almost certainly have to content themselves with uncertainty), Bach’s B-minor Mass is a monumental work that was without equal until Beethoven completed his Missa solemnis almost a century later, though had it been completed Mozart’s C-minor Große Messe (K. 427) would have run it close.  Indeed, the individual fragments of the B-minor Mass may well have been among the then-obscure works of Bach and Händel that Mozart studied in Vienna at the instigation of Baron van Swieten at the time during which he was composing his C-minor Mass.  Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, though strikingly original, was composed in the Viennese tradition inherited from Haydn and Mozart, whose liturgical works Beethoven knew and admired, a tradition derived from the late Baroque masterpieces of Bach and Händel.  [Haydn, for instance, cited Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel as an important influence on his own development as a composer, and it is known that the younger Bach advocated and performed segments from what would eventually be known as his father’s B-minor Mass during the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century.]  Haydn’s, Mozart’s, and Beethoven’s masses were all scored for ensembles of soloists and choruses that, though it is impossible to ascertain their precise numbers, surely consisted of substantially more than one or two voices per part, but the fugal passages in their masses are nonetheless modeled closely on those found in Bach’s Passions and B-minor Mass.  While it might not be sound scholarship to suggest that Bach’s absolute familiarity with the abilities of the choristers at his command throughout his career contributed decisively to his style of composition in choral pieces, it is surely wrongheaded and disingenuous to ignore the fact that Bach had at hand during his last years in Leipzig the choirs of both the Nikolaikirche and the Thomaskirche, as well as the youth choir of the Thomasschule, which was significantly expanded under Bach’s guidance.  In Bach’s time, the Thomaskirche was—as it is now—equipped with two organs, reminiscent of the tradition of ‘grand’ and ‘choir’ organs in French cathedrals, an arrangement of which Bach took full advantage when he revised his Matthäus-Passion for performance in Leipzig.  Was it straightforward musical progress, a conscious effort at expanding the scope of choral music, that inspired Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to depart from the presumed one-voice-to-a-part tradition scholars like Mr. Rifkin suggest that they inherited from Bach?  Could these geniuses have merely misunderstood or misinterpreted the choral writing of their ancestor?

This recording by the Dunedin Consort and Players provides a sterling example of the viability of the one-voice-to-a-part concept proposed by Mr. Rifkin and other Bach scholars (including John Butt), but the excellence of music-making is to some extent damaging to the academic position the performance seeks to represent in that the quality of the singing and playing fully reveals the brilliance of Bach’s score.  Even when executed with skill and commitment that meet and veritably rejoice in the challenges set by the music, Bach’s music cries out for the thrilling sounds of massed voices, double choirs placed on opposite sides of a great space, if not thundering as was heard in Victorian performances at least raising a glorious din.  With excellent players and gifted singers, John Butt and the Dunedin Consort achieve a stirring performance of the B-minor Mass that is a gift to any listener who loves the music of Bach.  The recording is also an experiment, though, and its very success is also its failure.  It is suggested that gossip almost always begins with a speck of truth.  However hoary, however inconsistent with what academics deem to be ‘authentic,’ are decades-old performance practices completely arbitrary?  Is it not possible that traditions are merely the continuations of the better aspects of the past?

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)