This 1998 recording is Herreweghe’s second, the first appearing not too much earlier on Virgin Classics. That recording was hailed near and far as pretty spectacular, though I must say that this one exceeds it in almost every critical category. Indeed, this recording may indeed be the best B minor Mass ever recorded, and that is saying a lot in a field where you can hardly throw a stone without hitting a great one.
The cast contributes mightily to this assessment, with names like Veronique Gens, Andreas Scholl, and Christoph Pregardien leading the way. The vocalizing in general is smooth and supple, not highly delineated, and fervently filled with a reverence for the text without being slavish to it. The period instruments are magnificent, and the 23-member choir sings with a loving tone quality that is impossible to get out of your head when all is over. Herreweghe likes an integrated approach, and his orchestra and choir complement each other (dare I say imitate) in a way that enhances the music and the words. This is not a performance where sharply etched period sound is smoothed over by the chorus; the instruments themselves possess the same smooth quality that the conductor elicits from the chorus.
His tempos are all middle of the road—there are no extremes here, thank the stars. This is not a recording where the lugubrious musings of a Hermann Scherchen bowl you over in pietistic whitewash (as splendid as that experience can be); nor does it take the road less traveled by offering the absurdities of a one-to-a-part experience in Rifkin-style (as perversely fun as that can be—once, anyway). This is instead a reading to live with and by, one that you can turn to with confidence over and over again. The closest thing in emotional tenor that I can think of is Robert Shaw’s third and finest effort on Telarc, another absolutely essential recording of this work. Yes, you must have at least these two, and there are others as well, but none that will add to your understanding of this classic piece the way that these do.
The sound matches the general tone of the instruments, comforting, easy on the ears, and clear as crystal. The booklet presents a fourteen-part biography of the composer, and rounds out an utterly first class production.
— Steven Ritter