A well-intentioned, hugely successful interpretation of this timeless work.

BACH: Mass in B Minor – Katherine Watson, s/ Tim Mead, ct/ Reinoud Van Mechelen, t/ Andre Morsch, b/ Les Arts Florissants/ William Christie – Harmonia mundi HAF 8905293 (2 CDs), 52:16, 52:47 ****:

The B-minor’s keep on comin’. I suppose we cannot be too critical of the efforts, seeing as how one of the world’s greatest masterworks automatically serves as a recording magnet. And when you add names like William Christie to the mix, whose involvement with this work spans decades and goes back to his very youth outside Buffalo, New York, the results will be something to talk about. This indeed proves the case here.

Christie’s goal in this recording is to not only present the work as a testament to the Christian faith, which he readily admits it is, but also to provide a humanistic covering to the work, an equally inspiring testament to the human race. With that in mind, his musical aspirations here include some quick tempos—by his own admission—that serve to slightly undermine the fully religious immersion found in this piece, an act of homage to the dance-like elements that he finds in the music. I am not convinced, at least by the verbal argument, that dancing through the B-minor Mass is something acceptable, at least philosophically. However, in terms of actual performance and its reception on the ears, his tempi are not as fast as some other recordings, and the natural bounce and bend of Bach’s eloquent lines are delineated in a manner fully compliant with what a non-idiosyncratic rendering should be like.

This is Christie’s house band, as period performance rules the day, but as I have mentioned before, we seem to be in a time now when the eccentricities of previous period practice have reassessed itself and taken a firmer, perhaps soberer road than in years past. The playing all around is excellent, as is the singing—no one to a part, thank the stars—and overall the sound spectrum is full and robust, though I would have liked Super Audio in this instance.

The B-minor is a partitioned work in the sense that the first two movements were composed some seventeen years before the final completion. The Kyrie and Gloria were to serve as monuments to the death of Elector and King Friedrich August I (the “Strong”), and Bach would add four other of these types of masses to his oeuvre the next few years, the so-called “short” masses. Around 1740 he decided to return to our piece under discussion and expand it into four sections, only later completing it with both original and recomposed works. Make no mistake though, this work is monumental in scope and affect, transformational in the way it incorporates so many source materials over a long period of time.

Christie is neither overly-devotional or piety-light. While he does not service the work with the same import that Shaw gave it, or even the perfect balance and tempi of Herreweghe, his reading is infused with subtlety a detail overlooked by many. Even though a “live” recording, you won’t notice any distractions in this marvelously compiled production.

—Steven Ritter