BACH: Mass in b, BWV 232 – Hana Blazikova, sop./ Sophie Harmsen, mezzo-sop./ Terry Wey, countertenor/ Eric Stoklassa, tenor/ Tomas Kral & Marian Krejcik, bass/ Collegium Vocale 1704/ Collegium 1704/ Vaclav Luks – Accent ACC 24283 (2 CDs), 101:26 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:
One has to ask, of this most celebrated work, which many consider the pinnacle of Western art, how a piece that contains recycled material from several different works (the Town Council Election Cantata BWV 220, the Weimar Chorus Wienen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen, a segment from the Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11, and the Leipzig Sanctus of 1724) gestated into such a magnificent choral edifice. In fact, these just-mentioned works are not half as effective in their original guise as they are in the B-minor Mass. Bach’s original efforts constructed only the Kyrie and Gloria movements in 1733; the completion of this masterpiece led him to his final years of 1748-49, unperformed in his lifetime as far as we know, and the summation of over four decades of music that went into the Mass.
It is such a pleasure to see that Bach performance practice seems to be maturing and moving beyond the aberrant one-to-a-part phenomenon. In a masterly exposition in the notes, conductor Vaclav Luks gives his justification for the use of separate soloists and chorus, including the following: “Here it is necessary to choose from among two fundamental questions: Do we want to perform the work in the most ideal form possible while respecting the composer’s intentions and the context of the period when the work was created? Or do we rather want to reconstruct the historical reality of a performance with all of the negative aspects against which the composer himself was struggling mightily? We do, in fact, know that Bach was long dissatisfied with the instrumental personnel and singers that he had available in Leipzig, and that he really was often forced to perform his works with the smallest possible forces.” Rene Jacobs comes to the same conclusion in his Matthew Passion where he quotes from Bach’s treatise about performance practice, and you can read my review of that recording here.
But perhaps the most telling thing about this recording is the way that Luks so brilliantly holds together this behemoth, stylistically varied and technically indulgent in so many Baroque forms and effects. His players and singers are readily enthusiastic about the enterprise, making this the most exciting version of the Mass I have ever heard. The singers in particular are sterling, almost as good as the all-stars on the Robert Shaw recording for Telarc, and the period players of the Collegium Vocale 1704 match the energetic orchestra of Phillippe Herreweghe’s astonishing recording on Harmonia mundi. I do wish that Accent had seen fit to record it in SACD or Pure Audio Blu-ray, but as is the sound is still superlative, it’s only the rather weak countertenor of Terry Wey in the magnificent Agnus Dei at the end that disappoints. This is not to put him down, as he does a creditable job all through. But a countertenor just doesn’t cut the mustard here anymore than Andreas Scholl did on Herreweghe’s recording. Marietta Simpson (Shaw) shows how it should really be done, and perhaps the next step in the maturation process of the period movement is to cut these guys out—one can only hope. In the meanwhile, this recording joins the ones mentioned as best of breed, and is most definitely worth acquiring.