J.S. BACH: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 – Margot Guilleaume, soprano/ Gertrud Pitzinger, alto/Walter Geisler, tenor/Josef Greindl, bass/NWDR Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Hamburg/ Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt
Tahra 708-709 2 CD 69:19; 73:44 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
“The Greatest Artwork of All Times and All People,” commented Hans Georg Naegeli on the status of Bach’s B Minor Mass (1748-1749), his stylistic summation of his vocal writing in the form of the Latin Mass, which he may not have intended to be performed as a whole. The Lutheran Bach had raided several older works for various (medievally conceived) sections of the twenty-seven movement (3x3x3, but slightly abridged in Schmidt-Isserstedt‘s edition) score: the Crucifixus derives from the Cantata BWV 12. The fusion of contrapuntal texture and chromatic harmony appears so seamless, the sincerity of the affect so direct, that we feel Bach has exposed his very soul to the art of musical expression, as in the colossally exuberant choral fugue of the Cum Sancto Spiritu. Bach arranges the Gloria as a Trinitarian structure in nine movements–akin to Dante’s vision for the Divine Comedy–with the G Major Domine Deus duet in the center, another movement lifted from an earlier piece; here, the Cantata BWV 191.
Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt (1900-1973) and his assembled forces at the Hamburg Musikhalle realized this moving performance 19-20 March 1950, virtually one century after its historic mounting by the Berliner Singakademie in 1835 in Frankfurt. No complete performance can be established, however, prior to 1859 Leipzig. Schmidt-Isserstedt’s tempos are relatively slow, even by those standards set by Hermann Scherchen. The A Major aria Laudamus Te with Guilleaume, violin obbligato, and organ continuo evolves literally and melismatically, stripped of excess sentimentality but ecstatic within its constraints. The D Major Gratias agimus tibi in four-part chorus rises up like some uncanny seascape, its pomp and grandeur explosive and so thick in texture as compared to the ensuing Domine Deus for soprano and tenor and flute obbligato. Bach then exploits the B Minor/D Major relationship by pairing two movements each in the relative modalities, the Qui tollis and Qui sedes juxtaposed against the Quoniam and Cum Sancto Spiritu. The haunted Lento, Qui tollis peccata mundi, bears all the weight of the world on its lachrymose shoulders, the setting borrowed from the opening movement of Cantata BWV 46. The alto aria Qui sedes–whose legato line Pitzinger realizes artfully–employs an oboe d’amore for its culminating special affect on the words.
“Miserere. . .nobis” The power of Josef Greindl (1912-1993) has much recorded testimony, and his Quoniam tu solus sanctus with corni di caccia obbligato dips deep into our collective conscience. The five-part chorus Cum Sancto Spiritu under Schmidt-Isserstedt achieves such an exalted sonority, it threatens to split at the seams of its own enthusiasm.
The (Nicaean) Credo opens with a five-part chorus in A set in the Mixolydian mode, a special affect of mesmerizing power. The Patrem omnipotentem in D proceeds in four parts, martial, the affect close to the Fourth Suite with piccolo trumpet. The Et in Unum Dominum in G with Guilleaume and Pitzinger stands out for its optimistic celebration of the spirit, the Hamburg strings particularly warm in their support. Et incarnates est in B Minor, Andante maestoso, marks an unequivocally mystical moment, a musical equivalent of a stretched wraithlike figure in El Greco. Agonized mourning informs the E Minor Crucifixus, a reworking of the choral opening of Cantata BWV 12, whose 3/2 time signature marches us to Calvary. The Et resurrexit rebounds in a strident D Major, the affect close to the Suite No. 3 and certainly the most “Handelian” portion of this venerable score. Together, the Et in spiritum (for bass) and the choral Confiteor occupy almost a third of the Credo, the A Major aria with a pious Greindl and obbligato oboe d’amore dipping into the relative F-sharp Minor in five-part harmony, a broad approach to Bach‘s Moderato marking from Schmidt-Isserstedt. The five-part Ed expecto in D Major ensues without pause, a rousing Vivace ed allegro in Roman colors, vivid and triumphant.
With the D Major Sanctus we enter the final ecstatic phase of the Mass; and this movement in six parts, though marked Largo, seems to tilt precariously drunken in its own fervor. The Osanna gives us a double chorus each in four parts in D Major, which some claim rewrites the opening of BWV 215, the tessitura extremely punishing to all principals, who must remain in the vocal stratosphere for extended periods. Even the NWDR trumpets reveal some strain in their otherwise brilliant fanfares. The B Minor Benedictus with tenor Walter Geisler substitutes a violin for the flute obbligato, creating a melancholy aura similar to the “Erbarme dich” of the St. Matthew Passion. After a verbatim repeat of the Osanna, we gravitate to G Minor for the alto’s incantation of the Agnus Dei and its plangent “Miserere nobis,” whose deep bass and organ continuo may remind auditors of the Albinioni Adagio. At last, the Dona nobis pace in D Major, in four-part chorus. The eternal battle has been won, and a vivid sense of erotic passion suffuses Schmidt-Isserstedt’s version, where so many contemporary conductors opt for an ascetic austerity.
In the mid 1950s the American Royale label pirated this performance and released it on LP with the usual pseudonyms and misrepresentations. Tahra restores Schmidt-Isserstedt’s vivid efforts in a medium that fully honors his and his principals’ heroic efforts.