Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Consummate performance of the Bach B minor Mass

This is extraordinary in many respects.  On 30 August 2012, in the Jacobikerk, Utrecht, the Dutch Capella Amsterdam, accompanied by the Belgian period instrument ensemble Il Gardellino, performed Bach's chef d'oeuvre, the Messe in h-moll. The director was Daniel Reuss. This performance confirms that in Reuss we have a new Bach master conductor. 

Of the many excellent performances that I have listened to, either on disc or live, I would say this is the best, and I do not use the superlative lightly.  Now, opining on performances of the Mass in B minor is a bit like expressing an opinion of Handel's Messiah. It is such an oft-performed and recorded work, with a wide scope for interpretive decision:  Period instruments or modern?  Large choir or small, or even one or two voices per part?  Counter-tenors or mezzos, boy trebles or female sopranos?  No one person will agree with the next over which is the 'proper' interpretation of the score, or which is the best performance technique, let alone which is the best performance. Endless comparisons invariably ensue.  

The above comments notwithstanding, here is why I love this performance, and consider it to be "one for the ages".   

There is a liveliness in this performance that is neither contrived nor overwhelming.  The conductor gives primacy to the score, the occasional ornamentation being natural and, importantly, subtle, complementing rather than competing with the work's innate spirituality, energy and beauty. The tempi are very well chosen.

As for the recording quality, the Dutch radio station Radio 4 and the Algemene Vereniging Radio Omroep have utterly excelled themselves, capturing the sound of the choir, soloists and ensemble with a clarity to rival (and in many respects better) studio recordings, but there is also a warmth and spontaneity that one would expect in a live recording. A lot of this is also down to the expert balance that the conductor achieves between choir and orchestra.  (A good word must also be said about the audience - very few coughs!!)

Indeed, this performance quite easily competes with (and arguably betters) the so-called 'reference recordings' of the B minor Mass: 
  • Collegium Vocale Gent (Ghent), Herreweghe (period instruments) (the 1998 Harmonia Mundi version)
  • Taverner Consort, Parrott (period instruments, two voices per part) (Virgin Classics)
  • Gächinger Kantorei & Bach Collegium Stuttgart, Rilling (modern instruments) (the 1999 version) (Hänssler)
  • Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner (period instruments) (Archiv Produktion)
  • Netherlands Chamber Choir & Orchestra of the 18th Century, Brüggen (period instruments, recording of live performance) (Philips, aptly) (the one from the early 1990s with the wonderful Michael Chance, although apparently Brüggen has recorded the work again, also with Orchestra of the 18th Century, and the Cappella Amsterdam as in the instant case, in a live performance from in Poland in 2009 - must investigate)
  • King's Consort, King (period instruments) (Hyperion Records)

If there is anything which I might have wished were done differently, it would be that for some of the alto parts they had used a counter tenor - for example, the Qui sedes solo, and the Et in unum duet with soprano.  A very minor point, hardly worth mentioning given the standard of the mezzos.  

Some highlights:
  • the natural horn and the bassoon in the Quoniam tu solus (the reason why only period instruments will do)
  • the passus et sepultus est of the Crucifixus is one of the most tenderly sung I've ever heard, and the Et resurrexit that follows is positively explosive
  • the oboes in the Et in Spiritum
  • the tenors singing the pleni sunt caeli of the Sanctus (which as a whole is surely one of the great choral fugues)
Even where there might be other recordings in which an individual movement might be regarded as 'superior', there is no doubt in my mind that the supreme quality of every singly movement of this performance makes its whole far far greater than the mere sum of its parts.

The penultimate word must go to the maestro.  I first came across Reuss when he conducted the RIAS Kammerchor and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin in a recording of Handel's Solomon, which I believe to be the first definitive recording of that work (and which I purchased, incidentally, at the wonderful Heffers in Cambridge - support classical music shops please, lest they disappear for good!).  Apart from obvious technical competence, he seems perfectly attuned to the spirit of the works he conducts, and he brings to bear a certain astuteness when interpreting a score that sets him apart as a master director.   

And finally, that all this has been provided in high definition by Dutch public broadcasting - free on Youtube - is perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all.  Thank you for letting this marvellous music, and extraordinarily good performance, be shared around the world.  I, for one, am very grateful indeed.