Saturday, 16 May 2015

Bach Mass in B minor - a comparison of two live perfomances

This video of a recent performance (early April 2015) of the Bach Mass in B minor by the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner piqued my interest. It comes from Paris.

Having listened to it, though, I was underwhelmed and oddly unmoved by the experience (on the whole). I immediately re-watched this 2012 performance by Capella Amsterdam and Il Gardellino conducted by Daniel Reuss (the subject of an earlier blog post) to make sure I wasn't coming down with some sort of illness that was dulling my appreciation of Bach. Happily, no such ailment afflicts me. The 2012 performance, yet again, proved to be a compelling and joy-eliciting one. (I also listened to a few more Gardiner performances - happily, they continue to provide me with much pleasure).

For all its overt drama and bombast, the ultimate effect of the latest Gardiner performance is oddly unsatisfying. I like to use the analogy of "destructive interference" - where two waves interact to produce a wave with a smaller peak than the two individual waves had. That's what I felt was happening at key moments in the Gardiner video. By contrast, the Dutch performance's subtler, more refined approach translates into a more satisfying whole where the music is, to my ear, more naturally conveyed (and from start to finish, you get the feeling that everything is, in the moment, "right").

Some movements in the Gardiner performance are just mystifyingly fast - the Cum Sancto Spiritu for instance. I have collected or otherwise listened to many dozens of recordings of the B minor Mass over the years, and I do favour the brisker paces usually associated with "Historically Informed Performances", but I have never heard one attempting to complete that movement in 3:20 (3:50 is about standard for "HIP" recordings and is itself considered quite brisk). I am amazed that the musicians managed to keep that one on the rails (just). They consistently show great commitment and skill with respect to the desired interpretation (and are quite deserving of their excellent reputation). Another example is the Et expecto taken at breakneck speed, after a deliberately ponderous middle section of the Confiteor (some might say this was an abundant use of artistic licence, others contrived). I will confess to a moment of excitement just near the end of the Et expecto when Gardiner was going for the earth-shattering effect - almost a fitting way to end the Credo.

The one exception - and it's a major exception - in the Gardiner performance is the Sanctus which is an utterly superb reading of this movement (though I'm not sure the delay between the Sanctus and the first Hosanna so that the choir could "part" was entirely necessary). I am very glad of this - the Sanctus is one of my favourite parts of the B minor Mass, but it rarely gets such a fitting performance.

For me, then, Dutch performance is very close to a 10/10 (notwithstanding some minor infelicities, to be expected in a live performance), whereas the Gardiner is more of a 6-7/10. A shame, because other recent Gardiner performances of Bach have been exceptionally good, and with some minor amendments (mainly in the interpretation department) the Gardiner ensemble could certainly achieve that 10/10 performance. I will continue to return to the Reuss performance to hear the the entire work. To Gardiner's I will return only to dip into some of the more exciting parts from time to time.