The genesis and purpose of nearly all of Bach's prodigious output of vocal works is either known or can be reliably surmised – except for his very last and arguably greatest of all, which would come to be known as the Mass in B Minor (although, as Karl Geiringer observes, the title is a misnomer, as twice as many sections are in B Major than in b minor).
George Stauffer points out that, by whatever name, the B Minor Mass is not mentioned in any of Bach's letters nor in any other contemporaneous documents, and so our only direct evidence of its creation must lie in the autograph itself. In terms of its origins, the Mass can be viewed as having been crafted in two distinct halves.
The first two of its five major sections (the Kyrie and Gloria, known as the Missa) were dedicated in 1733 to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden in the apparent hope of obtaining either a court title or at least some commissions. Joshua Rifkin notes that after a dozen years of service Bach felt mistreated in his position at Leipzig and sought an official, if only honorary, title to strengthen his status. Thus, in sending this Missa to the Elector with a letter dated July 27, 1733, Bach asked that the Elector "take me into your most mighty protection" and wrote that, despite serving as music director of Leipzig's two primary churches, "I have been made to suffer one injury or another, and on occasion a diminution of the fees connected with this office – all of which, however, would cease if Your Royal Highness would give me his favor and confer upon me a title in his court chapel," and promised "unending devotion … and to devote all my powers to your service." John Butt points out that it was customary to submit a major sacred work in support of such a petition, that the traditional mass text would have had more immediate appeal than that of a newly-written and unfamiliar cantata, and that the overall style of the Missa was generally consistent with the expectations in Dresden, including such features as moving from a minor key to the relative major, setting the Christe as a duet for two sopranos, using a horn to accompany the Quoniam aria and basing the Domine Deus on a Lombard rhythm. Rifkin speculates that the solos may have been meant to display the talents of the Elector's chapel choir. In any event, Bach's efforts eventually were successful, as he ultimately was bestowed the title of Church Composer, but only after reminding the Elector three years later.
Scholars speculate as to just when the Missa was composed. Georg von Dadelsen contends that it had been written during the five-month official period of mourning for August the Strong, the prior Elector, during which all musical performances had been banned, thus affording Bach a respite from his official duties. Only some portions of the score were in Bach's handwriting, leading Rifkin to consider that others might have been copied by family members rather than by the usual professional copyists, which, in turn, suggests composition during a trip rather than at home. Nikolaus Harnoncourt contends that the Credo had been written for the rededication of St. Thomas School on June 5, 1732 and that the entire Missa was performed at an April 21, 1733 oath of fealty for the new Elector. (Bach also wrote four other full-fledged Masses during this period, which contained far briefer Kyries and Glorias, but scholars are uncertain as to their intended purposes or when, or even whether, they were ever performed.)
The origins of the rest of the B Minor Mass are even less certain.
So what was Bach's purpose in creating the B Minor Mass? Butt contends that it had no discernable practical purpose, as its sheer scale precluded use as a whole in any liturgy. An equally serious consideration is that its text is not suited for use by either Roman Catholics or Lutherans. Charles Sanford Terry notes that while it contains all the sections of the Catholic mass (and, indeed, it was listed in Bach's estate catalog as "die Grosse catholische Messe"), textual variations violate the inflexible strictures required for ritual purposes; on the other hand, Lutherans use only portions (the Kyrie, Gloria and occasionally the Sanctus) of the full Catholic mass in their services. Moreover, while Terry observes that some sections (especially the Credo and Confiteor) "exhale a Roman atmosphere," C. Hubert H. Parry notes that others evoke a far different spirit from Catholic composers, being conceived in the subjective, intimate mood of Bach's cantatas (from which, after all, many of its movements were derived), taking the words to heart and with a depth of earnestness that was essentially Teutonic. Further evidence of Bach's subjective approach lies in his use of musical symbolism to underline the text, ranging from the standard and conspicuous (chromaticism to underline lamentation; falling seconds to suggest sighing; a descending arpeggio to accompany the text of "descendit de coelis" ("came down from heaven") in the Et in unum movement) to far more subtle (a canon, also in the Et in unum Dominum, to signify the mystic unity of Father and Son), and even to the speculative yet fascinating (Albert Schweitzer's attributing the six vocal parts of the Sanctus to evoke six-winged seraphim). Indeed, Butt finds symbolism in the seven movements that comprise the overall arch structure of the entire Credo section. It begins and ends with paired choruses (the first movement in a sober antique style and the last in a festive modern style, both representing aspects of the Father), surrounding tender arias (movements 2 and 6) presenting the other members of the Trinity, and surmounted by central choruses (movements 3 and 5) depicting Christ's time on earth, with the Crucifixus (movement 4) at the very center, so as to represent the cornerstone of Christian faith.
Many commentators attempt to reconcile the seeming conflict between Catholic and Lutheran liturgies by viewing the B Minor Mass as Bach's sincere ecumenical attempt to unite the two primary religious traditions of his era. In a sense, this was a matter of political expediency, as the Saxon court had become Catholic only in 1697 and many of its officials were Lutheran. Similarly Bach himself harbored diverse leanings; as Parry notes, while his allegiance may have been to the Catholic ruler of Saxony, he had been educated by Protestants, lived in a Protestant town and made his living by writing and organizing performances of Protestant music. Yet, Bach's aim may have been more elevated. As Butt points out, Martin Luther never set out to replace the Latin mass but rather to alter and adapt it where needed for understanding. In that regard, the B Minor Mass was consistent with Luther's underlying theology, since, as Philipp Spitta put it, Luther was not a foe of Catholicism but a development grown from the same soil. In that light, perhaps recognizing the unique ability of music to transcend the literalism of words, Bach may have devoted his ultimate religious work to an attempt to universalize Christian worship – in Terry's phrase, into an expression of Christian idealism – neither Catholic nor Protestant, yet both and therefore greater than either alone. That, in turn, was seen by Butt as the culmination of Bach's deeply-held belief that music was God-given and that its highest possible purpose was to serve as a vehicle for social harmony. Alan Jefferson terms it "Bach's personal declaration of Faith."
To that end, Christoph Wolff credits Bach as having a breadth that embraces a comprehensive grasp of musical history, ranging from ancient to new styles. Butt asserts that it was fully appropriate for Bach to pour into his Mass an exhaustive summation of his vast musical skills and of all the styles, idioms and devices available in his age. Indeed scholars often marvel at the range of material Bach incorporated into the Mass. On one extreme, Geiringer cites Bach's use of Gregorian chant as the subjects of the grandiose fugues that open and conclude the Credo. At the other, Butt traces the influence of dance in the regularity, recurrence, symmetry, periodic phrasing and metric organization that permeates several sections.
Malcolm Boyd goes even further, crediting Bach's B Minor Mass as probably the first setting of the Ordinary conceived without regard to liturgical use, and thus raising fundamental questions about the possibility of religious practice apart from formal ritual or established institutions. In that regard, perhaps the venerable master's final completed masterpiece can be seen as a bold leap to a wholly modern – and, indeed, subversive – approach to religion as a private relationship between an individual and divinity, and its implication that faith and piety can exist, and perhaps might even thrive, apart from the demands of the Church (or any other form of organized religious practice).
The Mass can also be hailed as the supreme example of the practice of parody. (Please note that in this context the term refers merely to borrowing, rather than in the modern connotation of caricature.) Scholars agree that at most one or two sections were freshly composed, with all the rest adapted from earlier cantata movements.
As evidence of this method, Rifkin notes that the autograph contains fewer corrections and displays the more handsome calligraphy of Bach's "copying hand" than the scores he composed from scratch. Yet, Geiringer insists that the adaptations were not mechanically copied, but rather enriched the originals, to which Dadelsen adds that the adaptations saved no time, as they took longer to write than wholly new compositions (at least for a genius like Bach from whose pen music flowed readily). Butt notes that, rather than expanding the originals as he did in nearly all other instances of adaptation, here Bach tended to abridge them, often by excising entire repeated ritornello or da capo sections of cantata movements.
Most commentators hold Bach's parody approach in high regard. Butt notes that the parody technique had been a staple of Renaissance music, and so Bach's use of his own work showed respect for tradition, as well as for the purity and durability of the old style, rather than signaling a decline in inventiveness.
Malcolm Boyd concludes: "No other work more convincingly demonstrates that at the highest level Bach's process of parody, adaptation and compilation must be accepted as a creative act almost on a par with what we normally think of as 'original composition'." I would go further and consider the Mass to be "Bach's Greatest Hits" (at least among his vocal compositions), as every movement boasts exceptional melodies that rank among Bach's most memorable, arrayed amid a wide variety of textures and settings, and thus provides a convenient condensation of his art into a single composition, without the recitatives and narrative filler that pad out his cantatas and even the work that is often cited as his crowning achievement – the even more massive St. Matthew Passion. As just a single example, consider the themes of the Kyrie movements – complex yet haunting, and endlessly fascinating in their evolutionary repetitions (as, indeed, a good fugue theme should be), offsetting the simpler, gentle theme of the Christe. (The nature and sources of each movement are traced in the notes that accompany nearly every recording of the B Minor Mass, and so, in lieu of citing numerous examples, I gladly defer to them for a detailed structural analysis of the individual components, should that be of interest.)
The liturgical problems and the doubts surrounding its origins have led many scholars to question whether the B Minor Mass was ever intended for performance. Philip Miller notes that the pristine condition of the portion sent to the Elector suggests that it was never used, and Rifkin notes that the second half of the autograph has errors that Bach would have corrected in preparing performing parts. Yet Spitta contends that Bach was such a practical musician that he "never wrote anything – and least of all such a mighty work as this – simply to have it unheard." Noting that such elaborate music was often performed during great festivals, he speculates that at least portions must have been performed, possibly the Gloria and Sanctus that were appropriate for a Christmas service. In that regard, Terry notes that the scoring was for Bach's augmented festival orchestration – three high trumpets, tympani and pairs of flutes, oboes and bassoons. Frederick Smend supports the notion of separate performances of the four major sections, contending that they are independent and comprise a complete mass only by chance, and so the assumption of a complete performance "is perhaps one of the most notable examples of erroneous tradition versus artistic judgment." Robert Shaw sidesteps the issue, stating that no matter when the fragments may have been composed, they comprise a textual and musical unity reflecting Bach's unwavering religious conviction and his staggering musical craftsmanship.
In any event, Butt notes with considerable irony that the B Minor Mass, which brims with Bach's deepest spiritual convictions, began to attain popularity only after religious works became fashionable in secular concert settings. The first publication was by Hans Georg Naëgli, who had purchased the autograph at auction. The Missa portion appeared in 1833, and the rest in 1845, followed by an "official" edition in 1856 by the newly-formed Bach Gesellschaft. The first documented performance of any portion of the B Minor Mass was by the composer's son C.P.E. Bach, who performed the Credo alone (but with his own introduction and elaborations) toward the end of his own life in 1786. The first complete rendition, albeit of separate sections spread out over several years, is thought to have begun in 1811 by the Berlin Singakademie. The first integral performance only arose in 1859 in Leipzig by a chorus of over 100, adapted to the taste of the time, complete with dramatic dynamics and legato slurs. In fairness, Rifkin notes that C.P.E. Bach had added many emendations to the original score, the authenticity of which have posed a challenge to later historians. America had to await the 20th century - the first US performance was in 1900 by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Despite scholarly misgiving over its integral nature, modern performances and recordings all present the entire work. As with most music of this vintage, the recordings of the Mass in b minor invoke the fundamental issues of appropriate performing forces and interpretive approaches and trace the evolution of attempts to follow "authentic" performance practices.
An immediate question is of Bach's intentions – as one who constantly chafed against the restricted resources he was provided, would he have approved the added power and impact of augmented modern instruments, orchestras and choruses, or did he conceive the work knowing that any performance would reflect the limitations of his time? Indeed, Bach's own ideal, and therefore his expectations, can be gleaned from a 1730 letter he had written to the Leipzig Town Council in which he proposed a "Short But Most Necessary Draft for a Well-Appointed Church Music," comprising 4-6 violins, 4 violas, 2 celli, one bass, 2-3 oboes, 2 flutes, 1-2 bassoons, 3 trumpets, one kettledrum and a chorus of 3-4 each of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses. Indeed, those are the precise forces for which he scored the B Minor Mass. Even so, the earliest recordings were imbued with the bloated ideals of the 19th century in which the artists had been trained. Harnoncourt quips that this approach was "Bach clothed in Beethoven."
While there may have been earlier acoustical records of isolated, and possibly abridged, arias or choruses, the first substantial set of excerpts was the eight sides cut in 1926 for HMV by the Royal Choral Society and Royal Albert Hall Orchestra under the direction of Dr. Edward Cuthbert Bairstow, a distinguished minister, organist and professor. As Teri Noel Towe aptly describes it, "a massive choir … sings with gusto and with surprising subtlety in the handful of choruses that were rather inexpertly recorded by a pioneer mobile recording team. … [T]hese eight sides give the curious listener a fascinating glimpse into Bach as his music was understood in England before the Second World War and before the revival of interest in the 'correct' performance of early music took hold." Indeed, heard today (on an Amphion CD), the performance is strikingly modern – spirited with strong dynamics and careful balances. (Towe cites as of greater importance "a recording of the 'Cum sancto spiritu' by the Berlin Philharmonischer Chor under the direction of its founder, Siegfried Ochs (1858-1929), a celebrated choral conductor who stood in a direct line of pedagogical descent from Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy [who had revived interest in Bach's choral works through a hugely influential 1829 Berlin performance of the St. Matthew Passion]. His fleet, broadly phrased, urgent, and dramatic account of the final chorus of the 'Gloria' provides an important, invaluable, and tantalizing hint of what the true Mendelssohnian Bach style must have been like.")
Please note that the following survey purports to be neither comprehensive nor a recommendation of "best" or even favorite recordings, but rather includes those that strike me as the most historically significant and that serve to trace the fascinating evolution of prevalent notions of stylistic authenticity. The recordings are listed in the following format: Conductor; soloists; chorus, orchestra (year, labels of original issue and current CD availability; overall timing).
Albert Coates; Elizabeth Schumann, Margaret Balfour, Walter Widdop, Friedrich Schorr; Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Orchestra (1929, HMV 78s, Pearl CDs; 126' [123' + an extra 3' for the omitted repeat of the Osanna])
Even if it had no other merit, the sheer daring of this bold British venture would assure it an honored place in the history of the phonograph – a full recording of a two-hour, barely-known work of highly select appeal. The annotator of the original album (identified only as "H.W.L." but presumably a young Walter Legge) spared no feeling, calling it simply "the greatest choral work ever written" – high praise indeed in a country that so highly reveres that genre (but perhaps only parroting an advance HMV publicity blast that had proclaimed: "This set of records is in many ways the greatest achievement in the history of the gramophone."). Ecstatically greeting it in the December 1929 Gramophone magazine, C. M. Crabtree agreed: "For many people the recording of Bach's B minor Mass complete will be the greatest thing that has happened since the first gramophone record was made. … There is, indeed, no greater undertaking … ." Yet, he reserved most of his praise for the marvels of the work itself and, noting that "it makes supreme demands in every branch," went on to fault the recording as falling short of broadcast quality, citing in particular some crudity in the alto and tenor solos, lack of choral definition and skewed balances of overly dominant strings but suppressed solo instruments. Clearly, Schumann was the star of this show (and indeed its Pearl CD incarnation is entitled "Elisabeth Schumann – the Complete Bach Recordings," even though she appears in only three of the 24 movements). Although she was known at the time as an intimate, direct, radiant and charming lieder singer, that description fits the gentle, smooth, patient choral work more than the soloists' contributions, which tend more toward more showy operatic displays. Thus, the opening Kyrie evolves patiently, inexorably and reverently, while the Christe duet, despite a lovely initial blending of the two female voices, devolves into a duel for attention, complete with mammoth retards to mark the end of each section. Yet there are plenty of fine touches throughout – the second choral Kyrie is enlivened by subtle shaping of each phrase, instrumental solos – especially the winds – are rendered lovingly and (notwithstanding the Gramophone comment) are nicely spotlighted, Schorr exudes a moving humility in his Quoniam tu solus sanctus solo (although, curiously, not in his other aria, Et in Spiritum Sanctus, recorded the same day), and the reduced orchestra avoids a sense of massive stasis and provides steadfast, if not overly sensitive, support. Heard in the context of all the recordings that followed, it emerges nowadays as largely a dutiful and functional rendition, lacking the zesty ardent spontaneity that Coates routinely brought to his brilliant series of recordings of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakoff and other late Romantic repertoire. (Aside from a few Bach and Handel snippets (mostly in Romanticized arrangements) and a vertiginous Mozart Jupiter, he recorded nothing else written prior to Beethoven.) While the sonics are quite good for its age, details of the instrumental and choral ensembles (especially the strings) are often blurred and some of the ensemble is casual. Even so, recorded in 7 sessions over 10 weeks in London to accommodate the soloists' schedules, it's surprisingly fine and needs no apologies for its sincere, if "old-fashioned," respectful approach.
Robert Shaw; Anne McKnight, June Gardner, Lydia Summers, Lucius Metz, Paul Matthen; RCA Victor Chorale and Orchestra (1947, RCA Victor LPs, 122’ [119’ + an extra 3’ for the omitted repeat of the Osanna])
Robert Shaw; Saramae Endich, Adele Addison, Florence Kopleff, Mallory Walker, Ara Berberian; Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra (1960, RCA LPs and CDs, 133’)
Whether out of tribute to the lasting quality of the Coates set or fear of commercial risk, no further recording of the B Minor Mass appeared for nearly two more decades. As might be expected from America’s most highly acclaimed choral director, the focus is on the singing, and, as might be expected from a colleague of Toscanini, the performance is direct and honest. Although the reduced instrumental ensemble (presumably a pick-up group) tends to be submerged beneath the full chorus, the solo singers and instruments are carefully balanced, with sonorities light and precise, tempos are sensible and comfortable (after a swift opening Kyrie) and the performers sound tight and precise. Soloists – both vocal and instrumental – are uniformly excellent. The duets are especially well-matched, as are the solo voices and accompaniment in the arias which, as Canby has observed, are essentially duets between a voice and a single instrument. The overall effect evokes an idealized performance that Bach himself might have recognized but without any self-conscious attempt to invoke period mannerisms. All the components fit well – yet perhaps a bit too well, without the textural diversity or emotional peaks needed to sustain attention over the course of two largely undifferentiated, moderated hours.
In June 1960 Shaw rerecorded the B Minor Mass, having thoroughly rehearsed the work through a six-week tour of one-night stands (36 concerts in 36 cities), this time with his famed Robert Shaw Chorale, which he had founded in 1948, rather than a specially-assembled studio group. Basing his performances on a newly-edited 1954 edition, he asserted in accompanying notes that “Bach was used to an equal numerical and auditory balance between singers and instrumentalists,” and thus scaled the size of the chorus “where a choral sound might obscure an instrumental detail” and assigned soloists in lieu of the chorus to sections of choral movements in which instruments do not double the voices. Although he further emphasized that “Bach’s light, airy and intricate texture is overwhelmed by great and glutinous sound” and sought to emulate Bach’s own resources, he recognized that the practicality of presentation in auditoriums seating up to ten thousand required a compromise with somewhat expanded forces (abetted by the power of modern instruments). Among the slowest on record, and thus patently at odds with more recent notions of brisk Baroque pacing (as well as Shaw's own earlier version), the patient unfolding of carefully layered lines, exquisite control and tender phrasing fend off any sense of tedium and instead create an aura of eternal mystery and conviction that assures a treasured place among traditional performances.
Hermann Scherchen; Emmy Loose, Hilde Ceska, Gertrud Burgstahler-Schuster, Anton Dermota, Alfred Poell; Vienna Akademie Kammerchor, Vienna Symphony Orchestra (1950, Westminster LP set; 125')
In a January 1951 review in the Saturday Review of Literature, Irving Kolodin hailed this release as one of "imagination, integration and subtlety" and "a musical phenomenon rather than a liturgical exercise." He acclaimed the solo work as "intrinsic rather than exhibitionist" and the overall result as "a glorification of Bach's musical inventiveness and the scope and variety of his ideas rather than an affirmation of liturgical devotion or solo skill." Overall, he considered the new recording as "about midway between the ceremonial grandeur of the old Coates effort on HMV, with its overwhelming means, and the ascetic rigors of the Robert Shaw on RCA, with its rather paltry ones." Amen (so to speak)! Although often cited as quirky or worse (a 1955 British Record Guide slams it as "a woeful disappointment," "capriciously conceived" and "simply unmusical"), Scherchen's highly individual account is a remarkably fresh approach that eschews ostentation and constantly resonates with sincere artistry that compels appreciation for the magnitude of Bach's achievement. Although the overall timing is nearly identical to Coates's, individual movement tempos tend toward extremes. Thus, the opening Kyrie runs a full 15 ½ minutes (compared to a "standard" 11 or so), followed by a fleet 5-minute Christe (versus 6) and then a slow second Kyrie (4:45 versus 4). The juxtaposition of adjacent movements of deeply-felt meditation followed by brash outbursts of vivacious zeal adds a sense of urgent discovery and spontaneous invention. Even within movements, the Confiteor galvanizes with a startling contrast between effervescent outer sections and a deeply contemplative inner one. Yet, more subtle transitions are often effective as well – the fleet Domine slows to a crawl, thus preparing the slow, mystical opening of the Qui tollis that follows. It's a shame that Scherchen's weightier 135-minute 1959 stereo Westminster remake is the B Minor Mass he's remembered by, as it lacks the elemental zing of the earlier set. While the slow sections are just as evocative (and, of course, better recorded), the faster portions are brought back to earth with more conventional tempos and lack the startling sense of heady flight and the musicians' sheer exuberance and tangible enthusiasm that animate the mono version.
George Enescu; Suzanne Danco, Kathleen Ferrier, Peter Pears, Bruce Boyce, Norman Walker; BBC Chorus; Boyd Neel Orchestra (1951, BBC Legends CDs; 133')
Recorded in a single day (July 19, 1951), presumably from a broadcast (no audience is evident), this performance was issued only in 1998 on the BBC Legends CD series to great acclaim, especially for Enescu and Ferrier, both at the close of their careers (his full and rich, hers cruelly truncated). Perhaps best remembered nowadays for his two Romanian Rhapsodies, Enescu (1881 - 1955) was a multi-talented teacher, composer, violinist and conductor, a prodigy who impressed Pablo Casals as "the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart." His star pupil Yehudi Menuhin, in liner notes, recounts him as a humble, deeply cultured human being. Of his beloved Bach, he left us empathetic accompaniments to Menuhin's 1930s recordings of the Violin Concertos, probing renditions of the violin Sonatas and Partitas, and this deeply spiritual Mass in B Minor. Generally steadfast, Enescu relaxes the tempos at the end of each major section and adds a unique personal touch by softening and trailing off the massive final chord. Ferrier (1912 - 1953) lavishes her celebrated natural warmth on her five solo sections, highlighted by an especially heartfelt "Agnus dei." Indeed all the soloists are splendid. The Boyd Neel Orchestra, founded by its namesake surgeon in 1933 as one of the earliest permanent chamber groups, provides eloquent, light textures (with imposing tympani) that must have seemed refreshingly pure at the time. The primary snags are rather blurry sound for the era and some painful horn playing to launch the "Quoniam."
Karl Richter; Maria Stader, Hertha Töpper, Ernst Haefliger, Kieth Engen, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Münchener Bach-Chor, Münchener Bach-Orchester (1961, DG Arkiv LP and CD sets: 122')
While the sincerity and commitment of the leaders of earlier versions cannot be discounted, Richter had extraordinary credentials as a Bach specialist – son of a minister, organist at the same Thomaskirche in Leipzig where Bach himself had presided during his final 27 years (including the period of composing the Mass) and where he is buried, and founder of the famed Munich Bach Choir, heard here in all its radiant splendor. Although the choir is large and the instruments modern, this recording paved the way toward more recent scholarly versions with crisp articulation, precise balances and lucid sound. Tempos are comfortable and dynamics moderate, yet there's plenty of feeling – without resort to overtly dramatic touches the Confiteor barely rises above a whisper, the Agnus Dei is profoundly moving, and the final Dona nobis pacem builds progressively to a potent finish. Not surprisingly, given Richter's acclaimed organ recordings, the tonal color is often enriched with prominent bass from the organ. Throughout, the sheer beauty of the music constantly emerges from within, projecting a compelling aura of natural humility and heartfelt devotion.
Nikolaus Harnoncourt; Rotraud Hansmann, Emiko Iiyama, Helen Watts, Kurt Equiluz, Max van Egmond; Wiener Sängerknaben, Chorus Viennensis, Concentus Musicus Wien (1968, Telefunken / Das Alte Werk; 107')
To simply note this to be the first recording of the Mass with original instruments would vastly understate both the magnitude of its approach and its profound influence on all that would follow. For nearly two decades, Harnoncourt had immersed himself in the study of period instruments and performance, played on numerous LPs and with his wife Alice had founded the Concentus Musicus Wein to spread their goal of realizing and proselytizing for period practice. They had already released revelatory original instrument versions of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, Orchestral Suites and Violin Concertos (the last with a reduced "orchestra" of seven strings and harpsichord continuo) and would soon launch their most ambitious venture (shared with the King's College Choir and like-minded Leonhardt Consort), a project of staggering scope and historical importance – recording all 200+ Bach cantatas (and including the complete scores in each album). The B Minor Mass included Harnoncourt's own lengthy, scholarly notes in which he both explained and defended his approach. He began by asserting that traditions of interpretation are valid only for works performed in unbroken sequence since their composition, whereas for Bach, whose works lay unperformed for a century and thus were removed from the composer's intentions, our notions of authenticity (and thus our accustomed listening experiences) reflect the prevalent style of when they were discovered rather than when they had been composed. Rejecting the intervening 19th century notions of interpretation, he insisted that artistic intuition had to arise from study of the original materials and thus be informed by deep knowledge of the traditions of Bach's time. In that light, the score itself (even when shorn of later annotations) is only a bare outline, as it omits performance conventions that were universally understood at the time, and thus obviated the need to write out all the details of execution. As an example, Harnoncourt notes that dynamic markings signaled shifts in the texture and numbers of performers, such as between a choral quartet and a full choir, rather than actual volume as such notation is now understood. Consequently, throughout this recording, following the purely intuitive practice of Shaw, Harnoncourt shifts among three divisions of his choir (varying between large (20 sopranos, 10 altos, 6 tenors and 8 basses); medium (11, 5, 4, 4) and small (7, 3, 3, 3)) and orchestra (diverse combinations ranging between 6 and 13 strings).
Joshua Rifkin; Judith Nelson, Julianne Baird, Jeffrey Dooley, Frank Hoffmeister, Jan Opalach; The Bach Ensemble (1982, Nonesuch LPs and CDs; 106')
Many other historically-informed recordings followed in the wake of Harnoncourt's set. It was hard to imagine a more radical recasting of the B Minor Mass – until this version, which dispensed with a choir altogether, assigned one singer to each choral part, and pared the instrumental ensemble to 4 violins, one viola, one cello, one violone (an early string bass) plus the usual winds specified in Bach's score (2 flutes, 3 oboes and 2 bassoons), brass (3 trumpets, one horn) and timpani (one), all actually made in the 18th century or modern copies using Baroque models. Rifkin, too, included extensive notes to justify his choices. (Although perhaps more widely known for his tasteful pop arrangements for Judy Collins, his witty Baroque Beatles Book album and his acclaimed series of Scott Joplin piano pieces, Rifkin was a formidable scholar.) Rifkin's reasoning is that distinctions between chorus and solo singing arose only after Bach's time, when a chorus comprised however many singers (known as "concertists") were required to assign one voice to each line. These concertists could be doubled by additional singers ("ripienists") for fully-scored passages to amplify the vocal texture, but the ripienists were purely optional, dependent upon available resources. (Thus, Rifkin adds a second alto for the Sanctus, and expands to a total of eight singers for the double "choir" needed for the Osanna and to conclude the work with a climactic Dona nobis pacem.) In that light, Rifkin notes that the separate performing parts Bach prepared for the Missa (but which may never have been used) comprised one each for Soprano 1, Soprano 2, Alto, Tenor and Bass, rather than multiple copies that ripienists would have required. He further notes that Bach's Leipzig choir employed only eight vocalists, of whom three were routinely detailed to play instruments and others were often absent due to illness. Records further show that the electoral chapel included only a single tenor. Moreover, all the cantata sources for the Mass movements were for solo voices. (Of course, all this assumes that Bach intended the Mass for actual performance which, we have already suggested, might not be true, as he may have written the work for idealized forces only in his imagination.) Rifkin's other choices include opting for boy sopranos and a male falsetto for the alto, following the practice of the Leipzig churches at the time (although he concedes that the electoral chapel may have used women). While he believes that the Missa portion intended one instrument per string part (evidenced by separate (and slightly dissimilar) copies for two first violins and only a single copy for the other parts), he notes that Bach had four violinists in Leipzig and thus doubles both violin parts throughout. Pitch is also set to match Leipzig organs at the time (with a' = 415 Hz, rather than the modern escalation to 440 or more). As for articulation, Rifkin notes that discrepancies among the Missa parts suggest an improvisatory attitude that tolerated, if not encouraged, a certain degree of imprecision; as a consequence his instrumental playing averts the sharp accentuation that we tend to associate with historically-informed performance in favor of a smoother, velvety sonority. The result of all this, even to those willing to credit Rifkin's reasoning, can be disconcerting to ears attuned to either the "big band" or Harnoncourt approaches, gaining in overall intimacy yet foregoing the accustomed contrast between massed and solo sections for a uniformly light texture, abetted by consistently mellow playing. Personal preferences aside, it's a fascinating alternative to standard versions, draws you in to infer the missing power and focuses attention to previously overlooked details – and after all, lacking any definitive proof, who's to say what Bach intended?
John Eliot Gardiner; Monteverdi Choir, English Bach Soloists (1985, Archiv CD set, 106’)
Gardiner’s celebrated set can be viewed as a reconciliation of the Harnoncourt and Rifkin approaches. Matching their timings, period instruments, enthusiastic articulation, clipped notes, minimal vibrato and light interwoven sonic planes, Gardiner steers a middle course between their stances on the proper numbers of choral singers. In his accompanying notes, Wolff disputes Rifkin’s unvarying use of solos throughout, noting that the Dresden parts of the Missa that Bach prepared had “solo” written on top of only certain movements, which he considers a deliberate distinction from the others, in which larger forces must have been intended. Even beyond these markings, he infers that Bach may have used soloists in the movements having no obbligato instrumental accompaniment. Accordingly, Gardiner not only assigns some entire choral movements to soloists but achieves textural variety within movements by varying his forces. Thus, after its initial chords and orchestral fugal introduction the opening Kyrie begins with a vocal quartet and evolves into a full chorus, adding cumulative weight in this way rather than through an escalation of volume alone, as is routinely done. He achieves further variety by using both female mezzos and male altos, rotates the solo turns among various members of his choir, and fortifies the more thickly-orchestrated concluding sections (Sanctus, Osanna and Dona nobis pacem) with additional voices, strings, oboes and flutes. Overall, Gardiner melds historical credibility and tradition with creativity to help bridge the gap between the older, romanticized approach and a radical application of period practices that threatens to alienate those who should embrace this wondrous work, and thus paved the way to many excellent recordings that continue to proclaim Bach’s eternal relevance, even in our modern times.
While I consider the above recordings of the Mass in B Minor to have the greatest claim to historical significance, there are dozens of others, many of which have been widely acclaimed. Among the ones I have enjoyed through the years are:
I am indebted to the following writers for the information and attributed opinions in this article:
Copyright 2012 by Peter Gutmann
For a note about the illustrations, please click here.
copyright © 1998–2012 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.