J.S. Bach: Mass in B minor/Brüggen

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

For some performers these days, rendering of Bach’s choral works comes down to a numbers game: from the most basic cantata to the most elaborate passion setting–or the B minor Mass–they claim Bach intended his choral works to be sung by only one voice to a part. Period. And because with modern performers of the highest professional caliber and recording techniques that easily present performances by singers and orchestra in ideal balance and optimal acoustic perspective they are able to demonstrate the feasibility of their theory, they hopefully declare their case closed. And while this theory–most diligently researched and avidly advocated by Joshua Rifkin–is certainly worthy and deserving of respectful attention, all you have to do is listen to a performance such as this superb one from Frans Brüggen and his Cappella Amsterdam and Orchestra of the 18th Century and you must conclude that, no, Bach may have had to accept minimal forces for his big choral works, but his conception clearly was on a grander scale–and anyone who understands the mentality of composers in the face of often unfair and unreasonable real-world constraints, both economic and artistic, knows that they never let the purely practical or necessary get in the way of the ideal (think Beethoven’s piano sonatas, for example).

Brüggen is a long-time master of Baroque performance, and here he shows that mastery at every level, from the perfectly judged tempos to the dynamic choral movements, sensitively shaped arias, rich textural detail, and overall sense of balance between orchestra and chorus, chorus and solo or duetto movements, and orchestra with whatever configuration of vocal forces. The result is a grandly-scaled performance that feels neither long nor labored–and the contributions by all concerned–soloists, choir, and orchestra–are first-rate. Large works such as this, containing so many variables, usually have one or more weak links–an inadequate soloist or two, undernourished orchestral playing, disappointing sound–but no apologies are necessary here. This recording, from a concert performance in Warsaw, Poland in 2009, easily tops my list and reassures me that not only do I not have to accept a flawed performance of this masterpiece (check out the other reviews in our archive), but I–and we–can happily reject any notion of bare-bones Bach in favor of a conception that fully realizes the spiritual power and interpretive possibilities inherent in this much-discussed and debated score. Excellent notes explaining the history of the work and the origin of this recording enhance this outstanding release. [6/4/2010]

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Recording Details:

J.S. BACH - Mass in B minor BWV 232

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