Notes and Editorial Reviews
Also available on Blu-ray
Johann Sebastian Bach
MASS IN B MINOR
Reglint Bühler, soprano
Susanne Krumbiegel, mezzo-soprano
Susanne Langner, alto
Martin Lattke, tenor
Markus Flaig, bass
Leipzig St. Thomas Choir (Thomanerchor Leipzig)
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra
Georg Christoph Biller, conductor
Recorded live at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, 23 June 2013
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM Stereo / Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)
Subtitles: Latin, English, Korean
Running time: 114 mins
of DVDs: 1 (DVD 9)
R E V I E W: 3760730.az_BACH_Mass_Georg_Christoph.html
BACH Mass in b • Georg Christoph Biller, cond; Reglint Bühler (sop); Susanne Krumbiegel (mez); Susanne Langner (alt); Martin Lattke (ten); Markus Flaig (bs); Thomanerchor Leipzig; Freiburg Baroque O • ACCENTUS 20281 (DVD: 114:07) Live: Leipzig 6/23/2013
Quite apart from the fact that it was probably never performed in Bach’s lifetime, it is hard for us in our day to see just how strange Bach’s Mass was in its own time. In is structured in four parts instead of the traditional five, it is highly demanding of both voices and instruments—itself not automatically a negative characteristic—and it is so massive as to be liturgically impractical. Strictly speaking, the “Mass” applies only to the Kyrie and the Gloria, required elements in any Lutheran main service, but also similarly used in some Roman Catholic services of the time. Though there are other, earlier large liturgical pieces—Monteverdi’s Vespers, for example—I cannot think of another concert Mass before it (but there likely is one somewhere). In hopes of getting a title, Bach sent the Missa, the first two sections, to the Roman Catholic Elector of Saxony on July 27, 1733, but its final, expanded, form comes from 1748–49. It was probably performed in Berlin in 1811 or 1812, but the first recorded performance was not before 1835, also in Berlin.
Little can be said of this piece that has not already been said hundreds of times. It is a monument that, like all great monuments, does not yield all its secrets at once. It is also one for which no recording, however sophisticated, can ever replace the experience of being there when it is sung, and I can further attest that nothing at all can surpass the experience of actually singing it. This said, it must also be noted that there is no lack of fine recordings: ArkivMusic currently lists 114, of which there seem to be about 8 DVD performances, with the present one also available in Blu-ray.
Georg Christoph Biller is in the no-longer curious position of competing with himself in the same place and in the same context, the Bach Festival in Leipzig, then in 2000 (DVD, Euroarts, rev. 30: 5), now in 2013. Though his sense of the timing of each section has not much changed over those years, there is a considerable difference in his overall approach.
First, while he is certainly up-to-date on all the current issues of historically-informed performance practice, he has properly felt free to adapt them to the forces at his command. Though the Thomanerchor as a whole counts just under 100 boys, aged 10 to 19, the choir on both recordings consists of something over 50. However fine the soloists are, this piece lives or dies by the quality of the choral singing. The Thomanerchor is not an amateur choir of cute children but, rather, a serious musical organization which makes a spectacular noise. Their sheer joy and complete technical proficiency leave no doubt that they know everything they need to know in order to project the ultimately exuberant spirit of this piece.
The first and most obvious difference between the two performances is the sound of the choir itself. Partly due to the bright recording and partly due to their articulation, the sound in 2000 was rather aggressive and deliberately heavily aspirated (E-le-he-he-he-he-he-he-he-i-son), which certainly makes each note in the run easier to sing but is choppy and not particularly graceful. The great pleasure of the new recording is that the choir has discovered that it can make a legato line that still articulates each note, and the result is a clarity of line that allows Biller to make each line go somewhere itself and not just be a sequence of notes. Then, too, here Biller uses a smaller group for certain quiet sections, such as Et incarnatus est/Crucifixus (And he was born/Crucified), in the Creed, for instance, to gain greater contrast with the following section, Et resurrexit (And he arose). In the Sanctus, he physically rearranges the choir, to set it up for the double-choir conclusion from the Osanna to the end.
The second difference is the orchestra. In 2000, Biller had the services of players from the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, whose modern instruments added brightness to the whole sound. In 2013, he used the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Now, in addition to playing at the lower, so-called “Baroque,” pitch of around A=415 instead of at modern pitch of around A=440, the fewer overtones and resultant milder quality of these older instruments actually support rather than overwhelm the choir and soloists. For their solos, the instrumentalists stand.
Third, the five vocal soloists in the later recording sing from amidst the choir rather than, as earlier, at the front of the church balcony on which everything is performed. While we certainly hear them clearly, they are, as a group, inherently less powerful and less characterful than the quartet used in 2000. This may partly be a recording strategy, but they are well balanced with respect to the orchestra.
The production work in this DVD is exemplary. The concentration is all on the performers: There are no side trips to interesting corners of the church and only occasionally to the audience. The only timing glitch is in that given for the Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace) at the very end: The music actually takes 3:02 and the rest of the 6:11 claimed is given over to applause and bows. It is a real mistake that none of the members of the orchestra nor the fine instrumental soloists is named anywhere in the material or on the DVD, and the web site of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is no help in trying to identify who they are. And who are the two boys also given a separate bow at the end?
The smiles on the faces of the boys afterwards tells us that they had a good time. I had a good time too, and wanted nothing so much as to get up there and sing with them. This is a fine performance: Bach is well-served by everyone, and it goes on my next Want List. Much recommended.
FANFARE: Alan Swanson Read less
Works on This Recording
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Markus Flaig (Bass),
Susanne Langner (Alto),
Susanne Krumbiegel (Alto),
Martin Lattke (Tenor),
Reglint Bühler (Soprano)
Georg Christoph Biller
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra,
Leipzig St. Thomas Church Choir
Written: 1747-49; Leipzig, Germany
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