BACH, J.S.: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Missa in B Minor BWV 232
To all intents Bach's Mass in B minor could be described as the composer's re-workings of his choicest pages of choral music, assembled in the closing years of his life. The genesis of the work, however, stretched back over more than two decades. It has also been suggested by some commentators that the composer may have intended the resultant work more as a monument than for any particular performance. Scored for four soloists, a choir divided into two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass voices, strings and continuo with three trumpets, a solo cor a caccia, two recorders (flutes), two oboe d'amore and two bassoons, the work is cast by Bach into four parts - the Missa comprising the Kyrie and Gloria, the Symbolum Nicenum containing the whole of the Credo, the Sanctus, and a composite Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem. Bach invariably gives his instrumentalists solos in the arias. For example, the violin in the Laudamus te, a recorder (flute) in the Domine Deus and Benedictus, an oboe d'amore in the Qui sedes and Et in Spiritum, a horn in the Quoniam.
The original Missa section was initially completed and performed in July 1733 when Bach was attempting to curry favour with the new King of Saxony, whereas the remainder of the work was assembled during the years 1748-49, just before the composer's death in 1750. The revised Missa survives in the hand of his wife Anna Magdalena while the second to the fourth parts are in the composer's handwriting. Bach, however, never heard his completed work. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel did direct a performance of the Credo in Hamburg in 1784 but it was not until the following century that the work was heard in full. By then, however, the composer's style and age had moved on into a new and entirely different world of performance.
The history of Bach's Mass in B minor on record dates back to 1926 when a number of choruses were recorded live in London's Royal Albert Hall by the Royal Choral Society under Edward Bairstow. The choral singing, albeit with a large choir as was common at that time, is remarkably good, even if the recorded sound is dim, distant and murky. More interesting from around the same era was the single chorus Cum sancto Spiritu by the Berlin Philharmonic Choir under Siegfried Ochs on HMV's German Electrola label, affording us a glimpse of the German approach to Bach which goes back to the time when Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach's choral works in the nineteenth century. The work was first recorded complete, however, over the months of March to May 1929 under Albert Coates. This recording is most decidedly uneven, inflated, and contains some bizarre examples of bad balance between chorus and orchestra. The four soloists, however, three of whom appear in the appendix to the complete recording on this Naxos re-issue, are exemplary, the soprano Elisabeth Schumann displaying an engagingly radiant tone, contralto Margaret Balfour gravitas and solidity, and baritone Friedrich Schorr (the most distinguished Wotan of his time) memorable in the ease with which he manages the high Et in Spiritum sanctum. It was not until 1947 that the Mass was recorded complete again when the American conductor Robert Shaw and New York forces employed a much smaller number of performers. The singers are all perfectly capable and unexceptionable but it is the chorus and instrumentalist soloists who particularly impress. The final track here gives a memorable example of an outstanding English Bach singer of half a century ago: Kathleen Ferrier. She delivers a poignant and telling account of the Agnus Dei, recorded a year before her untimely death in 1953. Much less well known is the rare recording of the Benedictus by the French tenor Georges Thill, which illustrates the prevalent French approach to Bach seventy years ago.
It was the year 1950 which marked the two hundredth anniversary of the composer's birth that brought about the first emergence of a revision of the interpretation of Bach's music. Musicians began to rethink and re-examine scores in an attempt to come closer to the performing style of Bach's time. In the half century since then the whole approach has been turned on its head so that today we have soloists who understand fully the conventions of a truer Bach approach together with the use of small professional, highly flexible choirs and instrumentalists who play on instruments of the period or modern copies. Tempi are also much brisker and more rhythmic with these smaller forces.
The Austrian-born conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) first conducted Bach's Mass in B minor in 1936 whilst working in Aachen, where he was music director. It was this work with which he made his first appearance outside Germany, directing a performance in Brussels later in the same month. Four years later it served as his introduction to Paris with two performances in December 1940. His next encounter with the Mass was ten years later when he gave performances in Vienna, Milan, Venice and Perugia, the soprano soloist on every occasion being Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The choir Karajan used in these 1950 performances was the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien, who had appointed him their concert director for life in that year.
The idea of Karajan recording the Bach Mass grew out of these 1950 performances but his recording producer Walter Legge (1906-1979) had virtually ceased working in Vienna the previous year in order to use his own Philharmonia Orchestra in London for his orchestral recordings. Furthermore the rival Decca Record Company had begun working fairly extensively in Vienna from June 1950 onwards. The problem for Legge was which choir to use, a London one (possibly the BBC Chorus, Britain's only professional choir at the time) or Karajan's Viennese ensemble which the conductor was obviously keen to use. The decision was made that the Viennese one, accompanied by members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (anonymously), be used so twelve sessions where booked for rehearsal and recording between 26 October and 5 November 1952. The actual recordings were made on 2-5 and 7 November. The soloists were to be recorded in EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London later the same month using the reduced forces of Legge's own Philharmonia Orchestra with the section principals for instrumental solo parts. These included the flautist Gareth Morris, the two oboe d'amore players Sidney Sutcliffe and Peter Newburn, and the legendary horn player Dennis Brain. These sessions took place between 23 and 30 November. The contribution of the original baritone soloist, however, the Frenchman Camille Maurane, was deemed unsatisfactory, and the two bass-baritone arias were re-recorded with the Swiss baritone Heinz Rehfuss on 16 July 1953 and these were used in the published recording.
What is of interest in this 1952/3 recording is that a chamber organ was used for the continuo, lent by the actor Bernard Miles from his nearby St John's Wood home. At that time the No.1 Studio did have an organ installed but it was totally unsuited to the needs of the work in question. Three distinguished British organists were used during the London sessions, Geraint Jones and Thurston Dart in 1952 and George Malcolm for 1953.
Critical comment on this recording when it first appeared in 1954 was virtually unanimous. For example, The Record Guide (Coll