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J. S. Bach.  Mass in B Minor
25 Sep 2006

BACH: Mass in B Minor

We are reasonably sensitive, I suspect, to the number of ways in which venue can shape the nature and success of musical performance.

J. S. Bach. Mass in B Minor

Roth Holton, soprano; Matthias Rexroth, alto; Christoph Genz, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass. Thomanerchor Leipzig; Gewandhausorchester Leipzig; Georg Christoph Biller, Director.

EuroArts Invitation 2050356 [DVD]

$17.99  Click to buy

Most obviously, favorable acoustics will invariably play a significant role. Less tangibly, but of equal significance, are ways in which the cultural associations of a site can heighten and enrich the meaning of a musical work. Concert performances of liturgical music performed in a church, for instance, can seem substantially different from that same music performed in a concert hall, even though in both instances the rendition may be offered with the same intent. Not unlike the way different frames can alter our view of a painting, the particularities of setting can become “contrapuntal” with the music, and our reception of a work can be powerfully shaped by that interaction. Moreover, the historicity of a venue can imbue a performance with a historic prestige all its own.

The pervasive availability of concert DVDs brings these matters into a new focus. We may view the concerts in our living rooms and dens or on our laptops in any number of locations, each of which distinctively creates a “frame,” but as we are viewing as well as listening to the concert, we have, in essence, a frame within a frame—the performers’ and our own.

The richness of all of this came immediately to mind with this present DVD recording of Bach’s B minor Mass. The performance was of a 2000 concert in Leipzig’s famed St. Thomas Church, sung by the St. Thomas Choir—the choir that Bach led for twenty-seven years—conducted by Thomaskantor, Georg Christoph Biller, the present successor to the post that Bach held from 1723 until his death in 1750. The camera is generous with excursions around the church, bringing the stained glass, the beautifully carved reredos, the vaulting, the organ case, and Bach’s memorial all into “counterpoint” with the Mass. In every way the performance of one of Bach’s most monumental works is here resonant with a setting that functions as a monument to Bach and his creedal and musical legacy. And because of this resonance, expectations naturally run high.

In this case, the expectations are amply met. Our modern concert life has tended to make Bach largely the province of early music specialists. Biller’s choir is not the historically fashionable ensemble of one-to-a-part and his orchestra is a modern instrument ensemble from the legendary Leipzig Gewandhaus, but the reading is one that is compellingly stylish and convincing by any standard. The reading may show a lessening of the gap between “period” and “modern” performance or perhaps it reveals an innate sense that in Leipzig, Bach is “theirs.” Regardless, it is Bach performance of a very high order. Fast movements are brisk and buoyant, undergirded by a strong feeling of dance; ornamental textures are elegant and gracious, rendered with an ease that marks them as truly ornamental, not belabored exercise; articulations and phrasing nicely follow the contours of text; and contrapuntal movements are both clear and dynamic.

Biller’s quartet of soloists come with strong early music credentials and take to their formidable tasks with great naturalness and understanding of idiom. The duets of Ruth Holton and Matthias Rexroth (“Christe eleison” and “Et in unum”) are among the best of the solo sections. Both command suavely focused sounds and elegant control, and Holton’s effortless high range is memorable long after the fact. Klaus Mertens’s bass arias are engaging in their phrasing and his tone is richly resonant, but in a way that keeps the sound enviably flexible. Tenor Christoph Genz, an alumnus of the Thomaschor, has an unforced high register that delights in the Benedictus, as he moves fluidly through large intervals and arpeggios. A quartet of distinction, indeed.

There are anachronisms here and there that seem either curious or, in one case, unsuccessful. I was amused to see the second bassoonist playing a contrabassoon at one point, I suppose in order to double the bass line at the lower octave. Thinking of the orchestra in organ terms—and I suspect in situ this is a strong temptation—the addition of a sixteen-foot reed in the plenum makes sense, though on the recording it was difficult to hear it one way or another. An interesting curiosity. Where anachronism seemed most to fall short was in the obligatto horn part to the aria “Quoniam tu solus.” Because of the difficult high register, the player opted to play this on a small descant horn, analogous to the piccolo trumpets of the trumpet section. The descant horn here sounded more toy-like than noble, a sad loss, made worse by tediously pecky articulation.

In the end, however, the complaints are few and the delights many. Perhaps in Leipzig Bach really is “theirs.”

Steven Plank

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