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Reviews

J. S. Bach.  Mass in B Minor
24 Oct 2008

BACH: Mass in B minor

Bach’s monumental Mass in b minor exists in an abundant quantity of period performances to the point where one might ponder the wisdom of adding yet another to the shelf.

J. S. Bach: Mass in B Minor

The Netherlands Bach Society; Jos van Veldhoven, Director

Channel Classics CCS SA 25007 [2 SACDs]

$49.99  Click to buy

Jos van Veldhoven’s stunning performance with the Netherlands Bach Society will quickly convince, however, that there is room for one more. Van Veldhoven’s reading is unusually invigorating, often with significantly quick tempos: the “Cum sancto” dazzles and the “Et resurrexit” sizzles, while the “Pleni sunt coeli” is buoyantly Terpsichorean. Even the “Sanctus” elegantly unfolds with a fluidity that underscores its “dance.” Fast tempos elsewhere also help to make the decorative layers feel ornamental, as in the florid violin obbligato to the “Laudamus,” brilliantly played by Johannes Leertouwer. Speed for its own sake, of course, offers little reward, and there is never a trace of that here. An unusually accomplished ensemble of concertists—Johanette Zomer, Dorothee Mields, Matthew White, Charles Daniels, and Peter Harvey—never let the speed sound anything less than naturally fluent. The result is again an invigorating reading that underpins its brio with a strong sense of dance and decorative texture.

The texture of the ensemble is compellingly deployed, as well. Van Veldhoven adopts a concertists-ripieno approach that features the interplay of one-to-a-part singing and a fifteen-voice ensemble, creating color shifts and climactic shapes along the way. The interpretative reading is thoughtful, as well. For example, in the “Qui tollis” from the Gloria, the continuo bass line is inflected with a novel degree of sharp articulation. A bit jarring at the first listen, it seems to paint the “taking away the sins of the world” with a degree of sting. Tellingly, then, in the later “Crucifixus,” there is also a degree of similar bite that might underscore the intrinsic connection between the two texts.

The expressive range of the Mass is a challenge to all who take it on, but here the contemplative movements are as compelling as the animated sections. Charles Daniels’s sensitive “Benedictus” and Matthew White’s elegiac “Agnus Dei,” for instance, affectively explore the shadow side of much of the work’s exuberance with deeply moving grace.

This recording was produced with a lavish companion book containing, of course, some of the expected essays, but in large part devoted to beautiful photographs of liturgical art in the collection of the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. They and a number of images showing both Reform and Roman Catholic liturgies offer a rich visual context for a hearing of Bach’s monumental work—a stunning, collaborative counterpoint. (This same collaboration also appears in the Netherlands Bach Society’s recordings of the Christmas Oratorio and St. John Passion, both from Channel Classics, as well.) In every way, this is a recording to savor.

Steven Plank

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