Bach: Mass in B-minor by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants – A Review

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants

William Christie, now at the age of 73, is one of the greatest conductors of the historically informed practice (HIP).

The Baroque Ensemble Les Arts Florissants he founded is among the best period ensembles out there. I’ve written about them several times already, e.g. about their Händel Album Music for Queen Caroline, or their Monteverdi Madrigal recording.

I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing William Christie with his ensemble twice already, once performing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the London Barbican Theatre, and more recently, with Xavier de Maistre at Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie.

Bach’s B-Minor Mass BWV 232

I’ve written about this masterpiece twice already, initially about Philippe Herreweghe’s 3rd recording, and later about John Eliot Gardiner’s new recording.

I’ve said previously that this is one of the most important masterpieces ever written, and really never get tired of hearing it. In the liner notes to this album, William Christie calls it “[Bach’s] testament, his epitaph, a legacy to those who would follow him

Bach: Mass in B-minor – William Christie – Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

J.S. Bach Mass in B-minor William Christie Les Arts Florissants Live in Paris Harmonia Mundi 24/96

This is a very intimate recording (in spite of being live, this was recorded in 2016 at the Philharmonie de Paris). Both singing and playing are very delicate and balanced.

Tempi are relatively fast (especially compared to the old Karl Richter style) but never rushed. To quote Christie again from the liner notes: Quicker tempi suggest a more physical and dance-like approach to the music“.

Honestly, I really don’t know what to criticize here. I’m a fan of the lighter, more intimate approach, and of the faster tempi. I prefer this even to the very good 2015 Gardiner recording.

It doesn’t kick my all time favorite of Philippe Herreweghe of the throne of “best B-minor ever” for me personally, as the latter just adds a tiny bit more “sparkle”, but this an album really very much worth having.

My rating: 4 stars (actually very close to 5 stars, I just still give the edge to Herreweghe)

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

 

 

 

 

Nearly (But Not Quite) Perfect – Gardiner’s New Recording of Bach’s B-Minor Mass

Bach’s b-minor mass was the subject of one of my first blog posts nearly six months ago. I just love and admire this monumental work of beauty.

John Eliot Gardiner

I’m also a big fan of Gardiner. Many of his recordings with the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique of the classical and romantic symphonies are outstanding (e.g. his Schumann cycle), and his entire Bach cantata cycle with the Monteverdi choir is among my favorite versions.

The 2015 recording of the B-minor Mass (SDG 2015)

So when Gardiner released a new recording of the b-minor mass (his first dates back to 1985 for Deutsche Grammophon, still early days for the historically informed practice movement) I was all ears and have listened to it now for several times.

Obviously, a lot of thought and the experience gained from the entire cantata cycle went into this new recording (there is a great article about it in the November 2015 issue of Gramophone).

Bach: Mass in B-Minor - Gardiner (2015) - SDG

How does it compare to my reference version, Herreweghe’s 2012 recording? Well, it’s really very good, but doesn’t replace it. Let me try to explain why.

With this monumental work, one thing you need to get right is the balance between power and nuance. The old recordings of the 1960s and 70s (e.g. Otto Klemperer’s legendary version, or Karl Richter) are powerful grandiose affairs, and then you have other versions that very much limit the number of singers, resulting in a very light and transparent sound.

Gardiner choses something more on the lighter side (approx 30 singers), and also goes for a very clear and natural orchestral playing.

And here we get to the only minor bit of criticism to the otherwise beautiful and near perfect recording, very occasionally, I’d just like a little bit more power and brilliance, exactly what Herreweghe does.

Basically, the little additional sparkle, which he so often has in his cantata cycles, but here it feels somehow a little bit held back, not going at their full power.

Enough nitpicking, this is an excellent recording, and really worth checking out. But I’m in love with Herreweghe and will stick to his version for the moment.

My rating: 4 stars

You can download it here (Qobuz) or here (Prostudiomasters)

UPDATE Dec 5: Gramophone really likes this album and gives it an Editor’s Choice in the December 2015 issue

Can Heaven Be Captured On Disc? Bach’s B-minor Mass BWV 232

Another entry on Bach. Maybe I should add him to my Blog title.

In any case, I just had to write about the b-minor mass, as it is such a fantastic work of art, one of the absolute highlights of the entire classical repertoire in my view.

Again, if you want to know more about the history, I don’t feel like I need to copy Wikipedia here, the only thing that is a bit particular about the story of this mass is actually that it is a full traditional catholic mass, given that Bach was a protestant composer. Actually, Bach apparently never performed the full thing in one go during his lifetime.

Well we don’t need to care about these historic details, we can just sit back and enjoy this amazing beauty. It is pretty long, around 2h, but there is so much to discover that it is worth putting down our tendency of ADHD (and I’m the first to admit to that disease) and listen to it from back to back. If your ADHD is too much of an issue, just pick out parts, as JSB would have done during his time.

The Great Catholic Mass

What is so special about this work (to give it its formal title “Messe in h-moll BWV232“, or as Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach called it the “Great Catholic Mass”? To me, it is most of all the overwhelming power. I’ve said before that I’m not religious, but  when I hear the choir sing the “Kyrie eleyson” (Lord, have mercy) with full organ backup,  I’m sometimes getting second thoughts. Or take the “Qui tollis”, how the choir interacts with the solo flute, or to give a final example, the beautiful glory of the “Sanctus”. Just amazing.

Karl Richter

The first version I ever had of this was, as many other probably, Karl Richter’s legendary 1961 version.

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There is still a lot of positives about this recording today, including the outstanding soloists (Fischer-Dieskau, anybody?). That said, a lot of time has passed since this version and the last 50 years have completely changed our reception of Bach and other Baroque works, thanks to the movement of “historically informed performance” by Harnoncourt et al. in the 1970s/80s.

Therefore, as much as I appreciate the sheer power of this version, I’m not going back to it that often.

Philippe Herreweghe – omne trium perfectum – All Good Things Come By in Threes

Philippe Herreweghe (yes I know, again as well) has recorded the b-minor mass three times (to quote Herreweghe himself: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”). All three recordings are very good, my preferred one by small margin is the last one from 2011 on his own label Phi. It was recorded in Berlin.

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It just gives you the perfect balance, it is not over the top, but extremely intense.

Another excellent alternative, and my other favorite, is Frans Brüggen’s older recording from 1990 on Philips.

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Obviously, there are many others that have done an excellent job, from Gardiner (see also here) to Hengelbrock, to Suzuki. But these two recordings are just one tiny notch above the very busy crowd.

5 stars for both recordings.

UPDATE Nov 20, 2015: You’ll find a review of Gardiner’s 2015 recording of the b-minor mass here.

 

You can find the Herreweghe here (Qobuz)