- Mass in B minor, for soloists, chorus, & orchestra, BWV 232 (BC E1)
Since its rediscovery and first complete performance in the mid-nineteenth century, Bach's "B minor Mass" has generally been produced with the large, sometimes gargantuan, performing forces typical of that era in the kinds of ensembles gathered for Mendelssohn's oratorios and Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis." Twentieth century scholarship has uncovered information about performances of individual movements of the Mass during the composer's lifetime indicating that, in spite of its length, Bach intended it to be a chamber piece for small vocal and instrumental ensembles. In 1981, conductor Joshua Rifkin released a controversial recording of the Mass with just one singer per part, a practice that has become increasingly common, so Baroque specialist Marc Minkowski's version isn't revolutionary -- he uses 10 singers rather than 5 -- but he divides the work's solos among all the singers, and some choruses use two singers per part while some use only one. The listener's personal preferences may orient him or her to either the large choral sound or the chamber music sound, but for anyone with sympathies for the intimate approach to Bach's masterpiece, this version offers much to delight. Minkowski has kept the orchestra to a size that matches the volume of the singers. His version requires adjusting some expectations for anyone familiar only with the traditional large chorus approach, but the ear quickly adapts to the work as a piece of vocal chamber music. Whatever impact of massed voices that's lost here is more than compensated by the coherence of the small ensemble sound, which has a surprising grandeur at the moments where it is required. Minkowski's pacing works well; he has a strong sense of the Mass' larger architecture, and offers a reading with richly varied tempos while avoiding both the hurried approach of some small-chorus adherents, as well as the lugubrious tempos of some traditionalists. Les Musiciens du Louvre/Grenoble, an ensemble he founded, plays with admirable animation and precision. The obbligato instrumentalists, flutist Florian Cousin, oboe d'amore player Emmanuel Laporte, hornist Johannes Hinterholzer, and trumpeter Thibaud Robinne deserve special recognition for their lively and elegant solos on period instruments. Although the vocalists are accomplished soloists, most with outstanding international careers, as well as some rising stars, they achieve a remarkably smooth, self-effacing choral blend, singing with warm lyricism, expressive depth, and spirited energy. The sound is intimate and clean, allowing the vocal and instrumental details to emerge with clarity and brilliance. The CD would make a fine introduction to the Mass and should be of strong interest to listeners who already love it.