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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Mass in B minor

Southern Sinfonia, Ralph Allwood (conductor)
2CDs Download only
Label: Signum Classics
Charterhouse School, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: October 2010
Total duration: 107 minutes 5 seconds

'The B minor'. That phrase alone resonates with gravity in the hearts and minds of those who love as no other the music of J.S. Bach. This albumc sees the Rodolfus Choir at their best, as renowned Bach interpreters, having played his works across the UK to great acclaim. Following a live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and performance at Holy Trinity Guildford at the end of 2009, this album, recorded in the chapel of Charterhouse School continues their evergrowing catalogue of extraordinary recordings.


'Now comes a performance with much in common—pace, exuberance, heart-felt commitment—yet so very different … highly recommended' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'The musicians of the Southern Sinfonia lend distinction to the performance and a real highlight is the angelic flute playing which introduces Ben Johnson's simply magical account of the Benedictus. Add to all this the warm acoustic of Charterhouse School chapel and the result is both stimulating and refreshing' (International Record Review)» More
So much has been written about the B Minor Mass, and it is a work of such complexity, both in its essence and in its genesis, that it is hard to know where to start a modest programme note. Historical context offers itself, initially, as a place—even if it is, perhaps, an ironic one fora piece whose guiding impulse seems to be, ultimately, to transcend time and place.

After his heroic dedication during the mid-to late-1720s in producing the five cycles of church cantatas and the Passions, Bach gradually became disillusioned with his role at the Thomasschule, its frustrations and petty disputes. By April 1739 it had reached a point where it could be said: ‘he did not care, for he got nothing out of it anyway, and it was only a burden’. So, while retaining every inch of his personal devotion, he explored instead not only congenial music-making with university students and colleagues in the Collegium Musicum, but also a number of absorbing intellectual projects. These were prompted by a variety of causes, but the essential motivation seems to have been as much his own interest, and perhaps that of a few like-minded cognoscenti, as any specific liturgical or professional requirements. Two main preoccupations emerge. The first was the thorough exploration of a single idea or theme: thus the Goldberg Variations (1741), the Musical Offering (1747), and the Art of Fugue (1742-9). The other, conversely, was the formation of diverse, but in their way complete, collections which represented musical mini-encyclopedias to compare with the real ones that were increasingly springing up across Europe: Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier (1738-42), Parts 1 to 3 of the Clavierübung (1731, 1735 and 1739), and the gradual assembly of the B Minor Mass. These works seem deliberately to showcase music in the gamut of styles (old and new, French and Italian), genres (suite, concerto), textures or keys within the same collection. In the case of the Mass, its stylistic diversity is entirely consonant with its striking genetic diversity. For it is hard to speak of this as a ‘work’ at all, in the Romantic sense of a single cohesive inspiration; on the contrary, it contains music from four decades, both sacred and secular, reworked and assembled shortly before Bach’s death in 1750.

It has its roots in Bach’s dissatisfaction within Leipzig in the early 1730s, when he began to look elsewhere. He hoped that an honorary title from fashionable and highly cultured Dresden might strengthen his hand politically in Leipzig; and so in 1733 he applied for one, in the traditional fawning letter, to Friedrich August II, Elector of Saxony. This only achieved its desired result in 1736. The application was accompanied, however, by a remarkable advertisement of his skill: a ‘Missa’ (containing just the Kyrie and Gloria, after Lutheran practice), which eventually formed the first part of the complete B Minor Mass. That was, scholars now generally agree after decades of argument, put together in four sections (Missa, Symbolum Nicenum, Sanctus, and the final movements) for some unknown purpose in the last years of Bach’s life. The non-‘Missa’ portions were almost entirely made up of earlier music, and possibly a good deal of the ‘Missa’ too; and this level of parody, as the reworking of earlier music is called, has caused some discomfort. It somehow seems like cheating. Yet it is precisely Bach’s decision to do this which not only results in some of the finest compositional achievements of the piece—for it would actually have been easier to write many of the movements afresh than rework them as he did, often negotiating significant obstacles along the way—but also gives the clearest clue to its purpose. He seems to have wanted to pull together a compendium—his last and greatest ‘encyclopedia’, as it were—of his vast body of church music, distilled into a ‘last will and testament’. He might have written on the score, along with Elgar, ‘This is the best of me’.

Bach opens the Kyrie with a mighty four-bar introduction, a gesture not unknown in existing settings of the Kyrie, but here a ‘cry for mercy’ of unparalleled intensity. It introduces an expansive ‘ritornello fugue’, whose heavily chromatic subject echoes that in the same key in the Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1. The Christe is set as a galant duet, exactly in the operatic Dresden style, while a second Kyrie, in austere Palestrina-style, balances the first.

Scholars (for example, Robin Leaver and John Butt) have disagreed about the exact nature of the symmetrical outline of the Gloria—which either weakens both cases or, more likely, only magnifies Bach’s ingenuity in combining two symmetrical schemes. Certainly there is a careful balance of chorus and solo numbers: the four arias not only cover all the voice parts, and a range of moods, but are each provided with their own different obbligato instrument—violin, flute, oboe and horn. The opening Gloria-Et in terra pax is, by convention, a paired chorus; the two sections seem to be parodied from separate sources but each fits its new text perfectly. Particularly magical is the moment where the pastoral, lullaby-like music of ‘Et in terra pax’ breaks into the leaping fugue of ‘bonae voluntatis’, as the song of the angels gradually spreads goodwill to the whole ensemble. These movements are balanced by the final, athletic choral fugue of Cum Sancto Spiritu, and before it the extraordinary Quoniam, in which the horn (an instrument associated with royalty) contrives to find itself, like Christ the King, ‘most high’ by virtue of being placed alongside two bassoons and a bass. Virtuoso bassoonists and horn players, needless to say, were a Dresden speciality. At the heart of the Gloria is the beautiful Qui tollis, reworked from an earlier movement whose words were used by Handel in Messiah: ‘Behold and see…’

In the late 1730s Bach had undergone a serious study of the stile antico, the fruit of which had already been seen in the Clavierübung III of 1739. In the Symbolum Nicenum, he opens with a virtuoso demonstration of that style in the Credo—seven closely-woven imitative parts above a Baroque walking bass—leading intothe more ‘modern’ concerted style of the Patrem omnipotentem. After Scheibe’s famous attack of 1737, describing Bach’s ‘turgid and confused style’, Bach was obviously at pains in this piece, as in others of this period, to show that he could display mastery of the modern galant styles every bit as well as the old—and every bit as well as lesser masters also. He revised Et in unum at a late stage, so that its expressive turn flatwards occurred at the words ‘descendit de coelis’ rather than ‘et incarnatus est’, and instead he substituted a mysterious new Et incarnatus, possibly his last composition entirely. This creates a powerful trio of choruses which anchor the symmetrical structure of the Symbolum: the intense and remarkable Crucifixus, at the heart of the whole Mass, is the oldest movement of all, reworked from the cantata Weinen, Klagen of 1714, while the celebratory dance of Et resurrexit provides the opportunity for another bravura choral showcase. After the bucolic Et in Spiritum, another balancing pair of movements, stile antico and modern, close the Symbolum in extrovert style; but not before the astonishing passage of harmony at ‘Et expecto’ conveys awe at the thought of progress through death into the world to come.

The Sanctus is the oldest complete section of the Mass: he wrote it for Christmas Day 1724. It is an intoxicating and majestic evocation of the Tripartite Godhead, doubtless owing muchnot only to Trinitarian symbolism but also to the vision of the six-winged seraphim in Isaiah Ch. 6. A glance at the first page of the score shows six main groupings of three: three trumpets, three oboes (compared to the two of the rest of the Mass), three upper strings, three upper voices, three lower voices, and continuo. As the stately dotted-rhythmed march of the Sanctus gives way to the dance-like fugato of the Pleni sunt coeli, we realise Bach is writing a French Overture, the traditional celebration of courtly splendour, except here it is the entire ‘heaven and earth’ who dance their steps in a joyous cosmic homage to the King of Kings.

Osanna, with the chorus now antiphonally divided into double SATB choirs, was originally an actual homage to an earthly ruler, none other than Friedrich Augustus II, in 1734. The contemplative Benedictus, with echoes of the B minor Flute Sonata, is a fine example of the modern empfindsamer Stil of the 1740s. For the Agnus Dei Bach brilliantly reworked an aria from his wedding serenade Auf! Süssentzückende Gewalt of 1725, transposing it to a dark G minor, a sonority that is only explored once before in the piece, at ‘descendit de coelis’ in Et in unum. Finally, thanksgiving returns (reminding us that the Eucharist is, theologically, just that) with the Dona nobis pacem, a timely repeat of the Gratias music from the ‘Missa’, but with full doubled vocal forces as well as the familiar blaze of trumpets in D major. The Gratias itself was reworked from the first chorus of Cantata No 29 Wir danken dir of 1731, itself probably a reworking of an earlier movement. Such was Bach’s passion for creative recycling.

The Mass poses unusual issues of performance practice. The inconsistency of the vocal scoring as the work progresses, the lack of instrumental parts in sections 2-4, and the absence of any original performance tradition of the complete Mass: all these not only remove important guidelines to a historically-informed approach, but positively invite interpretative decisions about an ‘ideal’ performance. In recent years, for example, these have moved decisively from the use of a large chorus to a more minimalist conception with one voice per part (for example, the recordings of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott, and their writings on the subject). Others, as in the present recording, have considered that a chamber choir of intermediate size best allows not only flexibility in moving between four and eight parts, as well as parity with (by Bachian standards) a substantialorchestra, but also the balance of clarity and grandeur that the various portions of the work seem to demand. In the end this is another aspect of a piece that triumphantly defies easy classification.

So, once more, to Bach’s purpose for the piece. It seems most unlikely that it was ever performed as a whole in his lifetime, even if he may have planned for the possibility of the portions being performed independently. Some, such as George Stauffer, have speculated about a possible intention for performance of the whole work, probably a special event in Dresden in the late 1740s. However, the evidence seems to point ultimately to an abstract function, not unlike that of the Art of Fugue but arguably even grander: as a final summation of all Bach’s skill as a composer, and as his legacy for posterity. (One might say ‘church composer’ except there is secular music in there as well, and without incongruity. After all, Bach might feel, why should music written for an earthly king not serve equally well to celebrate a heavenly one, since one’s role is subsumed in the other?) Bach’s choice of a ‘Missa’ for his Dresden application, split as that city was between Catholic and Protestant factions, had surely been carefully considered—after all, it could be used by either party. But his choice then to resurrect this as the core of his summatory masterpiece, a larger complete Mass, was also telling. For the Mass both placed Bach firmly in the great tradition of church composition over the centuries and also enabled him to write a ‘universal’ piece that would transcend the limited environment of 1740s Leipzig. As Christoph Wolff puts it: ‘Just as theological doctrine survived over the centuries in the words of the Mass, so Bach’s mighty setting preserved the musical and artistic creed of its creator for posterity.’

David Goode © 2010

The B minor. That phrase alone resonates with gravity in the hearts and minds of those who love as no other the music of J. S. Bach. Approaching a recording or performance is daunting, but not in the same sense as approaching a Mahler Symphony or a Wagner Opera. It is becoming clear that Bach assembled the B Minor Mass as a work for all time to transcend religion (let alone denomination), race and culture, and it is pretty clear that Bach’s purpose was to produce a universal work of his best music. Furthermore, it has only emerged in the last twenty years that Bach’s compilation was his very last project. So the greatness of the work lies in its ancient structure filled with the very best that he could offer. But the elements that he chose were trimmed and adjusted to enable a great unity. An example is the exciting moment when ‘et sepultus est’ is followed by ‘et resurrexit’ is only enabled by removing the orchestral ritornello that woud usually precede the latter.

Bach’s music has always been regarded as a challenge for singers. In a review, Rellstab commented that Bach, ‘though the greatest of composers, is unable to pronounce his profoundest ideas simply’. Zelter felt that the complexity was a veneer, and he produced a simplified version of ‘Et iterum’. Some use a soloist for this, but I think that, though difficult, it sits well in a nimble voice, and it is exciting to use the full bass section. When it is over, the entry of the full choir is as exultant as applause. Ebenezer Prout also criticised Bach’s vocal writing, as did Scheibe, who said that some bits were so complex that ‘it becomes a wonder if they were really sung.’

Great passages in Bach need to be considered in context. The sublime ‘Wahrlich dieser ist Gottes Sohn gewesen’ (‘Truly this was the Son of God’) from the St Matthew Passion, should be considered in the light of the startling modulation just before it, as the Centurion sees the light. Likewise, after ‘Confiteor’ has made its bouncy beginning in ancient polyphonic fashion it is both the downward harmony and the ensuing change of style at ‘Et expecto mortuorum’ which strike us so profoundly. He then caps it all with a repeat of those words in pure joy.

It is essential for the unity of the work that we discover the tempo relationships between movements, particularly when Bach has stipulated that they follow on from each other. It is clear that he intended many of the sections to group together in that way.

Most of this young choir hadn’t sung the work before. To put them with highly experienced professionals was cheeky. But I like to think that the exuberant sound of fresh discovery together with the knowledge that most of Bach’s choirs would have been young too justifies that trust.

Ralph Allwood © 2010

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