The B Minor Mass has led a somewhat chequered history on albums, some truly great performances sitting alongside some decidedly mediocre ones, while a surprisingly large number of recordings dating from the LP era (and earlier) are of such enduring quality that they still grace the catalogue. That what is one of the great pillars of western art music has had such uneven treatment since the advent of digital recording is largely down to the development of Bach scholarship over the same period. What was the norm 30 or more years ago—large choirs, massive orchestras, quasi-operatic soloists and weighty, indulgent tempos—was abruptly swept aside by Joshua Rifkin's landmark recording released in 1983 (coincidentally the same year that albumss made their debut), which gave us one voice per part and, in a word, reduced the work to its bare musical bones. Since then recordings have veered between the minimalist and the maximalist, with equally diverse artistic results. This latest version comes pretty well slap bang in the middle.
For a start, the Rodolfus Choir gives us 40 voices—30 more than John Butt's, whose recording with the Dunedin Consort and Players on Linn tops my list of 'minimalist' favourites, and around 30 fewer than Klemperer, who heads my 'maximalist' wish-list with his monumental 1968 EMI recording (numerologists who obsess over the number three in relation to Bach might begin to feel the hairs on their necks quivering as they keep reading the number 30)—which puts it very much on a par with the Dresden Chamber Choir on Naxos. Certainly the added choral weight allows the sound to be fulsome without becoming excessively cumbersome, while the orchestral numbers, too, take it beyond the chamber ensemble without encroaching into the symphonic. All this gives Ralph Allwood plenty of scope for subtle dynamic variety and tone-colour without losing any of the textural clarity and agility which is what has made the 'minimalist' versions so attractive. I certainly have no hesitation in recommending him above Helmut Muller-Brühl for the sensitivity and pace of his reading; the German is at times so brisk he verges on the breathless. Under Muller-Brühl the trumpet notes supporting the running choral lines in the 'Pleni sunt coeli' seem like harsh pin-pricks of sound whereas with Allwood they have more the effect of graceful exclamation marks.
Not that Allwood's tempos are in any way slow; in fact, the overriding feeling of this recording is its lively pace and its refusal to hang around even when the music seems to warrant some space for inner reflection. The opening of the Credo finds the Rodolfus choristers presenting beautifully moulded choral lines with such an astonishing legato that they positively glide by. Allwood is also blessed with an outstanding team of soloists. There is uncanny vocal empathy between Sophie Bevan and Clint van der Linde, which, in 'Et in unum Dominum', results in the most extraordinary complementing of vocal lines; the voices are distinct yet seem to merge with each other at each phrase ending. Håkan Vramsmo dances with an easy grace through a very sprightly 'Et in Spiritum Sanctum', while the deeper bass of Colin Campbell brings princely poise to the 'Quoniam tu solus', accompanied by some absolutely top-notch horn playing from Gavin Edward. Throughout, 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.
However, I'm never quite sure that stimulating or refreshing stand as unequivocal compliments, and in this instance I have one very big reservation: big enough to add this to the many discs of the work which don't quite make it for me. The problem is the youth of the choir. Aged between 16 and 25, the voices positively throb with the eagerness and optimism of youth, and as highly gifted musicians the singers lap up the work's technical demands with alacrity, but I miss the spiritual intensity and, let's not beat about the bush, emotional impact more mature voices would bring to it. I'm glad we don't have those big, bulbous Bach B minors any more now but I do hanker after something with a little more spine to it than this. Here, the grandiloquent opening Fugue seems almost glib and facile against what both Butt and Klemperer, in their very different ways, achieve, and there are moments in the Sanctus when the singing conjures up in my mind a bizarre image of cheerful skaters on a frozen pond. Young voices and eager musicianship are not enough to make this a profoundly satisfying B minor Mass, even if it is a remarkable one.