Do you believe in miracles? I don't. I'm one of those skeptical materialists, a complacent disbeliever from an early age. But my ears belie me when it comes to Bach. My ears proclaim that Bach's Mass in B minor is nothing less than miraculous. My ears shout to my doubting brain, "How could Bach be wrong?"
The Mass in B minor celebrates a miracle, the central Christian miracle myth of Resurrection. One has to presume, on the basis of all evidence, that Johann Sebastian Bach was profoundly sincere in his belief in his Lutheran religious creed. Lutherans do accept the Nicene Creed, by the way, and memorize it in cathechism. I did. Oddly enough, I knew the Credo in the 'vernacular' long before I learned it in Latin for musical purposes. The 'Credo' that forms the longest portion of almost every musical mass setting is the Nicene Creed in Latin. It has been 'troublesome' for composers because of its wordiness, and many polyphonic masses of the centuries before Bach struggled to stay awake during the recitation of the Credo. Bach had no such problem; the "Symbolum Nicenum" of the B minor Mass is magnificently dramatic.
So why, one asks, did the staunch Lutheran Bach write a massive Mass using the Latin liturgy? Historically, the answer is that the Latin Mass had not been completely ostracized from Lutheran worship in Bach's time. A deeper answer, I think, is that Bach meant to proclaim his confidence both in the Christian miracle and in the miraculous power of music to exalt humanity. The essence of the Mass in B minor is confidence, and the exultation one feels with such confidence. There are moments of passionate sorrow in the B minor Credo, but there are no moments of doubt. No Angst. This Mass in B minor must be heard as an expression of joy and certitude. The Kyrie is about Awe. The Gloria is really about glory, an exaltation of God's majesty, a paean of the believer's love responding to God's Love. The Credo is above all a statement of trust, confident trust, unshadowed total exulting belief in the Miracle. The Sanctus, Hosanna, and Agnus Dei continue the exultation in a mood of serenity and gratitude.
Above all, it's the joyous proclamation of Belief that needs to be delivered in a performance of the Mass in B minor, and it's at this level of interpretation that the Dunedin Consort's performance excels any other that I've ever heard. There's no murk in this performance. No lugubrious questioning of one's hopes. The Hosanna is a riotous celebration of the Miracle. It doesn't matter in the least whether I or any other listener shares Bach's religious impulse. The music proclaims a triumph of Life that even an atheist can exult in.
Now to the nitty-gritty of performance practice. This is not precisely a one-on-a-part performance; the five soloists sing the 'choral' portions of the score along with five 'ripienist' voices. I have no interest in defending that practice in terms of historical authenticity or of establishing Bach's intentions. What I hear is what counts. This is a recording! Large choruses seldom sound even like human voices on a recording. The five/ten voices of the Dunedin Consort sound over my speakers just as robust as any huge chorus, and they sound human. Their individual human timbres can be separated by the listener's ears, and thus their individual musical 'rhetoric' can be distinguished and followed. Each voice is expressive on its own. It's the 'transparency' of the Dunedin performance that makes it musically exciting. The same logic, of being able to hear all the inner instrumental parts and voices forming an ensemble, applies to the orchestra: essentially one-on-a-part, just four violins, one viola, one cello, one violone. But the wind section is brilliant, "as Bach intended", with two flutes, three oboes, two bassooons, a horn, three trumpets, timpani and organ. Bach's wind instruments were decidedly NOT 'precursors' of modern winds. They were highly evolved, well built tools of music, played with the virtuosity of well-developed instrumental techniques. The most obvious advantages of 'original' instruments will be heard from the valveless baroque trumpets, in their 'clarino' passages, and from the crisp wooden mallets of the baroque timpani.
The five soloists are sopranos Susan Hamilton and Cecilia Osmund, alto Margot Oitzinger, tenor Thomas Hobbs, and bass Matthew Brook. They are awesome together and separately. What more can I say?
Conductor John Butt must get a major share of the credit for this superb performance, both for assembling the forces and for imposing his celebratory interpretation on those forces with such well rehearsed and polished unanimity. Brisk, forthright tempi are the most immediate means of Butt's interpretation, but dynamics and articulation are also critical. The key, to my ears, is that every gesture of musical interpretation seems 'intentional'. Butt knew how he wanted each passage to sound, and his art as a conductor was to elicit exactly that sound from his musicians. In this control of his forces, Butt reminds me of the great conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler... not that the results sound anything alike, but that the integrity of interpretation is comparable.
Do I dare say that this is the best recorded performance of Bach's B minor Mass ever released? Sure, why not. Now your only recourse, if you want to dispute that assertion, will be to buy it and hear it. I'm fairly confident that you'll enjoy it miraculously. And by the way, I don't get a commission from Linn Records or the Scottish Arts Council.