Gardiner has recently gone out of favor among some followers of period instrument bands, maybe because of his famous tyrannical temperament. More than a few critics were happy when the recording project of his laudable Bach Cantata Pilgrimage was cut by DG. That's ok. But the fact is, more than a decade later, Gardiner's recordings of Bach's major sacred works are still at the top of the pile, and the Mass in B minor may be the most evident example.
Despite some nice later recordings, particularly Hickox's and Herreweghe's, Gardiner's still stands out as the more passionately committed one. Being a predominantly choral work, the Mass in B minor benefits immensely from the extraordinary singing of Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir. And Gardiner's option of using solo voices in some choral parts, as in the first Kyrie, the Et in terra pax and the Crucifixus, add a more intimate dimension which nicely contrasts with the more extrovert passages, where Gardiner shines as usual, with brilliant trumpets and fervourous singing.
Of course, the Mass has also some extraordinary solo pieces, and Gardiner's soloists excel, as the playing of the English Baroque Soloists does. But it's the choirs that really make the difference. And here Gardiner's control of dynamics, rhythm and articulation is unsurpassed. He can draw the most vibrant singing from his choir without making it sound forced, without losing textural clarity.
I tried to look for other recordings of this masterpiece. Harnoncourt disappointed, Brüggen was only ok, Parrott was intriguing, Hickox was excelent, Herreweghe was a joy. But I always find myself going back to the same Gardiner recording over and over again.