on May 27, 2001
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.
on April 29, 2003
Although I've been listening to Bach's choral works all my life, I am relatively a newcomer to Gardiner's B-Minor mass. Upon first listening it has become one of my favorite recordings of Bach's Great Catholic Mass next to Andrew Parrot's and Phillipe Herreweghe's.
Gardiner's reading is much different than that of Herreweghe's. It seems to be impossible to record the "perfect" B-Minor Mass, and by all means, neither have achieved it- although both have come close. What is readily noticable is that Herrweghe's recording is more pious and introverted, while Gardiner's is very extroverted.
I was pleased to see that Gardiner chose to scale down his choir to a smaller force. Recorded in 1985, it was released during a time shortly after Rifkin gave his infamous lecture on performing Bach's concerted choral works using one voice per part. While the liner notes of this present recording do not seem to praise such an approach, Gardiner uses the One Voice Per Part principle in several numbers. What a surprise! This is a very "different" BWV 232. For example, "Et in terra pax" is performed only with soloists in the beginning, while the choir (or concertists) enter one by one (just as the concertists enter one by one in the famous Cantata No. 21) This helps the recording build dramatic intensity. The "Crucifixus" is also appropriately performed OVPP.
Each soloist was very good, but I did not find myself particularly blown away. The orchestral playing was expressive and joyful, although the trumpets seemed to blare at times.
To compare the Herreweghe recording to this one may be impossible since they are so different. While Herreweghe seemed to focus of bringing the B-Minor Mass back to its rightful place the church (and his choice of top soloists to match), Gardiner still presents BWV 232 with irresistable freshness and bombast.
This is a recording I will want to return to often.
on April 26, 2001
What more can you say about this version of Bach's Mass In B Minor that hasn't already been said? It's the most beautiful piece of music ever written, by the greatest composer ever, and Gardiner's version is the best recorded version of the piece. I can't say enough about this piece, so rather than continuing to ramble, I'll just end by saying buy this two-disc album, you won't regret it.
on May 28, 2003
It's easy to fall into hyperboles when describing this recording. When I bought it, the cashier said "I approve highly of this purchase. It's the only version I allow customers to buy." Another employee came up to the counter and said "this is the most perfect recording of anything I know of." The piece itself has also been the subject of overstatement. In the CD's booklet a nineteenth century Swiss critic is quoted as saying that Bach's Mass in B minor is the "greatest work of music of all ages and of all peoples." Though all of these quotes are exaggerations, they're not ridiculous positions to hold. Bach's mass is an amazing work that does not let up for almost two hours. This recording compliments the work to a degree not typical on classical recordings. It's an amazing performance with an unbelievably high quality. After hearing this piece and the St. Matthew Passion I now know why some have said "it all started with Bach." I also know I'll be buying more CDs from the Archiv label.
The Cd booklet raises such questions as "why did Bach write this piece?" and "was it ever performed complete during his lifetime?" It also gives a good history of the composition and performance of the mass. It's by no means comprehensive, but it gives a good general background for the work.
The music is beyond words. I convinced myself to buy it after hearing just a few audio samples of the Kyrie and the Sanctus. It didn't take much. The work is a cathedral in itself. Nonetheless, you don't have to be a catholic or even a christian to appreciate the music on these disks, but were I trying to convert someone I'd probably have them listen to this to get 'em in the mood.
on March 9, 2003
From the standpoint of a vocal performer and active listener, I find this THE best recording of Bach's Mass in B minor. The lines (vocal and instrumental) are beautifully clear, fluid and expressive. I have been enjoying this recording for years and am buying a second copy in case it ever goes out of print (don't even want to think about it). Please add to your CD library if you enjoy Bach!
on June 3, 2004
Again, five stars for Mr. Gardiner. The tempi are thoughtfully chosen: neither rushed, nor sluggish. Throughout the entire work, as in his outstanding renditions Passions, Gardiner rests faithful to the music and its appropriate style, giving it an extra impulse which I find most pleasant. The quality of singing is unsurpassed: every leading instrument or vocal counterpoint can be followed with no difficulty.
Just as Rennaissance paintings, Bach's choral works are more than masterpieces. Their Christian themes, although branded "irrelevant" by politics-obsessed post-modernists, are CENTRAL to the works, far beyond being just tools subjugated to an artistic sense. Bach's Passions (not to mention Cantatas), Michelangelo's Sixtine Chappel murals are not only highest art, but highest CHRISTIAN art. The very motivation of their existence is religious. The lung with which they breathe is the evangelical message of Christianity. Although i'm not personally a believer, I find hindrance of this character outright mutilating.
on March 7, 2004
The name of Sir John Eliot Gardiner, relatively unknown until the 1980's, has entered a practically household status with music lovers after his milestone recording of Claudio Monteverdi's "Vespro della beata vergine" (otherwise known as the 1610 Vespers). Since then, Gardiner has established himself as an early music scholar of great renown, producing a multitude of recordings of early, Classical, and Romantic masterworks -- some better than others, many would argue. With his recording of the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232) by Johann Sebastian Bach, the tradition of Gardiner's musical excellence continues, though not in the vein some connoisseurs of Baroque music would expect.
First and foremost, it is absolutely necessary to mention that no matter how good it is, this recording is outdated. This is not meant as a value judgement against the recording; it is simply the statement of a fact. Bach scholarship has advanced significantly in the last ten to fifteen years, and conductors such as Andrew Parrott have made great strides in discovering new facts about Bach's works, as well as new ways to perform them (for instance, instead of a mixed choir of over sixteen individuals, Bach apparently utilized only four). So, in that respect, this recording most definitely shows its age, and will not live up to the musicological expectations of most of today's Bach scholars.
It is also imperative, however, that you ask yourself as a potential purchaser of this recording: "What is more important to me? Musicological accuracy and an obsessive adherence to minutia, or beautiful music-making?" If you are an individual who favors the latter parameter more, you will find plenty to enjoy in this recording. Not only does Gardiner revitalize the piece proper, he also infuses it with the kind of spark and "joie de vivre" that so frequently lacks from other interpretations of this piece. Under Gardiner's baton, the music showcases a varied spectrum of emotions, from the noble exultation of the "Gloria in excelsis" to the agonizing despair of the "Crucifixus", with the orchestra and choir responding to the score not only as musicians, but -- perhaps more importantly -- as listeners. The soloists put their best foot forward in this recording, and are exceptionally well-coached, both as solitary singers and small enseble singers (the first "Kyrie" and the subsequent "Christe Eleison" provide ample evidence of this), and the overall integration and balance of the sound is superb.
To this end, the recording's overall sound quality cannot be overlooked, as it is by far one of the cleanest performances committed to CD. Every syllable of every word, every note on each instrument can be heard, and this recording will truly shine on a better-than-average stereo system. A true enjoyment of the music can be derived from hearing it both performed and recorded this well.
The recording, however, is not without its musical problems. Issues of musicological accuracy aside, the recording does suffer from a few rough spots. I found a few of the tempi to be objectionable -- the "Credo," in my opinion dragged too much, while the final "Dona Nobis Pacem" was moving ahead too fast, without giving the listener a chance to fully enjoy the sonority. On at least three occasions, I found that the orchestra was too quiet, leaving the singers exposed, while at other times, it unmercifully cut through the chorus, completely burying them in noise. Both of these extremes can be observed in the "Et Resurrexit," which is, usually very easy to overplay or undersing, due to its tremendous technical requirements. Lastly, while I'm generally not opposed to the utilisation of countertenors in Baroque music (it is accurate, after all), the timbre of Michael Chance's voice did not sit well with me within the parameters of this piece. A few other glitches exist, but they are so insignificant that they are prectically not worth mentioning.
Overall, the extent of any listener's affinity for this recording boils down to how willing he or she is to enjoy this piece strictly for what it is. There are many fine recordings out there which possess a greater degree of musicological consistency and accuracy than Gardiner's (for instance, Andrew Parrott's rendition - Emi Records [All429] - #561998), but Gardiner managed to create such an iridescent halo around Bach's masterpiece that few casual listeners will remained untouched by its pulchritude. Overall, a highly recommended purchase.
on July 5, 2002
I have three recordings of the B minor mass: Gardiner's, Herreweghe's and one by my own choir (which is good but cannot be compared to any of the other two for many reasons). When I listen to the Monteverdi Choir, the word "perfect" comes to my mind. To me, it sounds as if Gardiner strives to make a performance of the B minor that is somehow ideal, like a painter trying to draw a circle that is perfect in the matematical sense of the word. But I never get the feeling of Gardiner putting his own mind into his interpretation of the music. And this is the reason why I am not completely satisfied with his version. It is my conviction that any artist must use some of his own feelings in creating, otherwise his/her work will not move the listener/spectator. I never really get moved by Gardiner's performances, only impressed, and I want more than that when I listen to music, in particular the B minor mass. Of the two mentioned recordings, I would therefore recommend Herreweghe's version, which in my opinion also has better soloists; the only flaw is that the choir singers use too little voice, they sound a bit thin.
(I must add that I am not really a fan of the English singing tradition; I prefer more mature and "open" voices, and I definitely like female altos better than CT:s and female sopranos better than boy ditos.)
on October 1, 2002
I love this piece of music, so I decided to buy this CD, my second version of the Bach mass. I am not sorry I bought it, but like others have said, I am beginning to think that there is no "perfect" recording of this masterpiece. There are beautiful aspects to this recording: crystal clear sound quality, crisp but lush strings, lively tempos. The energy behind "Cum Sancto" and "Gloria in Excelcis" is nothing short of breathtaking. But... there is missing pathos in the first Kyrie. The "Christe" is not plaintive enough. I guess no recording will ever do justice to Bach's incredible accomplishment. His achievement is as much in the mind as it is in the sound of the performers. If you don't own a recording of the Bach Bm, by God buy one right away! This one or any other! But if you are trying to decide which one to buy, this one is good for lovers of clear sound, energy, and vitality. More melancholic, introspective, and angst-filled listeners should turn to other recordings.
on October 31, 2000
Bach, first and foremost, was a devout Lutheran Christian. You have not heard Bach until you have heard this piece. Here are all the dynamics of tragedy, joy, serenity, sensuality, etc. Here Bach puts his incredible talent into the service of the glory of God to narrate the drama of redemption. Here you may even hear direct divine inspiration as many Bach fans believe.
Yes, he wrote this piece for a Catholic prince, but Lutherans are awfully close to the Catholics in their view of the mass.
Does it matter if you are Christian or not to appreciate this work? I would hope not, but I had a Jewish co-worker tell me once that she had a hard time believing something so beautiful could be so wrong.
As a Christian, one of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, once remarked that the angels sung Bach to God, but when they were "en famille" they sung Mozart. I think I might be able to persuade Barth that this piece could be an exception!