Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 (1748/49) [101.11]
Christina Landshamer (soprano)
Anke Vondung (mezzo-soprano)
Kenneth Tarver (tenor)
Andreas Wolf (bass-baritone)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks
Concerto Köln/Peter Dijkstra (director)
rec. Live 18/22 April 2016 Herkulessaal, Munich, Germany
Full texts provided in Latin and German. No English translations
German commentary on the B minor mass written by Markus Vanhoefer
BR KLASSIK 900910 [3 CDs: 49.34 + 51.37 + 77.37]

Following on the heels of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (review), St. Matthew Passion (review) and St. John Passion (review), Peter Dijkstra has turned his attention to the Mass in B minor, BWV 232 a cornerstone of sacred music. Supported by period instrument chamber orchestra Concerto Köln, Dijkstra has produced this live recording with Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, the ensemble served as music director from 2005 to 2016. Incidentally, Howard Arman has now succeeded Dijkstra music director of the Bavarian choir. All these four Bach/ Dijkstra recordings are available as a 9 CD set titled ‘Soli Deo Glori’ on BR Klassik 900513.

A true masterwork, the famous Latin Mass in B minor was completed in 1748/49, the year before the composer’s death. Its origins is uncertain. For the full Mass setting Bach expanded his earlier Kyrie-Gloria Mass of 1733, a work possibly composed for the Roman Catholic Elector of Saxony at the Dresden Court. No one is sure why Bach, a Lutheran Cantor, should have embraced the Roman Catholic Latin Mass so enthusiastically. The original manuscript score presented in four folders was never performed in Bach’s lifetime and it seems likely the first complete performance was not given until around 1859 at Leipzig.

In the opening duet of the Kyrie, Christe eleison, the voices of soprano Christina Landshamer and mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung combine to beautiful effect. From the Credo, breathtaking too is the duet Et in unum Dominum with the expressive voices of Landshamer and Vondung complementing each other so convincingly. Of particular note is their vocal security and lovely diction. The renowned soprano aria Laudamus te of the Gloria commences with a gloriously played violin obbligato. Here talented German soloist Vondung is in steady and dedicated voice, showing profound veneration to God. There is another impressive contribution from Vondung in the alto aria in the Gloria, Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, revealing a clear tone with a plush and smooth timbre that darkens well. I find the oboe d’amore obbligato played enchantingly. Later in the final section, the alto aria Agnus Dei with its attractive string and organ accompaniment, Vondung is in quite irresistible voice. She conveys a sense of inspiring reverence, making this a veritable highlight of the recording.

In the Gloria, the Domine Deus, a glorious duet between German soprano Landshamer and American tenor Kenneth Tarver, is captivating with their voices combining to inspiring effect enhanced by the impressive flute accompaniment. Tarver, in his poignant aria Benedictus with its striking obbligato flute and prominent organ part, is in persuasive voice, delivering the text devoutly with unwavering assurance. From the Gloria, the tessitura of the bass aria Quoniam tu solus sanctus certainly tests the lower registers of the attractive voiced German bass-baritone Andreas Wolf, who responds with assurance. Noteworthy are the striking obbligato horn and bassoon parts. In the Credo section, Wolf fluently performs the glowing aria Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum, displaying smooth, steady tone and conveying a reverential quality. Here the oboe d’amore accompaniment sounds particularly delightful. Dijkstra obtains remarkably sympathetic playing from the Concerto Köln. This engaging performance has plenty of vitality when needed, with the textures of the period instruments sounding clean and transparent. Up to its usual level of consistency, the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks gives a performance high on radiance and reverence.

Recorded at live performances in the renowned acoustic of the Herkulessaal, Munich, the BR Klassik sound engineers provide reasonably close sound that feels warmly atmospheric and seems to add to the sense of sacred awe. The clarity is pleasing and the balance between the soloists, chorus and orchestra is satisfyingly achieved. In the accompanying booklet, full texts of the Latin Mass with a German translation are provided. There are no English texts although there is a helpful essay.

Primarily aimed at the German home market, this BR Klassik set contains a third CD lasting 71 minutes which is a narrated explanation of the B minor Mass written by Markus Vanhoefer. It includes extensive music excerpts and the commentaries are spoken in German.

Dijkstra’s compelling live performance, full of insights and detail, can take its place alongside the finest recordings. On CD I feel the strongest competition to Dijkstra is threefold. I admire the intense spirituality of the 1984 period instrument account from the Tavener Consort and Players under Andrew Parrott. Recorded at St. John’s Smith Square, London Parrott has the benefit of a first-rate roster of soloists, Emma Kirkby (soprano), Emily Van Evera (soprano), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor) and David Thomas (bass) on Virgin Veritas. Of the older recordings using modern instruments I cannot ignore Karl Richter who was steeped in the music of J.S. Bach. Admirable is Richter’s 1969 account directing the Münchener Bach-Chor und Orchester with soloists Ursula Buckel (soprano), Marga Höffgen (contralto), Ernst Haefliger (tenor) and Ernst-Gerold Schramm (bass) on Archiv Produktion. Not surprisingly with a similar style of interpretation, is Richter’s admirable earlier performance with the same orchestra and chorus recorded in 1961 at Musikhochschule, Munich. Here Richter’s soloists are Maria Stader (soprano), Hertha Töpper (contralto), Ernst Haefliger (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone) and Keith Engen (bass). This is released on Profil. Other high quality accounts worthy of consideration include Masaaki Suzuki directing the Bach Collegium Japan in 2013/14 on BIS and Philippe Herreweghe with the Collegium Vocale Ghent, notably their 2011 Berlin recording on PHI.

Peter Dijkstra conducts an achingly beautiful live performance of the Mass B minor conveying a considerable depth of sacred expression, making this a highly desirable addition to a collection.

Michael Cookson

Details (CD 3)
Audio commentary in German on the B minor Mass written by Markus Vanhoefer
Christian Baumann (narrator)
Gert Heidenreich (scripture quotations)
Hans Jürgen Stockerl (quotations)
Marcuk Vanhoefer (author and director)
Bernard Neuhoff and Leonard Huber (editors)
Folkert Uhde: light and sound design
rec. 27th June, 1st July 2016 BR Studio 9, Munich, Germany
Spoken narrative in German only

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