On Bach’s B minor Mass

Here’s a fun article on J.S. Bach’s magnificent Mass in B minor, one of the magisterial and final pinnacles of his oeuvre, and yet in some ways puzzling. What, after all, was a faithful Lutheran doing setting an entire Roman Catholic Mass–a Missa Tota?

And for performances, stay away from the trendy and the faux HIP (Historically Informed Performances). Someday I will write a rancorous essay entitled, “Historically Informed Performances: The Living (and oh so HIP) Originalism of Classical Music.”

Instead savor the magnificently moody and measured performances of Furtwängler and Scherchen. Or, if you can’t get ahold of those, this version conducted by Herbert von Karajan will do.

6 responses

  1. On historically-informed performance, I’m afraid we must disagree.

    All those incredibly s-l-o-w, turgid performances of Handel and Bach, muddy, Romantic English organs (maybe they built better ones in the States), oversized symphony orchestras producing completely the wrong balance – we’ve been there and I, for one, don’t want to go back.

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  2. Originalism makes less sense in music than in law, I’d agree, because law involves power. And sometimes a contemporary take on early music works, like Respighi’s Birds and Ancient Airs and Dances. But as a presumption, I’d go with the clarity of Originalism in music on aesthetic grounds, over gushy late-Romantic reinterpretations. Where’s your sense of tradition?

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  3. Frank, a pleasure to see you here. It seems that both you and my comrade in arms are as one on this matter. But he has a very Puritanical streak in matters of art (and food, I should add) that runs deeply against my grain. And I cannot agree that the ascetic and rather precious technicality of HIP performances is really at all close to what Bach intended. So I suppose I regard myself as the true traditionalist. It’s like the difference between originalist theory today and the actual jurisprudence of Joseph Story. Very few real similarities.

    Oh well. De gustibus non est disputandum–in law and in art.

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  4. Agreed: you can be too precious about it and risk losing the music. But if it’s a straight choice between (eg) Furtwangler’s Bach and Herreweghe’s, I’m afraid I’d go for Herreweghe every time!

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  5. What I’ve always found a bit peculiar in the Mass is the line: ” and the Lord arose on the third day according to scriptures”, the words ‘according to scriptures’ seems to be a hint as to his Lutheran background and Lutheran influence. ‘Scripture’ as opposed to ‘tradition’

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  6. While I share your passion for the b-minor mass, one of the pinnacles of the classical music, I must admit I am as puzzled as the previous comments about your negativity towards HIP recordings.

    My favorite version (similar to Frank’s comment above) is Herreweghe (his 3rd recording actually, as written here: https://musicophilesblog.com/2015/06/05/can-heaven-be-captured-on-disc-bachs-b-minor-mass-bwv-232/ ). And this in spite of the fact that I grew to love this work with Karl Richter’s legendary and very un-HIP version.

    While I agree, early HIP took things sometimes a bit too much to the extremes, I believe now in the 21st century many leading ensembles and conductors like Herreweghe’s Collegium Vocale, Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir, Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée, Suzuki’s Bach Collegium, or John Butt’s Dunedin consort, have found the right balance between HIP-style austerity in vibrato etc. AND having sufficient passion, energy and warmth in the playing.

    In any case, I’m very much looking forward to your promised rant on HIP, you can always learn from people who disagree with you.

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