Thursday, January 20, 2011

Bring on the Recordings!

I've been asked by singers and fans of the choir what recordings I "recommend" of the B minor mass. Answering that question is not quite as easy as it sounds, since the reply depends on several things, including what mood I'm in!

Fifty or sixty years ago, during the height of the home "hi-fi" stereo system, audiophiles and classical music fans were collecting recordings made by some of the great conductors and their orchestras. Fritz Reiner and Chicago Symphony, Charles M√ľnch and Boston, Malcolm Sargent and London Philharmonic. Their large ensembles and massive sounds delighted the owners of these hi-fi's, who no doubt luxuriated in the fullness of sound in their own homes.

Thirty or forty years ago, some fans of 18th century (and earlier) music, began to question the appropriateness of playing such music with super-large ensembles, and performing it upon instruments that grew in size and sound output in the 19th and 20th centuries. These wonderings eventually led to what became known as "historically informed" performances...playing so-called "early" music with ensembles and instruments that are more akin to what a composer of such music might have experienced.

Soon, listeners could collect recordings with just dozens of instruments instead of over one hundred, and equally few singers. Conductor and scholar Joshua Rifkin was among the first to raise the possibility that Bach used only one singer per part for most Leipzig performances of his work. Though there is not complete agreement on this point, the facts do seem to support Rifkin's hypothesis, at least in part.

So, today, one can hear a wide swath of recordings of B minor mass (and other 18th century works). Some are with huge ensembles, some with very small, and some in between.

Rather than devote myself exclusively to one camp or the other, I like to mix it up. Here's a sample of what I'm listening to, with a little description of what each is like. Happy listening!

Helmuth Rilling, conductor, with the Stuttgart Bach Collegium (there are a couple different recordings out there). Rilling records with a choir of about 50, and "modern" instruments. However, his performers are stylistically very sensitive. The result is a recording that has the power of larger ensembles with the agility of small ones.

Robert Shaw, conductor, with soprano Sylvia McNair and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Choir numbers about 60, but Shaw utilizes a "concertist/ripienist" division which deploys a smaller chorus for contrapuntal expositions, bringing in the tutti a bit later on. Though not everyone agrees with this approach, it is a good way to help underscore the architecture of the music. Tempi are a bit slower on this recording than most of my others.

Masaaki Suzuki, conductor, with Bach Collegium Japan. This group performs with a small choir, probably less than 20, and players utilize period instruments and play at baroque pitch. I really enjoy his recordings...energetic, tempi on the brisk side, high technical mastery displayed by all performers. (NOTE: SUZUKI AND THE BCJ ARE PERFORMING THE B MINOR MASS AT VALPARAISO UNIVERSITY ON MARCH 19...DON'T MISS IT!!)

John Butt, conductor, Dunedin Consort and Players. Choir is one on a part, period instruments at baroque pitch. Very fine recording, if one doesn't mind missing the choral texture.

You probably have your own favorite...and that's great! It amazes me how great music triumphs almost no matter what we do to it; large ensemble or small, modern pitch or baroque, the miracle of this music comes through.

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