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Fanfare Magazine: 39:5 (05-06/2016) 
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Soli Deo Gratia

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Reviewer: Jerry Dubins


It has taken John Eliot Gardiner 30 years to return to Bach’s B-Minor Mass. His first go at it was for Archiv in 1985, with the same Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists but with a different lineup of solo vocalists. That earlier effort was hailed at the time as a critical triumph, though Gardiner was by no means the first on record with a period instrument performance. He was preceded by Harnoncourt and Johan van der Meer, both in 1968; Joshua Rifkin’s controversial one-voice-per-part performance—never mind that Bach himself asked for three to four voices per part—in 1982; Andrew Parrott, who followed Rifkin into the breach with a one-voice-per-part performance with his Taverner Consort in 1984; and Gustav Leonhardt, who squeaked in with La Petite Bande in 1985, just ahead of Gardiner that same year.

But Gardiner’s approach to period performance practice has always taken a different tack. Not for Gardiner the one-voice- or one-player-per-part philosophy. He sees no reason why a group of instrumentalists playing on period instruments in period style should not constitute in numbers and project in sound the makeup of a modern chamber-sized orchestra, and to balance that a correspondingly large contingent of singers. Gardiner is a pragmatist who weighs historical priorities against the logistics of performing a work such as Bach’s Mass in large concert venues before large audiences.

This performance further advances Gardiner’s philosophy. Following up on their Soli Deo Bach cantata journey, Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists, and the Monteverdi Choir presented the Mass to sold-out crowds in Munich, Frankfurt, Lucerne, Aix-en-Provence, and Paris, before finally returning to London to make this recording in open session in 2015. To give you an idea of just how contrary Gardiner’s thinking is to the HIP “minimalists,” his orchestra is made up of 12 violins, four violas, three cellos, two double basses, two flutes, three oboes, two bassoons, horn, three trumpets, timpani, organ, and harpsichord. The chorus—Bach would plotz—is made up of 13 sopranos, nine altos (three of them of the male variety), seven tenors, and six basses.

In 1985, most of Gardiner’s soloists were drawn from the choir, though he did bring in a couple of ringers in the guise of Lynne Dawson and Patrizia Kwella. In this new version, all of the vocal soloists are members of the choir. Thankfully, Gardiner also bucks the practice of some of his HIP colleagues who assign one or more of the solo alto parts to a male alto. As noted above, three of the alto choristers are males—at least their first names would suggest as much—but none of them is assigned the solo alto parts in the Christe eleison, Et in unum Dominum, or Agnus Dei. Smart move.

To compare timings between Gardiner 1985 and Gardiner 2015, you’d probably conclude that his reading of the score hasn’t changed that much. The new version is 102 minutes vs. 106 for the earlier one. Four minutes is a negligible difference over a span of an hour and three quarters, but in many ways, Gardiner’s performance of the Mass has undergone some noticeable changes, most of which I attribute to the real-time, real-world experience he has gained from his many performances of the work before live audiences. As I said above, Gardiner is a pragmatist. Conductors learn what works in a live setting and what doesn’t. They sense when the audience is engaged and when it starts to fidget and become bored. They adjust tempos and articulation in response to hall acoustics. No two live performances are the same; it’s a dynamic process.

Gardiner’s 2015 Mass is the collective result of his many preceding live performances. It’s not just the bracing tempos in movements such as the Cum Sancto Spiritu and the Et resurrexit that generate excitement, it’s the rhythmic crispness in the orchestra and the incisive articulation in the chorus that wake us up and grab our attention. Do I love everything about this new Mass? No. I find that the staccato-like delivery of the chorus, abetted by the slight separation between notes in the orchestra, contributes to a feeling of choppiness in the Crucifixus, but I understand the dramatic impulse behind Gardiner’s approach.

Drama, in fact, is the animating force behind this performance. Gardiner knows that Bach’s Mass, first of all, is not a single, unified whole but a work whose parts were composed over time and pieced together; and second of all that it’s not a Mass that would have had a place in Bach’s Lutheran Leipzig. Indeed, it was never performed in its entirety in Bach’s lifetime. Whether Bach thought of it as such or not, the B-Minor Mass may be one of the very first examples of a “concert” Mass—i.e., not intended, or even specifically suitable, for celebration of the Roman liturgy in church.

Recognizing this, Gardiner seems to approach the work as he previously has the St. Matthew and St. John Passions; that is as a dramatic narrative that tells a story, rather than as an act of reverence and devotion. This is a Mass that plays to strong emotional contrasts between the tragic, the sorrowful, and the joyful, and in so doing it puts a theatrical, if somewhat secular, spin on the work. That is not meant pejoratively. Gardiner’s vision of Bach’s Mass is one that speaks to the human condition as opposed to the Divine; and once again, I think it springs from his depth of real-world experience, rather than of academic scholarship, in conducting the work before large audiences in concert hall venues, which requires a different approach to that of performing in a church setting.

The soloists are all seasoned singers and superb in their roles, though I would have to accord special praise to bass Alex Ashworth for his ravishingly beautiful Et in Spiritum Sanctus, and to tenor Nick Pritchard for his seraphic Benedictus. The English Baroque Soloists is what it is, a band of professional, highly skilled period instrument players, until that is the huffing and puffing horn and trumpets aspirate and fail to trill. I suppose it’s just the nature of the beasts. Other than that, most of the time the playing is as smooth and polished and as well integrated as you would expect to hear from any modern instrument ensemble. When it comes to the Monteverdi Choir, there’s no huffing and puffing or failure to trill. This is a marvelous chorus, as it always has been.

Those who, like me, find themselves appalled by the impoverishment of the HIP movement by the one-to-a-part Lilliputians can welcome this new Gardiner Bach Mass with open arms, open ears, open hearts, and open wallets.


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