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

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Reviewer: Huntley Dent


Baroque music doesn’t generally occasion headlines, but it’s newsworthy when the grand vizier of HIPness returns to the work that made him famous. The appearance of John Eliot Gardiner’s B-Minor Mass was a recording milestone in the 1980s, and I imagine a large majority of Fanfare readers have either heard it or own it. In a stroke the massive, reverential style of performing Bach’s choral works, as institutionalized by Karl Richter and Wolfgang Gönnenwein, disappeared from the face of the earth. There had been predecessors, of course, especially Nikolaus Harnoncourt and his Concentus Musicus Wien. And Baroque music had begun to slim down for several decades, as witness the B-Minor Mass under Neville Marriner, first welcomed in Fanfare in 1979. On the reissue of the Marriner set in 1986, reviewer George Chien commented, “Say what you will about the decline of the West, but the fact that at least eight B-minor Masses are now available on compact disc can only be a hopeful sign….”

Today ArkivMusic lists 96 recordings, counting overlaps, and I’d wager that the first Gardiner recording is the best-seller among them. Michael Ullman and William Youngren both put it on their Want List for 1987. On the other hand, some of us—a sliver of a minority—found Gardiner’s approach too light, brisk, and ultimately non-sacred. His remake, recorded at St. Luke’s in London in March 2015, will delight or annoy in the same proportion as the first version, because Gardiner’s approach has become even lighter and brisker. But by a slim margin I found it more suitably religious.

The program note consists of a lengthy excerpt from a new book by Gardiner titled, rather deftly, Music in the Castle of Heaven. He has no trouble citing the religious magnitude of Bach’s accomplishment: “So after a gap of thirty years, with this opportunity to re-record Bach’s great Mass, I am ever more conscious that this of all Bach’s sacred works demands the utmost of its performers—technically, musically, and spiritually.” Yet in practice the music rolls all too glibly from his hands. The text is attended to in a generic sense: Laudamus te is quick and happy, Qui tollis peccata mundi is slow and solemn. But as to particulars, the words mean little, serving for the most part as a foundation for skipping lightly down the path. At times, as in the frantically rushed chorus, Cum Sancto Spiritu, we get a parody of jubilation that sounds like singing on speed.

Gardiner’s note mentions monumentality, but all such terms are relative. Compared to Klemperer’s Kyrie eleison, which is monumental as in Himalayan, Gardiner’s approach is lightweight. But he deserves respect for his aesthetic aim, which is always to clarify and make transparent. As a result, the listening ear is pulled in, paying attention to the music starting with details first, but the overall emotional impact, for me, is much diminished. (Also, Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir members, excellent as they are, have been coached to pronounce “kyrie” as “kyri-eh.” The last syllable is then abruptly cut off, making for peculiar phrasing of the text.) Another marker of Gardiner’s present style is that any note not played as legato is clipped and detaché; the effect is vaguely like Morse code.

According to Gardiner, he has approached the B-Minor Mass as an extension of his long-standing cantata project on the Soli Deo Gloria label—many installments have been reviewed in Fanfare. After more than 20 years, he knows this cadre of singers and players well. On the instrumental side, everything is golden. The English Baroque Soloists are 35 strong and expert in all departments. My hat goes off to hornist Anneke Scott, whose execution of the fiendish solo part in Quoniam tu solus sanctus is by far the most remarkable I’ve ever encountered on valveless horn. Unfortunately, the solo singers are weaker and meeker than on Gardiner’s first set and not remotely in competition with the great soloists of the archaic past. Although two of each vocal category is employed, except for a single soprano, I can’t single anyone out for special appreciation, because there is a uniform landscape of pleasant, easily listened-to singing. My least favorite is probably bass David Shipley, who gets through Quoniam tu solus sanctus more or less honorably while nowhere matching the artistry of the horn player.

One glitch with the original version on DG Archiv was the sound, a screechy, thin example of digital recording in the bad old days. The present recording sounds better, certainly, but far from ideal. The chorus sounds gritty in the bass line and hard-edged on top, at least on my home audio system. Taken all for all, the first time around might still be the best, but Gardiner has remained true to his interpretation, and his many fans won’t be disappointed. Slimline cardboard packaging with the booklet glued inside. Your appreciation of Gardiner’s notes may depend on your tolerance for a sentence like the following: “The inscribing of the initial three-fold Kyrie in sound at the outset of Bach’s B minor Mass can seem almost a physical act, one in which each of us, as listener or performer, is individually or collectively invoked.” I ditched early.

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