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Mass in B Minor, BWV 232
By Teri Noel Towe (1991)


This critical discography of the recordings of the Mass in B minor, was completed late in 1989. No effort has been done to update it. No new recordings have been added, but if you are interested in an updated, thorough, and accurate (as possible) discography of the recordings of the Mass in B minor, please look at: Mass in B minor BWV 232 - Recordings. The article itself was left "as is", to stand or fall, on its own, as a historical document that reflects the state of affairs as Teri Noel Towe found them, just before the volcanic explosion of new allegedly "authentic" recordings -- purportedly "HIP" and employing period instruments -- that have overtaken and engulfed the listener, novice or educated, like a nuée ardente. The knowledgeable and up-to-date reader will spot the occasional "inaccuracy" that will serve as a cogent reminder that this essay, like its fellows in this section of my home pages, is a fly in amber.

Please remember that the copyright in this article belong to the Cambridge University Press, and, should you choose to honour Teri Noel Towe and his work product by quoting from it, please be sure to state that the source is Choral Music On Records, that the final version of this discography is to be found in Choral Music On Records, and that the discography appears at this Website by courtesy of the Cambridge University Press.

Teri Noel Towe (December 2001)



From Leipzig to Bethlehem
The Earliest Recordings
The Robert Shaw Recordings
The Herbert von Karajan Recordings
The Recordings in the Neo-Baroque Leipzig Style
The 1950s
The 1960s and 1970s
The First Period Instrument Recordings
Alphabetical Discography


From Leipzig to Bethlehem

The Mass in B Minor BWV 232 is best thought of as an anthology, a collection of his "best" sacred music that Bach assembled in the last years of his life. During the 1730s and 1740s, Bach put together several such kunstbücher (literally, books of art); the most widely known are The Art of Fugue, the four volumes of the Clavier Übung, and the 17 Chorales of Different Kinds. Some of these anthologies Bach either published or intended to publish; others, like the Mass, he did not. These less "commercial" distillations he left to his heirs, physical and spiritual, to preserve and disseminate to those who were interested.

With the exception of the opening four measures of the first "Kyrie", it seems that every movement of the Mass is a reworking of an existing vocal composition, either sacred or secular. At least one such movement, the "Crucifixus", dates to the Weimar years. The "Kyrie" and "Gloria" were put together in 1733, as a presentation piece to the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, from whom Bach sought, ultimately successfully, the professionally and socially invaluable position of Court Composer. The "Sanctus" is a careful and subtle revision of the setting of the text that he wrote for performance in Leipzig on Christmas Day, 1723. The "Symbolum Nicenum" [the "Credo" section], and the concluding movements of the Mass were added in the late 1740s, when both Bach's eyesight and his health were failing.

The "Kyrie", the "Gloria", and the "Symbolum Nicenum" are all in five voices; the texture expands to six voices in the "Sanctus" and eight in the "Osanna". As Joshua Rifkin's controversial, but as yet unrefuted, findings have demonstrated convincingly, the Mass in B Minor, like almost all of Bach concerted vocal music in fact, was meant to be sung by one singer to each line, even in the "choruses". The principle is a simple one: Each performer got his own part, no matter how big or how small his rôle, and he shared that part with no one else.

The complement of five "soloists" has caused numerous problems over the years. Who, for instance, sings the "Laudamus te", which is assigned to the second soprano, in a performance for which only one soprano soloist has been engaged? The soprano or the alto? Elly Ameling once remarked in a radio interview that it was the soloist who made the mistake of looking at the conductor first when the aria came up at rehearsal. Many conductors, however, assign the two bass solos to different soloists, when Bach calls only for one bass; the reason is simple: The "Quoniam" lies lower in the main than the "Et in spiritum sanctum". While assembling the second half of the Mass some ten to fifteen years after he delivered the parts of the "Kyrie" and "Gloria" to the Court in Dresden, Bach was not concerned about making the compass of the two arias comport comfortably with one another.

Although many, if not all, of the components could have been, and were, performed as parts of the various Leipzig church services for which Bach provided the music, he gave no complete performance of the B Minor Mass, nor, apparently, did he ever intend to put one on. It is, therefore, supremely ironic that this, Bach's own distillation of his "greatest" vocal music, apparently did not receive its first complete performance until more than 100 years after his death.

There was, however, great interest in the work among the cognoscenti in the decades after Bach's death as well as in the years after the onset of the general revival of interest in his music that was spawned by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdys seminal performance of the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 with the Berlin Singakademie in 1829. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach put on a performance of the "Symbolum Nicenum" in Hamburg in 1784, preceding it with a short instrumental introduction of his own composition. (For this performance, as a guide to his copyists, Philipp Emanuel "touched up" the orchestration a bit on his father's autograph score, which also has sustained some water damage, and his editorial changes went unnoticed until nearly ten years ago. As it happens, therefore, a copy made by Philipp Emanuel's pupil, Schwenke, provides a more accurate text than the autograph itself.)

Haydn owned a copy of the Mass. Beethoven unsuccessfully sought to obtain one. Spontini put on a performance of the "Symbolum Nicenum", through the "Et resurrexit", in Berlin in 1828, with 92 in the chorus, 56 strings, clarinets, horns, and bassoons, but no trumpets or oboes. Under the direction of Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen, the Berlin Singakademie gave the "Kyrie" and "Gloria" in 1834, and the balance of the work the following year. Portions of the Mass were performed at the Birmingham Festival as early as 1837, and the Mass was among the works regularly performed by the London Bach Choir, which was founded in 1876.

The first complete performance of the B Minor Mass in the USA was given in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, by The Bach Choir of Bethlehem, under the direction of its founder, Dr. J. Fred Wolle, in 1900. This first public presentation of the Mass in America inaugurated an annual series of festival performances of the work that continues in Bethlehem to this day.

For three decades, from 1939 -- seven years after Dr. Wolle's death -- until 1969, The Bach Choir was directed by the distinguished Welsh choral conductor, Ifor Jones. His forthright, Romantic reading of the score -- chockerblock full of rubatos and ritards -- was recorded in 1960 [22]. Even though it is clearly his own interpretative handiwork, Jones's performance preserves many of the interpretive traditions and conventions that had been established by Dr. Wolle in his 32 years at the helm of the Choir, traditions and interpretative quirks that have been almost completely expunged, alas, in recent years. The first "Kyrie", for instance, is prby a Moravian chorale. Intoned softly off stage by a brass choir, the hymn setting gives the pitch to the chorus, which comes in, forte, on the chorale's final chord. Un-Bachian though it may be, the effect is undeniably overwhelming.

A very large but exceptionally well trained amateur chorus -- more than 175 singers -- is balanced against a smallish orchestra made up largely of members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, including such distinguished instrumentalists as hornist Mason Jones and oboist John DeLancie. The vocal soloists are average; only the golden trumpet of soprano Lois Marshall stands out. In better voice than she was three years earlier when she sang the soprano part for Eugen Jochum, she is assigned the "Laudamus te" in addition to the music normally given to the first soprano. This important documentation of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem's approach to the Mass before it was diluted by a much more recent director's preference for "authenticity" rather than local tradition is also a satisfying reading, one that will prove particularly appealing to those who like Bach played "with the heart on the sleeve" as the old saying goes.


The Earliest Recordings

The earliest recordings of any portion of the Mass appear to be a group of four 12" 78s recorded by His Master's Voice at a Royal Albert Hall concert in 1926 [M-1]. The Royal Choral Society, a massive choir, under the direction of the highly regarded organist and choirmaster Dr. Edward Cuthbert Bairstow, sings with gusto and with surprising subtlety in the handful of choruses that were rather inexpertly recorded by a pioneer mobile recording team. One cannot help but wonder what the solos in this concert performance of the Mass were like, but these eight sides give the curious listener a fascinating glimpse into Bach as his music was understood England before the Second World War and before the revival of interest in the "correct" performance of early music took hold.

Of greater importance, particularly to those who are interested in the history of performance practice as it is documented on records, is a recording of the "Cum sancto spiritu" by the Berlin Philharmonischer Chor under the direction of its founder, Siegfried Ochs (1858-1929) [M-2], a distinguished choral conductor who stood in a direct line of pedagogical descent from Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. His fleet, broadly phrased, urgent, and dramatic account of the final chorus of the "Gloria" provides an important, invaluable, and tantalizing hint of what the true Mendelssohnian Bach style must have been like. {For a discussion of the importance of Siegfried Ochs's recordings to our knowledge of historic performance practice, please read: Present-Day Misconceptions About Bach Performance Practice in the 19th Century -- The Evidence of the Recordings.}

The first complete recording of the Mass was made in 1929; there were seven sessions over a ten week period, beginning March 18 and ending May 31. Under the direction of Albert Coates [1], this wildly uneven production contains many marvelous moments. Among them are the contributions of the stellar vocal quartet: radiant singing from Elisabeth Schumann in the duets, a suitably brisk "Laudamus te" from the underestimated alto Margaret Balfour, a moving "Benedictus" from the silver-throated Walter Widdop, and a stellar "Quoniam" and "Et in spiritum sanctum" from the remarkable Friedrich Schorr, a great Wagnerian bass who nonetheless could sing early music with emotion, empathy, a clear, full tone, and exemplary diction. In fact, it can be safely said that neither of these two arias has ever been better sung on records.

Among the negatives are the crazy balances between chorus and orchestra, Coates's penchant for massive ritards before side breaks, the panoply of continuo instruments (Some of the arias have piano, others the harpsichord; organ is used in the choruses.), and some simply horrendous intonation. (How the two English horns managed to stay so consistently out of tune with one another in the "Et in spiritum sanctum" is an enigma for the ages!) Clearly, recording the Mass was a challenge to all concerned, performers and engineers alike; they accepted it eagerly, and, uneven though the results may be, this important and unjustly forgotten recording stood alone in the catalogue for nearly two decades.


The Robert Shaw Recordings

With a "correct" complement of five soloists, a superbly prepared small chorus, and a crack "pick-up" orchestra, Robert Shaw made a recording of the Mass early in 1947 that must have struck those familiar only with the Coates performance as a radical departure from the norm [2]. In this, one of the last major recordings recorded onto 78 RPM discs (16" acetates), Shaw, like Coates, indulges in ritards before side breaks from time to time, but his interpretation, unlike Coates's, is remarkably streamlined and straightforward. The vocal soloists, among the best oratorio singers then active in New York, are all more than adequate, but it is the instrumental soloists who are particularly impressive. Some of the finest free-lance musicians in the United States participated in the recording, and the instrumental obbligatos played by the likes of violinist Oscar Shumsky, oboe d'amorist Robert Bloom, and French hornist John Barrows make for especially rewarding listening.

Again with a "correct" complement of five soloists, a superbly prepared small chorus, and a crack "pick-up" orchestra, Robert Shaw recorded the Mass a second time in June, 1960 [21]. His basic interpretation may have changed little in the intervening years, but nonetheless the recording was both radical and musicologically significant at the time of its release three decades ago. Shaw heeded the advice of the distinguished musicologist and Bach scholar Gerhard Herz and applied the principle of concertino and ripieno to many of the choruses. In the especially florid choruses like the "Gloria", the "Cum sancto spiritu", and the "Et resurrexit", for example, the exposed, sparsely accompanied contrapuntal sections are sung by a group of nine concertisten.

While Herz's analysis of the significance of Bach's "solo" and "tutti" markings in his vocal music now seems to be incorrect in light of Joshua Rifkin's discoveries, Shaw's application of the "solo/tutti" principle to the choruses in the B Minor Mass in this recording represented a startling and seminal departure from the standard practice that proved especially refreshing at the time. Its renown in the 1960s and 1970s was so widespread that an unauthorized single disc of excerpts was even published by Melodiya in the U. S. S. R.!

Ironically, however, Shaw's interpretation now sounds dated, because of the surprisingly slow tempos and an approach to the score that seems rather Romantic even though there are hardly any interpretive excesses in evidence. As in the 1947 set, the singing and playing are of a very high standard, and it is to be regretted that this important recording of the Mass has been unavailable for so long; it is a justifiably sought after collector's item.

Not only has an unauthorized disc of excerpts from this performance been published in the U. S. S. R. but also the Soviet state record label, Melodiya, has issued a recording of a live performance of the Mass that was given by the Robert Shaw Chorale in the Great Hall of The Moscow Conservatory on November 27, 1962, during the Chorale's historic tour of the Soviet Union [26]. No soloists listed on the recording, and at this late date it has proven difficult to determine who the soloists were at this performance, particularly since most of the solos were rotated among several singers during the course of the tour. As this article went to press, it was certain only that Florence Kopleff was the full-throated and remarkable contralto and Seth McCoy the praiseworthy clear voiced tenor in the Moscow performance. Interpretatively, the reading is the twin of the second commercial account, except that it is yet warmer and more plastic.


The Herbert von Karajan Recordings

In 1950, the bicentenary of the death of Sebastian Bach was commemorated by a divided Germany and by a world just beginning to recover from the horrors and devastation of the Second World War. Two live performances of the Mass from that historic year have found their way to commercial recordings.

The first of these performances was given in the Musikvereinsaal in Vienna in 1950, at the International Bach Festival [3]. It is the first, and the most exhilarating, of four recorded performances of the Mass under the direction of Herbert von Karajan that have so far been released commercially. While by no means competitive with the studio recordings, this fascinating document preserves Karajan's view of the Mass at its most colorful and "operatic". Grand ritards, rich dynamics and expression, powerful interpretations from five world class soloists (including Kathleen Ferrier who otherwise never recording the alto solos and duets from the Mass in their entirety), and complete commitment from chorus and orchestra (except for a tentative hornist who sounds absolutely terrified in the "Quoniam"!) make this dramatic "Furtwängleresque" reading of the Mass a thrilling listening experience, the wildly variable and often muddy sound not withstanding.

Five years later, Herbert von Karajan made the first of his two commercial recordings of the Mass [6]. Once again, the locale was Vienna, but the only "repeater" from the 1950 concert performance is soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who once more acquits herself magnificently in the first soprano's three duets. Marga Höffgen is cool and clear in the alto solos including a particularly slow "Agnus Dei", but Nicolai Gedda sounds strangely uninvolved in the painfully languid "Benedictus". Karajan's interpretation is less operatic and less dramatic than it was five years earlier, but this incisive and persuasive reading remains a satisfying one, one of the best in the "modern" style. Although a monaural recording, the sound is more natural and better focussed than in the later DGG stereo version.

Herbert von Karajan presented the B Minor Mass at the Salzburg Festival in 1961, and the performance recorded on August 20 of that year for later broadcast was released commercially in Italy in the mid 1980s [24]. Again available only in monaural sound, the performance features an especially fine battalion of soloists. Leontyne Price sings the first soprano's music with the power and conviction of a Verdi heroine (or, at least, a soloist in the "Manzoni" Requiem!); Christa Ludwig's molten sound is powerful in the second soprano and alto rôles; and Nicolai Gedda is radiant, sensitive, and effortless in all of the tenor solos, including the "Benedictus". Walter Berry, alas, did not have one of his best days; his singing in the "Quoniam” is mildly tentative and uncommitted; Gérard Souzay's glistening, light baritone is perfect for the "Et in spiritum sanctum", but his diction is at times unpardonably mushy for a lieder singer of his stature. Particularly in the arias and duets, Karajan's tempos to be brisker than in either of the two commercial recordings.

In his second commercial recording of the Mass, published in 1974, Herbert von Karajan coddles and overinterprets the music [37]. It is not, however, a case of familiarity breeding contempt; rather, it is a case of sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Karajan's genuine affection and profound empathy for the Mass has begotten an interpretation that is too solicitous, too respectful, and too loving. This impression is reinforced by the sonic aura of the recording, which is blemished by the bizarre artificial sound and balances that infect so many of his later recordings; the chorus is distant within the ensemble, and the strings are peculiarly louder than the brass. The arias are very slow in the main. Christa Ludwig sings with a reserved drama and wonderful secure tone, particularly in the "Agnus Dei", and Peter Schreier responds marvelously to the challenge posed by an incredibly slow tempo in the "Benedictus".


The Recordings in the Neo-Baroque Leipzig Style

The second of the 1950 commemorative performances to be released commercially is a group of excerpts from a complete performance in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig that was issued in the West by Cantate in the early 1960s [M-10]. Günther Ramin, then the incumbent of the Thomascantorate that Bach had held more than two centuries before, employed large forces, including two boys' choirs, in bringing forth his singular conception of the Mass: granitic yet not forbidding, monumental yet never stolid. A disciple of his immediate predecessor, Karl Straube (1873-1953), who had fused the neo-Classical Mendelssohnian Bach style prevalent in Leipzig and in Germany at the time of the First World War with both tenets of authentic performance practice and Regerian Germanic post-Romanticism, Ramin strives for and achieves powerful and grand effects; the extreme ritard at the end of the concluding "Dona nobis pacem", for example, is mind boggling. A recording of the complete performance exists. One hopes that it will soon be issued in its entirety.

That the performance would be worth releasing complete is confirmed by the commercial recording that Günther Ramin made of the Mass shortly before he died [13]. A scrappy orchestra, a coarse chorus, by and large indifferent soloists, and the pressures of working with unfamiliar forces under severe time constraints all apparently combined to defeat Ramin's attempt to successfully preserve his unique and powerful interpretation on a commercial recording.

Ramin's immediate successor at the Thomaskirche, Kurt Thomas, recorded the Mass in the late 1950s, shortly before he emigrated to the West [11]. His a drab, flaccid account, leaden rather than majestic, is marred by acidulous instrumental playing. A little better is the recording made in the late 1950s by Rudolf Mauersberger, the then director of the Dresdner Kreuzchor - one of the two boys' choirs that participated in Ramin's 1950 performance in the Thomaskirche [16]. The choruses are crisply sung, with chiseled articulation, by the well trained choir, and the solo quartet is both sensitive and well matched, but the performance as a whole sounds clinical and lacks both warmth and subtlety.

The harpsichord continuo in the 1950 Ramin performance was played by Karl Richter, who, like Kurt Thomas, settled in the West. In 1961, with his 90 voice Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra and a stellar solo quintet, Richter made the quintessential recording of the Mass in the "modern" neo-Baroque Leipzig style [23]. Now three decades old, this extraordinary performance remains unchallenged as the recording of choice for those whwant a "modern" reading of the work that is at the same time mindful of stylistic issues. Richter's charismatic, passionate, incisive, and pulse quickening reading is the logical extension of the Ramin approach, but it is more polished, less rough hewn. This vividly recorded account remains the paradigm against which all "modern instrument" performances of the Mass in B Minor must be measured.

Several years ago, as a memorial to Karl Richter, Deutsche Grammophon Archiv issued, in Japan only, a recording of a performance of the Mass that Richter had given in Tokyo in 1969 while on tour with the Munich Bach Choir [32]. Cut off of the same bolt of interpretative cloth as the studio recording, this fascinating document does not, however, quite measure up to its precursor either sonically or technically. Both the recording and the television film of the Mass that Richter made in the early 1970s (Will that performance, recorded in a magnificent Baroque pilgrimage church in Bavaria, never appear on video cassette or video disc?) show, however, show not only that he adhered to his interpretation throughout his career but also that he never became glib or facile. The interpretation always sounds fresh.

Richter, by the way, is one of the handful of conductors who elected not to follow the text of the Friedrich Smend's scholarly edition of the Mass, published by the Neue Bach Ausgabe in 1955, in one important particular. The autograph does not specify the obligato instrument in the "Benedictus". The Bach Gesellschaft edition and all other editions prior to that published by the NBA give the part to the violin. Smend shows convincingly that, on the basis of its compass and the absence of double stops, this instrumental solo was meant for the flute. Richter and a few others, like Herbert von Karajan, stuck by the violin through interpretative thick and scholarly thin. Unless specified to the contrary, however, the reader may assume that for all recordings made after the appearance of the Neue Bach Ausgabe Edition, the obligato in the "Benedictus" is assigned, "correctly", to the flute.

For many, the inheritor of Karl Richter's mantle as the great interpreter of the Bach sacred vocal music in the "modern" German neo-Baroque tradition is Helmuth Rilling. With his Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart, he has recorded the B Minor Mass twice. Of the two sets, the first, which was published in 1977, is far and away the better [40]. Often searingly clear but never clinical choral singing and instrumental playing and exemplary contributions from the five soloists are the most important hallmarks of this interpretation. Rilling's tempos are brisk but never overly so, and the interpretation has a grandeur and an incisiveness that evokes Richter's.

In the second half, at least, Helmuth Rilling's 1988 recording of the Mass [57] has many of the same qualities as his first. His choice of brisker tempos in the "Gloria", particularly, has resulted in an interpretation that sounds oddly glib and facile; it lacks the profundity and incisiveness so much in evidence in the earlier account. While commendable, the soloists are not, with the exception of tenor Howard Crook, up to the same high standard set by those in the 1977 recording.

Rilling's were not the first recordings of the Mass to be made by a Stuttgart ensemble. In 1971, Karl Münchinger, the founder of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, committed his interpretation of the work to disc [34]. It is much in the same vein as the Ramin, Richter, and Rilling accounts; in the high neo-Baroque German style, the reading is warm and earnest, solid but always plastic. the chorus, however, is muddy sounding from time to time, and there are some patches of gamey intonation. There are five first rate soloists, including two sopranos, so Elly Ameling, who sings the first soprano part with great beauty, did not have to worry about being the first to look at the conductor at the first rehearsal for the "Laudamus te".

The most recent of the neo-Baroque "modern" instrument accounts in the Straube-Ramin vein to emanate from the German Democratic Republic is Peter Schreier's, recorded in 1981-1982 [45]. Schreier unfortunately allowed himself to be seduced by some of the musicological fads that were voguish in the 1970s. He often stresses strong beats with swells and sforzandi, and he assigns the corno da caccia obligato in the "Quoniam" to a curious modern hybrid brass instrument of the same name that was invented to respond to some highly dubious "findings" that purportedly "proved" that the corno da caccia part in the Mass was meant to be transposed up, rather than down. Ludwig Güttler plays the part superbly on this bastard brass instrument, but for the discerning listener the obtrusiveness of the repeated "pedal" tones as played "up" rather than "down" and the failure of the instrument to blend at all with the two bassoons, effectively puts the kibosh on the purported "authentic" new "old" brass instrument. On the plus side are a fine group of soloists, just tempos, and enthusiastic singing and playing from chorus and orchestra alike.


The 1950s

During the decade following the commemoration of the bicentenary of Bach's death in 1950, a number of other recordings of the Mass, in addition to those previously discussed, were released. Among the first was Hermann Scherchen's [4]. Predictably quirky and iconoclastic, his recording features what is undoubtedly the slowest first "Kyrie" of all. Scherchen takes Bach's marking - "Largo" - absolutely at face value; the second "Kyrie" is also very slow. The "Benedictus", sung sotto voce by Anton Dermota, is weird: gummy with regard to both tempo and interpretation. Gertrud Burgsthaler-Schuster, the contralto, sings the "Agnus Dei" particularly beautifully; she is emotive but never maudlin.

The distinguished German conductor Fritz Lehmann recorded the Mass shortly before his premature death. His is a powerful and assertive if somewhat brusque reading that calls to mind the famous description of Wagner's Symphony in C: The road may be more than a little bumpy, but he reaches his destination. Lehmann employs a relatively large chorus and orchestra, and the basic tactus is measured but never turgid; in short, it is a grandiose interpretation of the Ramin type. The soloists are uneven: Margherita de Landi is a rather unsubtle contralto, but Helmut Krebs's distinctive, pure, patrician tenor voice lends dignity and pathos to the "Benedictus" particularly. Lehmann's interpretation, which was recorded in concert, if the less that accurate trumpet playing and some acerbic instrumental intonation can be taken as dispositive evidence, appeared in at least four different incarnations during the 1950s and 1960s, always with the same soloists listed but not always with the same orchestra and chorus receiving credit. Suffice it to say that all four issues listed in the discography are the same performance, note for note, and the Berlin Radio forces most likely the "correct" ones [9].

The greatest question mark in the discography of the Mass in B Minor is the anonymous recording that appeared in the USA in the mid 1950s on the Gramophone (no relation to His Master's Voice) label [10]. Neither the conductor nor the soloists are identified; the performance is ascribed simply to The Cathedral Choir and Symphony Orchestra. On the basis of the pronunciations of words like "coeli", one would surmise that tperformance is German in origin, and it is almost certainly a recording of a radio broadcast. Normally, recordings like this can be given short shrift in an article of this kind, but this set is the exception that proves the rule, for it fortuitously preserves an excellent, majestically paced "Romantic" interpretation of singular vision, commitment, and individuality, performed by a large chorus and orchestra and an exceptionally fine quintet of soloists. (There are two basses, and the soprano sounds suspiciously like Erna Berger.) Who was responsible for this magnificent reading is anybody's educated guess, but is it possible that this is a recording of an otherwise undocumented broadcast of the B Minor Mass conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler? One thing is certain; it does not closely resemble the interpretations of any of the conductors who made "commercial" recordings of the Mass during this period.

Another "live" recording from the same period was made at the International Music Festival in Strasbourg, France, in 1958 [17]. Under the direction of Fritz Münch, the elder brother of the distinguished conductor Charles Munch, this poorly balanced recording, in which the chorus is dim in relation to the orchestra is an interesting souvenir of a worthy, earnest, and somewhat Debussyian provincial interpretation of the Mass, which is characterized by sluggish tempos and acidulous trumpet playing.

Eugen Jochum conducted his first recording of the Mass that same year [15]. His is a soft, gentle, and dignified approach to the score that stresses its contemplative aspects. Lois Marshall is not in as good form as she was three years later for Ifor Jones, and a tentative and somewhat querulous Peter Pears is not up to his usual high standard either. Eugen Jochum's second recording of the Mass, made nearly 25 years later, is little different from his first [44]. Overall, the soloists are marginally better, but Robert Holl is the only one who really stands out. He sings the "Et in spiritum sanctum" clearly and warmly, with excellent breath control.


The 1960s and 1970s

Anthon van der Horst's interpretation was recorded in concert in the Grote Kerk in Naarden, the Netherlands, in the early 1960s [27]. The sound of the very large chorus is rough, and the recording is both badly balanced and muffled. Van der Horst was a musician much interested in questions of style, and his is one of the first recordings in which the implied, snappy Lombard rhythm is applied to the flute obligato in the "Domine Deus". Its many virtues notwithstanding, however, the van de Horst recording, like the Fritz Münch, is valuable primarily as a souvenir of an important and interesting provincial performance.

Hermann Achenbach's recording [39], which dates from the early 1970s, is another worthy provincial performance; there is nothing of the stellar about it, but it is solid, sensitive, and devoid of pretense or artifice. With reliable soloists and a good medium sized choir and orchestra, this recording is more satisfying than many of those that have been inflicted on unwary listeners by more renowned artists.

Like van der Horst's, Walter Goehr's account of the Mass is also of Dutch origin; it dates from the mid 1960s, and is something of a mixed bag [20]. A good medium sized chorus and a decent orchestra are sabotaged by poor sound; the balance is unnatural. The solo quintet is better than average. Pierrette Alarie is cool and detached; Catherine Delfosse's "Laudamus te" is wrecked by Goehr's painfully slow tempo and gooey interpretation. Grace Hofmann is a fine, plummy alto, and Léopold Simoneau's distinctive, clear French tenor, so easy and unforced at the upper end, lends particular beauty to the "Benedictus". While he never forces and can reach all the notes, Heinz Rehfuss sings with a wooly tone and a tight wobble; he was much better in Karajan's first commercial recording nearly ten years before.

Eugene Ormandy's solid, Central European style reading, which he recorded in 1962 with a large chorus and orchestra [25] is relatively straight forward, though by no means devoid of Romantic flourishes. Yet his sincere, no nonsense, modern "symphony orchestra" approach, which is as appropriate to the Beethoven Missa Solemnis as it is to the B Minor Mass, is always tasteful and is sullied by no interpretive excesses. The male soloists both have clear, well focussed voices that betray no strain at the top. Rosalind Elias's contralto is big, with much vibrato. Both she and Eleanor Steber, however, sound comfortable and at home in this unabashedly twentieth century interpretation of the Mass.

Lorin Maazel's recording [28], which dates from the early 1970s, is neither particularly subtle nor stylish, but his is an enthusiastic, at times iconoclastic reading. The heavily aspirated and overtly articulated "Laudamus te", for instance, is simply perverse, and the plodding "Sanctus" is sung with finicky fastidiousness by the well-trained medium sized chorus.

Remakes, as a rule, are rarely as good as or better than first recordings, and that truism proves accurate with respect to the many instances in which a conductor has tackled the Mass in B Minor twice. One of the few exceptions is Michel Corboz's second recording [43]. His first account [35], which features a large chorus, is majestic and patrician, enthusiastic and sensitive as the mood requires, but the soloists, though adequate, are simply not the equal of those in the later version. While the "Gloria" may not have quite the same majesty the second time around, it is every bit as colorful, and the Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne turns in exceptionally fine and beautifully shaded choral work in the "Et incarnatus est" and the "Crucifixus", which are lusciously atmospheric. The distinctive, well focussed, golden voice of Birgit Finnilä is particularly effective in the "Qui sedes" and the "Agnus Dei", but José Van Dam is a little somnolent in the "Quoniam".

Otto Klemperer's is an often overlooked and much undervalued interpretation of the Mass in B Minor [29]; it ranks with the 1961 Richter set as the best of the "modern" style recordings. Klemperer's is a reading of true grandeur and majesty, of Michelangelesque monumentality. The paradoxical, taut relaxation of the tempos contributes significantly to the aura of radiance and nobility that pervades this dramatic and emotionally intense account. A top flight chorus, a superb orchestra, and an excellent solo quintet are at one with their conductor. Gedda is still excellent in the tenor rôle and is arguably more comfortable singing for Klemperer than he was performing for Karajan nearly fifteen years earlier. Janet Baker sings a forthright, firm, and warm "Laudamus te".

Dame Janet, alas, was in nowhere near as good vocal estate almost a decade later when she sang the same music for Neville Marriner [41]. In fact, of the four soloists, only soprano Margaret Marshall is in top form. Robert Tear's worn tenor voice makes for an unpleasant "Benedictus", and Samuel Ramey is uncharacteristically wooly and wobbly. Vocal problems are not restricted to the soloists; there are some insecure and rough passagin the choruses as well. The whole production seems slightly out of focus, as if the performers and the conductor were suffering from a collective artistic hangover.


The First Period Instrument Recordings

By the time of its release, however, Marriner's recording, like other "modern" instrument accounts, was no longer the rule but the exception. The explosion of interest in period instruments and authentic performance practice had assured that. The first "authentic" recording was Nikolaus Harnoncourt's [30]. It exploded on the Bach world like a bombshell in 1968; depending on one's point of view, it came as a revelation, or a shock, to all who heard it. Five sterling soloists, a crack ensemble of "original" instruments, and a superbly trained chorus of men and boys that fluctuates in size from 42 to sixteen, participate in this streamlined, fleet, but sincerely felt performance. If the illustrations in the booklet that accompanied the original LP release of this recording may be taken as an accurate indicium, the actual conducting was shared by Harnoncourt, who was in charge in the arias and the duets, and Dr. Hans Gillesberger, the director of the Wiener Sängerknaben, who led the ensemble in the choral numbers.

Via this inestimably valuable recording, which remains the only period instrument account in which a boys' choir is used, Harnoncourt and his colleagues revealed facets of the Mass not clearly apparent before. Counterpoint and tone colors obscured to some degree by the different characteristics of modern instruments, characteristics that Bach's internal musical ear could never have anticipated, now began to come out of the mists; all of a sudden, the Mass could be heard with a clarity akin to that of a sunny alpine morning. But Harnoncourt's is neither a clinical nor a "scholarly" performance in the pejorative sense of the term. It has life, it has pizzazz, it has fizz, it has verve.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt re-recorded the Mass, still with a period instrument ensemble but with a mixed choir, in 1985 [53]. Though the soloists are all first rate (Only Kurt Equiluz returned from the 1968 cast.), the larger chorus of female and male voices combine with marginally, but noticeably, slower tempos to make this second version less exciting, less emotionally compelling, and less transparent than the first.

Joshua Rifkin's 1982, Gramophone Award winning, recording of the Mass [46] was every bit as important a trailblazer as Harnoncourt's 1986 set had been fourteen years earlier. Rifkin's intensely powerful, revelatory reading reflects the iconoclastic results of his painstaking and open minded researches into Bach's performance practices. In seeking to understand the documentary evidence in light of the philological evidence of Bach's original performing parts, rather than the other way around, Rifkin arrived at the startling, but obvious -- at least, to the open-minded -- conclusion that every performer got his own part from which to sing or play, which means that, unless doubling parts are present, the vocal lines are meant to be sung by but one singer, even in the choruses. With a superb complement of vocalists and musicians, Rifkin put his conclusions into practice, and the resulting recording establishes the criteria, both scholarly and interpretative, by which all purportedly authentic recorded performances of the Mass in B Minor must be judged.

Rifkin was fortunate in being able to assemble a group of top-drawer singers and instrumentalists as committed to his "radical" conclusions as he is. Collectively, they had the guts to sing and play with vigor and sensitivity, warmth and understanding, confronting the listener and the Bach scholarly establishment with vibrant, musical proof of the accuracy of Rifkin's conclusions. Never have the instrumental and vocal lines in the Mass sounded so clear and so well balanced. Never has the first "Kyrie" sounded so baldly plangent. Never have the fugal episodes in the "Cum sancto spiritu" and the "Et resurrexit" unfolded with such exhilarating clarity. Never has the "Confiteor" glided into the "Et expecto" so intimately, so personally.

The Bach scholarly community, of course, does not like to be told that its analysis of the documentary and philological evidence is wrong, and has been wrong, for decades. The traditionalists and vested interests, therefore, have fought a valiant rear guard action in defense of the status quo. Few, therefore, have so far had the courage to follow Rifkin's lead and dispense with the customary choral complement. One of those is Andrew Parrott, who forthrightly acknowledges his debt to Rifkin in the annotations to his recording of the Mass [48]. Even Parrott does not follow Rifkin's lead entirely, for in some of the choruses he allots two singers two each line. His decision to do so is defensible in theory, for, the year before he died, shortly after he had finished assembling the second half of the Mass, Bach put on a performance of the Saint John Passion in which there were two singers to each vocal line in the choruses.

Parrott's is an exciting, if too often breathless, reading of the Mass; the "Benedictus", for instance, is so brisk that it borders on the flippant. But this interpretation has a clout and a character that put it in the same league with Rifkin's, head and shoulders above the other "more traditional" accounts that have been made in recent years. And, like Rifkin, Parrott is blessed with excellent singers (including three fine boy altos from the Tölzer Knabenchor) and instrumentalists.

In comparison to the Rifkin and the Parrott sets, almost all of the other recent "authentic" recordings of the B Minor Mass seem remarkably "old fashioned", and, in one or two instances, downright stodgy. Gustav Leonhardt's account [50], with La Petite Bande and the Chamber Chorus of the Nederlandse Bach Vereiniging, is perhaps the drabbest overall. Almost completely devoid of excitement, it is fussy, colorless, and puritanical, a dessicated interpretation preserved in the musical equivalent of the natron used to dry out mummies in pharaonic Egypt. The technically unimpeachable singing and playing of the majority of the participants cannot save this performance, and matters are not helped by the dry as desert sand tone of bass Harry van der Kamp. About the only bright spot in the whole production is Max van Egmond's reliably warm, clear, and wonderful singing in the "Et in spiritum sanctum", but even then, it's a mixed blessing, for Leonhardt's insistent stressing of the strong beats makes the aria sound sing-songy. Nearly as dull is the Joachim Carlos Martini set [47], a provincial production featuring four respected soloists and first class period instrumentalists. The Mass is sung and played with journeyman precision; this dry as dust reading is a superfluity.

Philippe Herreweghe's recent recording of the Mass [55], on the other hand, is joy to the ear. It is the gentlest and most introspective interpretation on records, magnificently paced, and both taut and exciting when the mood requires. His twenty-one member Collegium Vocale, Ghent, sings the choruses with an enthusiastic and energetic accuracy, and his quintet of soloists is also first rate, particularly male alto Charles Brett and tenor Howard Crook.

John Eliot Gardiner's 1985 recording [49] is in some ways a traditionalist schol's reaction to the Rifkin approach; he makes use of concertisten in the first "Kyrie", the "Gloria", and the "Crucifixus" (which is sung entirely by soloists, à la Rifkin), but his application of the "solo/tutti" principle is much more conservative than Robert Shaw's had been a quarter of a century earlier. Gardiner parcels the solos out among numerous members of his Monteverdi Choir; the quality of the singing and the ensemble, is very high indeed. Gardiner's crisp and energetic reading is a performance of the Mass that will give much pleasure to those who want an authentic performance with a chorus in the modern sense of the term.



Collectors who wish a traditional account of the Mass played on modern instruments and sung by a chorus of substantial size can do no better than Karl Richter's stirring 1961 recording [23] or Otto Klemperer's monumental and intense interpretation [29]. Those who wish an especially romantic view of the Mass should initiate a search for either the Ifor Jones [22] or the anonymous "Gramophone" set [10].

Those with an unswervingly "authentic" turn of mind will want to acquire Joshua Rifkin's recording [46], a marvelous partnership of exacting scholarship and enthusiastic music making; Andrew Parrott's set [48] is a good second choice.

Those who find themselves seeking a middle ground will find the 1968 Harnoncourt recording [30] the best choice if they want period instruments, with either the John Eliot Gardiner [49] or the Philippe Herreweghe [55] a suitable alternative. Those who prefer modern instrument performance of an authentic character should select the first Rilling version [40].


Alphabetical Discography





Achenbach, Hermann



Anonymous conductor and soloists

Mid 1950’s


Bairstow, Dr. Edward Cuthbert



Nos. 4, 8,13, 16, 20, 21

Coates, Albert



Corboz, Michel



1st recording

Corboz, Michel



2nd recording

Gardiner, John Eliot



Goehr, Walter



Harnoncourt, Nikolaus



1st recording

Harnoncourt, Nikolaus



2nd recording

Herreweghe, Philippe



1st recording

Jochum, Eugen



1st recording

Jochum, Eugen



2nd recording

Jones, Ifor



Karajan, Herbert von



1st recording

Karajan, Herbert von



2nd recording

Karajan, Herbert von



3rd recording

Karajan, Herbert von



4th recording

Klemperer, Otto



Lehmann, Fritz



Leonhardt, Gustav



Maazel, Lorin



Marriner, Neville



Martini, Joachim



Mauersberger, Rudolf



Münch, Fritz



Münchinger, Karl



Ochs, Siegfried

Late 1920’s


Ormandy, Eugene



Parrott, Andrew



Ramin, Günther



1st recording; Nos. 1-3, 11, 19, 20, 24, 25 only

Ramin, Günther



2nd recording

Richter, Karl



1st recording

Richter, Karl



3rd recording

Rifkin, Joshua



Rilling, Helmuth



1st recording

Rilling, Helmuth



3rd recording

Scherchen, Hermann



1st recording

Schreier, Peter



1st recording

Shaw, Robert



1st recording

Shaw, Robert



2nd recording

Shaw, Robert



3rd recording

Thomas, Kurt



Van Der Horst, Anthon




Copyright © Contributed by Teri Noel Towe (December 2001). Written by Teri Noel Towe, and originally printed in ‘Choral Music on Record’, edited by Alan Blyth (Cambridge University Press, first published 1991). The copyrights in this article belong to the Cambridge University Press. Should you choose to honour Teri Noel Towe and his work product by quoting from the article, please be sure to state that the source is Choral Music On Records, that the final versions of the discographies are to be found in Choral Music On Records, and that the essays appear at this Website by courtesy of the Cambridge University Press.

Mass in B minor BWV 232: Details
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001 | Individual Movements
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17
Systematic Discussions:
Part 1: Kyrie | Part 2: Gloria | Part 3: Credo | Part 4: Sanctus | Part 5: Agnus Dei | Part 6: Early Recordings | Part 7: Summary
Individual Recordings:
BWV 232 - C. Abbado | BWV 232 - Anonymous | BWV 232 - G.C. Biller | BWV 232 - F. Brüggen | BWV 232 - J. Butt | BWV 232 - S. Celibidache | BWV 232 - M. Corboz | BWV 232 - A. Eby | BWV 232 - G. Enescu | BWV 232 - E. Ericson | BWV 232 - D. Fasolis | BWV 232 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 232 - C.M. Giulini | BWV 232 - N. Harnoncourt | BWV 232 - T. Hengelbrock | BWV 232 - P/ Herreweghe | BWV 232 - R. Hickox | BWV 232 - R. Jacobs | BWV 232 - E. Jochum | BWV 232 - Ifor Jones | BWV 232 - K. Junghänel & Cantus Cölln | BWV 232 - H.v. Karajan | BWV 232 - R. King | BWV 232 - O. Klemperer | BWV 232 - S. Kuijken | BWV 232 - G. Leonhardt | BWV 232 - P. McCreesh | BWV 232 - M. Minkowski | BWV 232 - H. Müller-Bruhl | BWV 232 - S. Ozawa | BWV 232 - M. Pearlman | BWV 232 - K. Richter | BWV 232 - J. Rifkin | BWV 232 - H. Rilling | BWV 232 - H. Scherchen | BWV 232 - P. Schreier | BWV 232 - R. Shaw | BWV 232 - G. Solti | BWV 232 - M. Suzuki | BWV 232 - J. Thomas & ABS | BWV 232 - K. Thomas | BWV 232 - J.v. Veldhoven
Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 [T. Noel Towe] | Bach’s B minor Mass on Period Instruments [D. Satz] | Like Father, Like Son [B. Pehrson]


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