Mass in B minor BWV 232
Conducted by Claudio Abbado
Mass BWV 232
Rodrigo Maffei Libonati wrote (April 25, 2002):
I was just reading on your page the discussions around Mass BWV 232. I have to confess I havenít thoroughly checked, but, as the subject I am going to bring about relates to a most recent event, I risked to write you to tell that the Salzburg Easter Festival offered to the sponsors of the Festival a disc with a performance of the BWV 232 which I was very lucky to attend. The artistic information is: Véronique Gens, Anne Sofie von Otter, Charles Workman, Simon Keenlyside, Franz-Josef Selig, Swedish Radio Chorus, Soloists of the Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado. It was recorded in the Grossesfestspielhaus in April 2nd 1999. It is said that Universal Marketing Group published it, but the Deutsche Grammophon site informs that they donít detain the rights. Things in Salzburg generally has to do with Orfeo, but I cannot tell. There is even a catalogue number here - 109 374-2.
I thought it was important writing about this recording, most unfortunately not available to the public yet, because it seems to me the best recorded performance of this work in modern instruments. My favourite recording is, so far, the Parrott. So, you can understand Iím no partisan of Bach played in modern instruments, but this performance is special. The soloists are very nice, the choir (not very big) is outstandingly precise and the Berliner soloists play beautifully, not only with almost no vibrato but with understanding of the proper stylistic phrasing. The violin soloist is just amazing, but, I tell you, even the trumpets are in perfect proportion. Only the flute could be straighter, but I think this is not available for a modern flute (I guess - I have no knowledge of flute technique). Of the soloists, Charles Workman was the one who impressed me most - his tenor is amazingly flexible and relaxed, while natural and full-bodied. Gens was very nice and her soft top notes blend beautifully with their partners in duet. Von Otter is not as counter-tenor-ish as she used to be in her old Bach recordings, but offers a lifetime experience in Bach and I remember that, live her Agnus Dei, brought tears to everyoneís eyes (including mine). Keenlyside is a bit tense in his aria and Selig is a bit indifferent. I was also pleased to notice that, although the tempi were almost invariably slower than Parrottís (although not always exageratedly so), some numbers take exactly the same time and one or two manage to be faster. I generally think that the recordings of these piece sometimes have a gloomy atmosphere (such as Leonhardtís) that I donít seem to see in the piece. I like the Parrott also because it has such a light sunny perspective - and this recording seems to have a similar quality. I think that Bachís devotion (even in a piece said to be accused out of any religious feeling) has nothing "melancholic" about it and I am glad Abbado seems to share my point of view...
To sum it up, I think that this recording manages to unite the best of two worlds: those allergic to period instruments can finally listen to a recording that is einverstanden with Bach performance practices.
Bob Sherman wrote (April 25, 2002):
[To Rodrigo Maffei Libonati] That was a great review. Thanks, it makes me want to go out and buy the Addabbo. But please, an alto or mezzo is not supposed to sound like a countertenor, and I'm very glad Von Otter doesn't.
Rodrigo Maffei Libonati wrote (April 25, 2002):
[To Bob Sherman] I certainly agree with you, but I have noticed some prejudice about female altos in Bach repertoire. Sometimes it is said that their voices is too fruity and things like that. While I do agree a female alto have to have in mind that the "tone colour" in a male and a female altos works in different ways and that Bach would probably write these arias having in mind the expressive possibilities of a MALE alto, I think that a stylish contralto can work as well as a countertenor - the "fruity" thing being not bothersome to me.
I don't think voices have to be "straight" to be stylish. Anyone who has taken voice lessons know that the nature of human voice is vibrant and perfect control of vibrato include keeping it natural and very little noticeable when needed. That is why I decided to make clear that Von Otter is not using a fixed tone to sing this pieces. I did that after reading discussions in ths Bach Cantata Website about BWV 34, where Bernarda Fink, who sounded fabulous to my ears, was critized for excess of vibrato. I was rather amazed, for Fink is such a skilled vocalist, whose rhythmic accuracy made splendid effects in Harnoncourt's recent recording of the Matthäus Passion - I thought that she was beyond criticism for her discrete and meditative performance of the aria ďWohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen".
Last thing - I repeat that Von Otter was splendid. Both her and Abbado could create the illusion of the utmost intimacy in such a huge hall as the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg. I had the illusion she was singing just for me :-) "
Pete Blue wrote (April 27, 2002):
IMO one of the problems with Bach alto aria performance today is the apparently complete disappearance of true contraltos. Van Otter and Fink are, admittedly, terrific mezzos, and there is an abundance of good countertenors, but where are today's counterparts to Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Marian Anderson, Kerstin Thorborg? Having heard that kind of voice in my childhood, I believe that Bach's cantatas/passions cry out for it, if only as an alternative.
I was just listening to Furtwangler's truncated 1954 SMP. Nothing approaching Marta Hoffgen's great "Erbarme Dich" is, AFAIK, possible today. Another great Bach contralto was Kathleen Ferrier, of course, as was Maureen Forrester (will BMG ever reissue her magnificent Mahler Kindertotenlieder with Munch and the Boston SO?).
We Bach lovers have gained much through the HIP vocal revolution, but
we've lost something too.
Bob Sherman wrote (April 27, 2002):
[To Pete Blue] I couldn't agree more. One of the downsides of the HIP movement is that higher voices are considered trendy and lower voices are not. So singers are commercially driven to squeeze their voices higher and lighter. This results in a scarcity not only of true contraltos, but of true basses.
To your list of fully satisfying true contraltos I would add Yvonne Minton (e.g., Messiah under Somary) and Hertha Töpper, whose "Es ist vollbracht" with Richter is, IMO, in a class by itself.
Claudio Abbado: Short Biography | Berliner Philharmoniker | Recordings | BWV 232 - Abbado