ArtsATL > Music > CD review: Marc Minkowski conducts Bach B-minor Mass, on Naive

CD review: Marc Minkowski conducts Bach B-minor Mass, on Naive

By JEFFREY BAXTER

Editor’s note: From time to time, we’ll publish essays, reviews and commentary by Atlanta artists in all fields. This first one is by the choral administrator of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, who’s also a tenor in the group and was an assistant to Robert Shaw in the years before his death. Have an idea for us? Send your suggestions to ArtscriticATL [at] gmail [dot] com. — Pierre

BACH: MASS IN B-MINOR
Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, Minkowski. With text and translations. Naïve CD V-5145.
In reviewing Marc Minkowski’s respectable new recording of Bach’s monumental B-Minor Mass, I’m reminded how long post-war French choral singing languished (much longer than its German counterpart) and how far it has come in the last twenty years.
This resurgence is thanks in no small part to two Americans who paved the way for a marvelous recent Renaissance in France: first, the late American conductor and choral maestro, Robert Shaw, and second, the ultimate American-in-Paris, William Christie (founder of Les Arts Florissants).
It was Robert Shaw who in the 1950s and 60s was one of the first to successfully strip away a century and a half of Romantic choral elephantine-ism with his seminal chamber choir performances, tours and recordings of Handel’s “Messiah” and Bach’s grand Missa, first with his Robert Shaw Chorale, then later with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Choruses and ultimately with his France-based Robert Shaw Festival Singers. (Incidentally, it was Shaw’s disciplined and sensitive performances of Francis Poulenc’s choral music that initially brought the composer to tears, realizing that his works could indeed sound the way he had imagined them — in spite of the few paltry attempts made by his countrymen).
And it took ex-pat William Christie’s 1979 forming of the expert group of Charpentier-inspired singers and period instrumentalists to teach the French how beautiful and alive the vast repertoire of their own Baroque choral and operatic heritage could be when seriously undertaken not only by scholars but by virtuoso performers.
Witness now the talent and creativity of early music specialists coming out of France, most notably keyboardist/conductor Emanuelle Haïm, and Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre.
Minkowski, embarking on a long term cycle of recording the major works of Bach — for the Naïve label — makes as his first installment the opus ultimum of the Leipzig Cantor’s long creative life.
To quote the famed Bach keyboard interpreter, Rosalyn Tureck, “Bach is indestructible” — meaning (to borrow from the Sonia Sotomayor hearings) “barring a meltdown” (i.e. a bad performance), Bach’s music will survive almost any performing medium or interpretation, be it on harpsichord, piano, synthesizer, marimba or sung by a choir of eight or eighty. The purity of its construction is unique in musical art: a purity of craft, but ever tied to an indomitable spirit. Bach’s music is the ultimate fusion of the left and right hemispheres of the brain — a fusion of inspiration and perspiration, of Apollo and Dionysus that transcends our world of opposite pairs.
As regards this 2008 recording of the B-Minor Mass — watch the YouTube infomercial — Minkowski has combined two approaches from decades of performance practice that preceded him:
1. As mentioned above, Robert Shaw was one of the first to scale down the performing forces of Bach’s Messe (writing, “Loud mutilates – Sustained-Loud annihilates…” and “the cage must be clean before the Dove will descend…”). Shaw also applied concerto grosso (solo-tutti) principles gleaned from post-war German scholar Wilhelm Ehmann. In the 1980s John Eliot Gardiner and his amazing English Baroque Soloists applied this same approach, but with period instruments.
2. In 1982 American keyboardist/scholar/conductor Joshua Rifkin took the plunge, recording what some scholars claim (Andrew Parrott included) to be Bach’s original intent – evidence of the surviving part-books pointing to a performance of the Mass by one to a part, with no “choir” at all.
Minkowski’s solution is a compromise of these two schools of thought: he has recorded the piece with two to a part, hence a total of ten singers for the many five-part movements. Additionally he uses a scaled down orchestra (more than two to a part, however) and wisely eschews the prevailing practice of Germanic-style Latin pronunciation (basing his decision on the presence of a cosmopolitan – mostly Italian – musical personnel in the Dresden court for whom the Mass was most likely intended).
The opening Kyrie will never fail to impress and move, but with so few singers, even Minkowski’s extra-slow Adagio does not lend enough gravitas. The ensuing fugue however is better built-up by Minkowski and his talented group, employing soloists (one to a part) for the fugue’s exposition, then tutti (all ten singers) as the pieces continues. The difference between solo and tutti is not really enough to make the greatest impression, but again, the music is so well constructed it can survive this reading and still move one.
The most egregious choices made by Minkowski are his tempi – mostly too fast, based on incorrect assumptions of tempo relationships between movements.  Many writers have commented on the relationships of tempi Bach intended with his careful notation and indications like “sequitur” (attacca, or continue without pause to the next movement, often in the same or related tempo).
What may have seemed logical to Minkowski is simply not organic: confused by the alla breve indication in the second Kyrie, Minkowski’s tempo is twice as fast as it should be, thus ruining Bach’s symmetry, smearing the details and deflating the weightiness of the statement. The same may be said of the rushed reading of the great finale of the Gloria section — the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” –which suffers from such a loss of detail that it might as well have been performed by three hundred.
Kudos, however, to Minkowski for his effective alternation of organ and harpsichord as choices of continuo instruments (John Eliot Gardiner wisely does this in his Messiah recording). In the Gloria section, harpsichord is introduced in the Bass aria, “Quoniam to solus sanctus” (a musical setting of “the Most High” by the lowest instrumental and vocal forces). The percussive quality of the plucking strings of the harpsichord help clarify the texture of all these low pitched instruments. The conductor also later uses the instrument effectively in the “Crucifixus” movement, giving the subtle impression of nails being hammered beneath the sustained (and anguished) melodic lines. One of the strangest choices is Minkowski’s use in the Credo section of the earlier version of duet-movement “Et in unum Dominum.”
As Bach went along composing the piece, he decided to create a separate movement for the text “et incarnatus est” (this text ends the first version of the previous duet). So in Minkowski’s version we get the text “et incarnatus est” twice — something Bach did not intend. Besides, it is in this later, revised version that one finds actual solo-tutti markings by both J.S. Bach and his son (and later executor) C.P.E. Bach.
Minkowski explains in the liner notes how he chooses which voices should sing which movements. He makes a distinction between the “Et incarnatus est” movement (where he prefers lighter voices) and the ensuing “Crucifixus” (where he prefers the darker, more “dramatic” voices). His choice seems to work best in the “Crucifixus” but not in the “Et incarnatus est” where all sense of mystery is lost in the over-phrased solo dispensation of the lines. Structurally too, Minkowski has misfired. These are two of three central movements in Bach’s chiasmic (cross-like) design of the Credo and of the whole Mass itself. The central “Crucifixus” is framed by two fuller sounding choruses – one (the “Et incarnatus est”) with sustained long lines accomplished by several singers sharing part, and the other (the “Et resurrexit”) with its choral/orchestral tutti, including trumpets and drums. Bach’s ingenious framing device is a little lop-sided in this interpretation.
Another slight annoyance is the adherence to notation in the Sanctus: the dotted notes (short-hand by Bach and others in the 18th century) and triplets do not line up in Minkowski’s reading, causing a distracting pedanticism that ruins Bach’s intended symbolism of threes.
Oddly enough, the 1st trumpet is allowed some freedom in the use of ornamentation towards the end of the very spirited reading of the “Osanna in excelsis.” It is an exciting moment, and one wishes Minkowski had thought to ornament elsewhere in this performance, since he had small enough forces.
The final “Dona nobis pacem,” while well executed, pales by comparison to almost any decent “choral” rendition of more than two to a part.
All said, this recording really has much to commend it. Aside from the sometimes less-than-intuitive interpretive choices, the actual execution of the complex vocal polyphony and the characteristic playing of the instrumentalists are exemplary. There are two exceptional vocal soloists, alto Nathalie Stutzmann in an achingly beautiful rendition of the “Agnus Dei” and tenor Colin Balzer in a light and tender reading of the “Benedictus,” as well as a spot-on natural horn performance by Johannes Hinterholzer in the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus.”

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