Reviewed by John Irvine
Johann Sebastian Bach was part of a musical dynasty that was involved in music making for generations: both his forefathers and his sons were well known composers and musicians. Bach himself represented a crossroads in the development of Western classical music: he was the culmination of the baroque style, synthesising Italian melody, French rhythms and German orchestrations. Of all Bach's great output of vocal music the "Mass In B Minor" stands unique as a work that Bach never intended to hear or have performed in its entirety: it was too long (two hours) for a religious service, contained too many Roman Catholic references to be acceptable to the North German Protestant Lutherans for whom Bach wrote most of his output, and unsuitable for Catholic audiences since it did not follow the prescribed Roman liturgical format. It may well have been that Bach had intended this Mass to be a summation of his art, a document of reference for future generations and an expression of his faith through music. During the 1740s while still fulfilling his duties as Kapellmeister (music leader in church!), he devoted himself to producing works of musical science such as The Art Of Fugue. It is in this context that the Mass In B Minor should probably be approached. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that the Mass is a cross between what today would be regarded as a greatest hits album and a collection of reworked material. The Missa may have been written as early as 1733 to impress the Elector of Saxony, with an eye to obtaining employment with him. It worked: he got the job in 1736. The Missa is substantial, being 54 min (nearly half the work) and divided into 12 sections, with its opening section, the Kyrie, being an utterly mind blowing cry to God for mercy, which then leads into a celebratory Gloria - praise to God - and a rousing crescendo of praise rounds off nearly an hour of continuous music in this first part. Only two sections of the Symbolum Nicennum are thought to have been freshly composed, but despite the obvious recycling, this section is one of the most perfectly symmetrical and self-contained structures in any of Bach's large scale works and his treatment of each line of text in the ancient creed is both moving and fitting. This part contains the Crucifixus section, a piece which has inspired generations of composers since. The Sanctus is known to have been performed in Leipzig in 1724 and again in 1740. Much of the delight in listening to the disc arises from the superlative performances of the singers and musicians. Robert King, the director of the King's Consort, has put the success of this ensemble down to good music, good performers and a fresh and lively approach to the music. Behind this basic approach is a desire that the Consort should perform the composer's works wholeheartedly and make the music rather than the ensemble the primary attraction. This recording is no exception to their philosophy, even to the extent of breaking with performance traditions and returning to Bach's original scoring - including boys' voices in both the choral and solo parts. This is the sound that Bach wanted, but this is a world first in the recording studio to actually use boy altos! The drawback in using children is of course that they lack the emotional maturity or technical development that is available in using adult female voices, and while the use of boys is more authentic, most modern ears prefer the sound of women in both the solo and choral parts.
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