Marc Minkowski's first recording of Bach! Bach's Mass in B minor is one of the most famous masterpieces of sacred music of all time, and this recording presents the B-minor Mass in its "original" version, i.e. with a vocal ensemble of 10 soloists. The CD-book features a limited edition format of 2 CDs + 100-page booklet on laid paper.
Like many renditions of Bach's monumental B Minor Mass, this one puts forward a musical argument: in this case, for the use of a vocal ensemble made up of ten soloists rather than a choir. Minkowski's approach may be historically aggressive, but the sound is unstintingly lovely and the pared-down arrangements shed an interesting and unusual light on this most familiar of the baroque masterworks. Highly recommended to most classical collections and all period-instrument collections. (RA) -- Baker amp; Taylor CD Hotlist, Rick Anderson, May 2009
Marc Minkowski first came to the attention of Toronto concert-goers through his highly successful collaboration with Opera Atelier of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas back in 1995. But he has been an important force on the "period performance" scene for much longer than that, having founded Les Musiciens du Louvre - Grenoble at the age of 20 in 1982. With dozens of recordings under his belt it seems strange that Minkowski has waited more than 25 years to tackle any of the major works of J. S. Bach. With the recent release of the Mass in B-minor (Naïve V 5145) all that has changed and Minkowski has embarked on a long-term projected "Bach cycle". In the Mass Minkowski uses sparse forces which he feels reflect those which would have been available to Bach, had the work seen the light of day during his lifetime. Instrumentally there are just thirteen strings, pairs of winds and trumpets, solo horn for the famous duet with the bass voice in the Quoniam tu solus sanctus, timpani and continuo alternating between organ and harpsichord. The ten vocal soloists do double duty as one-voice-per-part choristers as required, and we are presented with an intimate, crystalline performance lasting one hour and forty-one minutes. Recorded last July during the fledgling Via Stellae Festival (Festival of Music of Compostela and its Ways of Pilgrimage) in the gothic San Domingos de Bonaval Church, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the reverberant acoustic belies the small ensemble and we are treated to a glorious full sound without losing any of the intimacy of the performance. The predominantly young vocal soloists are all outstanding, with highlights for me being alto (and former soprano soloist in the Vienna Boys' Choir) Terry Wey in the Qui sedes ad dextram patris with oboe d'amore provided by Emmanuel Laporte and in the duet Et in unum Dominum with soprano Lucy Crowe; and Canadian tenor Colin Balzer's Benedictus with flute soloist Florian Cousin. Beginning the cycle with what has been called the culmination of Bach's life's work will prove to be a tough act for Minkowski to follow, but on the evidence of this maiden voyage there are future treasures in store. Packaged as a one hundred page, trilingual hardcover book (thankfully with CD-case dimensions for easy filing) including program notes, an interview with Minkowski, texts with translations and full artist biographies, this handsome set is a welcome addition the catalogue and to my collection. -- Wholenote Magazine, David Olds, June 2009
Marc Minkowski leads Les Musiciens du Louvre of Grenoble in an account of J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor (Messe in h-moll) that is at the same time among the most eloquent you will hear on record and the easiest to listen to. Much of the secret lies in the way in which Minkowski handles his choir of ten voices, all of whom are heard as solo vocalists at one time or another. In like manner, he employ a dozen or so instrumentalists as a trim, not overly imposing ensemble from which players step forth as required to play obbligatos under the vocalists' parts, which they compliment perfectly.
Says Minkowski, "the group of soloists seemed to me to be the obvious solution in musical terms. Bach turns everything into an orchestra. The way his mind works is polyphonic, contrapuntal and, if I may be so bold, symphonic... Well, the mass seems to me to be a product of that same way of thinking. Its music is so dense, so complex, so breathtaking, that in my view it gains in grandeur from the use of soloists."
One obvious advantage is that Minkowski's vocalists do not differ in purpose from the ensemble of which they are members. Nor do they have to strain to be heard over a massive instrumental forces, even in the appropriately triumphant moments such as Cum Sancto Spiritu (With the Holy Ghost) in the Gloria and Et resurrexit (And He rose from the dead) in the Credo when Bach employs the brilliant sounds of three trumpets and the solid presence of the timpani to heighten the mood of jubilation.
For such an approach, having the right singers is vital, and Minkowski has chosen them well: Colin Balzer and Markus Brutscher (tenors), Lucy Crowe, Julia Lezhneva, and Joanne Lunn (sopranos), Blandine Staskiewicz (mezzo-soprano), Terry Wey ( countertenor), Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto), and Luca Tittoto and Christian Immler (basses). There's not a bad voice in the lot; all of them rise to the occasion when called upon as soloists, and they form a particularly cohesive ensemble in the final chorus, the sublimely beautiful Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace) where the blend of voices is perfectly balanced, eloquent with being lush.
Highlights? Listen for Crowe and Staskiewicz as a duo in the Christe eleison, (Christ, have mercy upon us), Lezhneva's Laudamus te (We praise thee) with Thibault Noally's solo violin, Wey's Qui sedes ad dextram patris (Who sits at the right hand of the Father) with Emmanuel Laporte's oboe d'amore as obbligato, Tittoto's Quonima tu solus sanctus (For Thou only art holy) with Johannes Hinterholzer's horn solo, and Balzer's Benedictus (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord) with Florian Cousin's transverse flute. The best vocalist is reserved for last: Nathalie Stutzmann in the hushed, eloquent beauty of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) is distinguished by her absolutely flawless vocal line.
This is the premiere release in a projected Bach series by Marc Minkowski, who cut his teeth on Bach as an oboist in the 1990's with the Collegium Vocale, Ghent, under a master, Philippe Herreweghe. He shows himself to be his own man in the consistent vision with which he applies his conception of Bach's masterwork. As Bach himself apparently never heard the B-Minor Mass performed in his lifetime, I'm sure he would have been pleased to audition this account of it. -- Atlanta Audio Society, April 2009
Since its rediscovery and first complete performance in the mid-nineteenth century, Bach's B minor Mass has generally been produced with the large, sometimes gargantuan, performing forces typical of that era in the kinds of ensembles gathered for Mendelssohn's oratorios and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Twentieth century scholarship has uncovered information about performances of individual movements of the Mass during the composer's lifetime indicating that, in spite of its length, Bach intended it to be a chamber piece for small vocal and instrumental ensembles. In 1981, conductor Joshua Rifkin released a controversial recording of the Mass with just one singer per part, a practice that has become increasingly common, so Baroque specialist Marc Minkowski's version isn't revolutionary -- he uses 10 singers rather than 5 -- but he divides the work's solos among all the singers, and some choruses use two singers per part while some use only one. The listener's personal preferences may orient him or her to either the large choral sound or the chamber music sound, but for anyone with sympathies for the intimate approach to Bach's masterpiece, this version offers much to delight. Minkowski has kept the orchestra to a size that matches the volume of the singers. His version requires adjusting some expectations for anyone familiar only with the traditional large chorus approach, but the ear quickly adapts to the work as a piece of vocal chamber music. Whatever impact of massed voices that's lost here is more than compensated by the coherence of the small ensemble sound, which has a surprising grandeur at the moments where it is required. Minkowski's pacing works well; he has a strong sense of the Mass' larger architecture, and offers a reading with richly varied tempos while avoiding both the hurried approach of some small-chorus adherents, as well as the lugubrious tempos of some traditionalists. Les Musiciens du Louvre/Grenoble, an ensemble he founded, plays with admirable animation and precision. The obbligato instrumentalists, flutist Florian Cousin, oboe d'amore player Emmanuel Laporte, hornist Johannes Hinterholzer, and trumpeter Thibaud Robinne deserve special recognition for their lively and elegant solos on period instruments. Although the vocalists are accomplished soloists, most with outstanding international careers, as well as some rising stars, they achieve a remarkably smooth, self-effacing choral blend, singing with warm lyricism, expressive depth, and spirited energy. The sound is intimate and clean, allowing the vocal and instrumental details to emerge with clarity and brilliance. The CD would make a fine introduction to the Mass and should be of strong interest to listeners who already love it -- Allmusic.com, Stephen Eddins, April 2009
So much wonderful Bach is on CD these days, these excellent recordings lack a top recommendation if only because of the ample competition. Dip into most any three minutes of the Brandenburg recordings and your jaw might drop at the virtuosity. But the Swiss Baroque Soloists on Naxos or Concerto Italiano on Naive produce a similar reaction and then some. The new Richard Egarr recording has the considerable advantage of SACD sound, though Egarr's own harpsichord isn't as well recorded as on his recent, excellent recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier Book I.
Because Marc Minkowski has been such an important figure on the early-music front for so long, one can't help approach his recording with particular anticipation. It doesn't trump the best of the others (Bach Collegium Japan on Bis), but occupies its own niche. Minkowski is interested in the piece's architectural attributes, which he apprehends with vocally pure, often minimally inflected performances from 10 soloists instead of a conventional choir. But when emotion is clearly called for, he delivers it with minimum restraint. Also, his soloists are often singers you'd want to hear under most circumstances.
Contralto Nathalie Stutzmann's "Agnus Dei" is one of the most emotionally riveting versions ever recorded. -- Philly.com, David Patrick Stearns, March 15, 2009
The term "authentic" doesn't quite encompass this performance. Beyond the small orchestra and tiny band of singers typical of most historically informed groups, Minkowski often treats Bach's choral masterpiece as if it were another Brandenburg Concerto. That is to say, fast and light. Solos benefit from warm instrumental playing, a slightly more relaxed pace and savory, vibrato-free vocalism. But in choral sections, textual and dramatic details often fall by the wayside in the name of spirit -- Cleveland Plain Dealer, Zachary Lewis, March 27, 2009
There's a big difference between authenticity with respect to circumstance and being true to the work in question. This release offers a case in point. It may be that 10 singers and single players per part (more or less) is what Bach had at his disposal, but this can scarcely do the music justice. The two great Kyrie fugues, the Sanctus/Osanna, and the conclusions of the Gloria and Credo sound pathetic. Even worse, conductor Marc Minkowski has singers (the tenors particularly) who do not blend, who never constitute a believable "chorus" (try the opening of the Credo for a particularly atrocious example), and whose pronunciation of the text isn't even consistent (try the sopranos in the Christe eleison). Add scrappy strings and an acoustic whose excessive resonance only makes the forces sound even smaller, and the result is one of the worst modern performances of the B minor Mass, plain and simple. Yecch! -- ClassicsToday.com, David Hurwitz, June 2009