A B-Minor Marathon

bach-mass-gardinerIn an earlier post, on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, I said in passing that I am not the kind of classical music aficionado who owns multiple interpretations or performances of a work and gets wonky about the relative merits of them.  I feel that I don’t have the ear, and certainly don’t have the training and the critical lexicon to do that kind of analysis.  As I’ve been listening to more and more (especially) Baroque music lately, I’ve found myself spending more and more time scouring the web for basic information about musical forms or for definitions of terms I feel I’ve known all my life without ever truly knowing what they mean (like obbligato or ripieno).

As an aside, I’ve been blown away by how useful Wikipedia has been in this quest for knowledge.  The basics are all there, plus a lot of history.  And when it comes to individual composers, I’m still trying to absorb all that is on offer.  It’s not just that there’s a brief biography of Bach available, or a complete listing of the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis—amazingly useful for recommendations of the “If you liked that, try this” sort.  There’s a guide to the cantatas, and all two hundred plus seem to have individual pages that describe instrumentation, composition, relationships to other works by the master, and sources for the texts.

I also discovered the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), a vast treasure horde of remarkably good scores for many of the works I was becoming interested in.  I think that when I found a complete, readable score to the Bach Mass in B Minor, I knew I’d fallen down a rabbit hole.  Or perhaps the sensation is better described as having experienced the musical equivalent of bungee jumping: a terrifying leap, a rush of sensation and information, a sudden reversal towards my starting point, and a final spinning sense of exhilaration.  (For the record, those are all second-hand assessments, as I’m far too old and, well, chickenshit, to fly off a bridge like that.  But I’m willing to take the leap for Old Johann.)

Score on one side of the screen, and Wikipedia’s lovely guide to the structure of the Mass in B Minor on the other, I started spending hours and hours listening, trying to become familiar with the music, trying to master its styles and transitions, its highs and lows.  If I could do that with Rubber Soul at the age of 13, surely I could attain some kind of mastery now.

I’m not sure I’ve succeeded, but I sure am having fun.  And along the way I started reading about the history of the performance of the Mass, and that led, perhaps inevitably, to listening to multiple versions of it.  The version that I owned, performed by the New York Philharmonic led by Alan Gilbert, was big and bold, and when the Gloria began, or the serenity of the Crucifixus suddenly gave way to the bounding, jagged lines of Et Resurrexit, I had no trouble imagining all the heavenly choirs rejoicing.

But my tastes run to chamber music rather than to symphonic bombast, and when I began to read about some of the “radical” interpretations of the Mass that followed its revived popularity in the middle of the twentieth century, I thought I might find a version that spoke directly to my love of the small ensemble.

bach-mass-harnoncourtI started with Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 1968 recording, the first to use period instruments.  But it turned out that there was more to Harnoncourt’s reconstructive techniques than simply wooden flutes and valveless horns.  He began a process of stripping away what I’ve come to think of as the symphonic quality of interpretations of the Mass.  The various parts of the Mass we’re composed over a more than twenty-year period from the early 1720s to the late 1740s.  While performance of some parts of it during Bach’s lifetime can be documented, history seems fairly clear that the work was not performed in its entirety until well over a century after Bach’s death.  In the meantime, Beethoven happened (among others).   Perhaps more importantly, the tradition of the mass being sung purely as a part of a religious rite gave way to the performance of “religious” music in the secular venue of nineteenth-century concert halls with their need to provide large ensembles to fill large spaces with sound.  And that sound, not the ceremony, became the focus of the experience.  So when Harnoncourt stripped the size of the chorus down to sixteen singers in some parts, and performed with as few as six string players, he made a radical departure from the practice of the previous hundred years, which tended to accord great works great (sized) ensembles to carry their majesty.  And yet, as I listened, I felt no diminution in majesty.  There are parts that strike me as less distinguished–the basso solo in the “Qnoniam” section of the “Gloria” lacks verve in my ears, as does the tenor aria of the “Benedictus.”  But the historical significance of Harnoncourt’s re-interpretation is unchallenged.

bach-mass-rifkinAn even more radical re-interpretation of the Mass was soon to follow.  As a teen-ager, I knew Joshua Rifkin as the man who scored Judy Collins’ haunting albums of the late sixties and who performed the piano rags of Scoot Joplin for Nonesuch Records.  I was ignorant of his “serious” music credentials and his scholarship until I began reading about his 1982 recording of the Mass in B Minor.  Working from copies of performing parts in Bach’s own hand, Rifkin put forth the theory that Bach had not intended to have the Mass sung by a large choir at all.  Instead, the five soloists (two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass) would have joined together to sing the “choral” parts of the Mass—those that are written for multiple voices and not explicitly for one voice (or two in the case of the three duets).  In creating a sounds that aligns with my concept of “chamber” music, Rifkin also reduces the size of the instrumental ensembles, doubling up only on violins among the strings and otherwise adhering to the number of parts for brass and woodwinds specified in Bach’s score.  The sound of this interoperation came as a shock the first time I listened to Rifkin’s recording–and still does, to be honest.  The spareness of both the vocal and instrumental lines gives a sense of intimacy but more, allows my ear to absorb individual melodic lines more easily.  There is a sinuous complexity to the melody of “Et in terra pax” from the “Gloria” that had eluded me in more richly padded versions, a crispness to the basso continuo in the opening bars of the “Laudamus te.”  By the time I’d finished listening to Rifkin’s version, I wondered if I would ever be happy to return to the Alan Gilbert interpretation with the New York Philharmonic that had been my first recent encounter with the Mass.

I needn’t have worried.  From the opening bars of Gilbert’s sumptuous arrangement, I was hooked all over on the grandeur of the sound, of a choir that gave credence to the notion of “heavenly.”  And so I decided to try one more recording, that of John Eliot Gardiner, which reviews promoted as vital and virtuosic.  And once more I found myself entranced.  Although both the chorus and orchestra are sizable, Gardiner’s version avoids the Teutonic pomposity of, say, von Karajan.  And when I discovered a video of Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir in a performance of the Mass at the Philharmonie de Paris from March of this year, my delight was complete, for it helped me to relive the moments last November when I saw this great work performed myself for the first time at Lincoln Center.

I’ve not quite emerged from this two-month immersion in the Mass in B Minor.  I’ve begun supplementing my listening with some serious reading, beginning with John Butt’s 1991 Bach: Mass in B Minor from the Cambridge Music Handbooks series, discovering in the process how woefully inadequate my musical training and my comprehension of theory and history is.  Butt also edited The Cambridge Companion to Bach (1997), a set of essays that explore cultural, religious, and musical aspects of Bach’s music.  So far, I’ve only read the chapters dealing with politics, Lutheranism, and philosophical movements in the 18th century, but already I am beginning to understand more about the composer’s strategies.

But more importantly, I’ve shed the notion that I began with that my investigations would lead me to a definitive, or even a favorite, recording of the Mass.    When I was a teenager and heard Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring for the first time, I never listened happily to Pierre Boulez again.  I expected the “truth” to descend on my with a similar éclat this time around.  And I’m happy to say that perhaps age does confer some wisdom.  Just as I didn’t need to accept Joan Brett Connolly’s interpretation of the Parthenon frieze as definitive or even necessarily accurate to enjoy the beauty of her arguments and to appreciate what she taught me about what religion and art may have meant in ancient Greece, I am content now to travel “in the realms of gold /
And many goodly states and kingdoms see,” to know that the treasures Bach offers are inexhaustible.

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