Bach: h-moll Messe

This review covers four different video-recorded performances of Bach’s b-minor mass. The first is from the Thomaskirche in Leipzig with Blomstedt conducting, then second from Neubuern with Guttenberg conducting, the third from München with Karl Richter conducting, and the fourth from the Thomaskirche again with cantor Billing and a Jungenchor. Each performance is quite different and it would do an injustice to Bach’s h-moll messe to only see one performance. But first, I must say a summary about the mass itself. It was written by Johann Sebastian Bach during his Leipzig years when he was Cantor of the Thomaskirche. This was during the most mature phase of Bach’s composing years, and this piece was written by Bach without much expectation that it would ever be performed in his lifetime. Indeed, this piece also represents the pinnacle of all music of all times, written by the greatest composer to ever have lived. I look forward to the days in glory when Bach is again writing music, this time in a glorified state, and possibly with King David, the sweet musician, at his right hand providing words and suggestions for the melody.  The h-moll Messe is a demonstration of how perfectly words and music could go together — nobody did it better than Bach. The music of Bach always fits the words and fits them perfectly. Though the church I attend emphasizes the importance of having the tune match the words, I think of how often they fail. Two examples follow. The first is O The Deep, Deep Love of Jesus, sung in a minor key to a Jewish dance rhythm. Bach would have been horrified. The second is Rock of Ages, sung to the New City tune. The New City tune itself is catchy, but absolutely terrible in its compositional development, in that the first phrase is repeated with slight variations all the way to the end without progression or true development, and it simply doesn’t fit the words of Rock of Ages, wording that needs a solid tune, not a fancy flighty tune. The words that Bach uses are words that are so correct and true that they will again be sung in heaven. The music has a level of complexity and genius that no composer to date has even come close to matching, but bringing sheer terror to the performer. It is sad that so many church musicians have culturally closed their ears to the music of Bach since his compositions were all in either German or Latin and never in English. The modern English and American church composers have no contest when placed against the least known or performed works of Bach. It’s a pity that we have to put up with the contemporary rubbish of Rutter, Townend, Getty, and others. Truly, I find it impossible to maintain a dry eye once a well-done Bach performance begins, as it is just too beautiful to contain the emotion. There are few other composers that can so overwhelmingly move a person. I pray that other church musicians will catch the Mendelssohn discovery that Bach can be imitated but never surpassed.

Bach’s B-minor Mass, Herbert Blomstedt conducting Gewandhausorchester und Gewandhauskammerchor ★★★★★
This is an all-adult performance (no child-musicians) on modern instruments. It is held in the choir loft of the Thomaskirche, facing the altar and grave of JS Bach. Having been in that church a number of times, I’m not sure how they fit everybody in. The acoustics were superb, and the performance was most delightful. Blomstedt is a very engaging conductor. He tends to manifest a very friendly face to the musicians, frequently smiling and interacting with the musicians with his eyes and hands, while singing along with the music. The musicians seem to respond in kind to him, maintaining a dynamic spirit that promotes the spirit of the piece. As an example, when the credo speaks of the crucifixion and burial of Christ, the music is quite solemn and hushed. This immediately transforms into a most joyous explosion of the trumpets, orchestra, and musicians when singing of Christ rising from the grave, and Blomstedt makes it happen perfectly. This performance is not with a large choir and orchestra but reflects perfectly the spirit of Bach in Bach’s home. I’m sure that Bach gave a smile in the grave.

B minor mass, performed by the Neubeuern Choral Society, Enoch zu Guttenberg conducting ★★★★
This is a difficult piece to the critic. There is so much good and bad about it. The performance itself was very good. The singers were very well organized. The orchestra and soloists performed flawlessly. Guttenberg conducted with intense spirit. I was surprised at how young many of the singers and musicians were. Though there were a few older people in the performance, it was mostly younger people. The choir itself was much larger than the orchestra and placed behind the orchestra, which was an average size for a Bach performance. The entire production occurred in a small narrow church so that it seemed that the distance between the conductor and last row of the choir was quite great.
Things that bothered me were several. The recording itself did not do justice to the performance, coming across as a bit flat. You really didn’t have the feeling like you were recording in a church. The conductor recently appeared to have left upper extremity surgery, and his arm was in a sling and cast, making it very distractive. The biggest flaw of the recording was the camerawork, which was constantly straying to painting and fixtures on the wall of the church. It was quite annoying. The camerawork and audio recording get a 1 star for failing to make you feel present at a performance. Other than that, it is a worthy recording to have in one’s collection.

Bach Messe in H-moll with Janowitz, Topper, Laubenthal and Prey, Conducted by Karl Richter, Münchener Bach Chor ★★★★
I have always liked Karl Richter, and his renditions of many of the Bach cantatas are absolutely first class. Interestingly, this performance, held in a large baroque-styled church in 1969, seemed to be a bit flat. Except for Hermann Prey, none of the soloists seemed really moved by what they were singing, and the entire performance limped. The quality of the performance was exemplary, and the performance occurred without a flaw. Even the cameraman seemed to be bored, with him rarely holding onto the performers, but focusing on the ceiling or drifting around the walls and lattice ornaments of the church. It would have been more enjoyable to simply listen to the performance, and not watch it on the DVD.

Bach h-moll Messe with Thomanerchor Leipzig, Cantor George Biller and Gewandhousorchester Leipzig ★★★
This performance had a number of distinct differences from the performances above. The choir was a boy’s choir. The alto solo was a male alto. There were added pieces in latin, some of which were sung by the cantor. The performance was quite decent, and stupendous for the boys. My problems with this production were several. First, I really don’t like boy’s choirs, except as a curiosity. Second, I find male altos to be especially harsh on the ear, even though this alto was not bad at all. Thirdly, the camera seemed to find particular fascination with the newly remodeled roof of the Thomaskirche. A nice touch was the camera panning in on Bach’s grave at the very beginning and very end of the performance.  All things considered, it was a rather impressive performance for the Knabenchor. This was a nice change from the typical performance of the B-Minor mass.