MUSIC: Bach To Basics?

I recently ordered a new CD (yes, I still listen to some music in disc form) that hasn’t been released in North America yet but has been available in France for some months: a recording of Bach’s much-recorded Mass in B Minor by the French conductor Marc Minkowski and his period-instrument orchestra Les Musiciens Du Louvre.

Minkowski is one of the period-instrument conductors who does the most consistently interesting work, along with René Jacobs and a few others. Many historically-inclined conductors get a little timid about doing things that aren’t authentic or historically justified, with the result that their performances can sound just as tame as the big-orchestra baroque performances that they replaced. Minkowski, who in addition to his baroque conducting is also a specialist in 19th-century French music (especially Offenbach), may sometimes err, but he rarely errs on the side of timidity; he’d rather be weird than dull.

This is his second recording under his new contract with the French label Naïve (he was with the big label Deutsche Grammophon for many years until it cut down its roster); his first was a disc of music from Bizet’s Carmen and L’Arlesienne, which may have been the best classical recording of 2008. This one will be more controversial, and I’m not completely sure yet what my reaction is to it… but I think I like it.

The reason it will be controversial is that Minkowski has chosen to perform this Mass, one of the longest and most famous of all choral works, without a chorus. There is a theory advanced by some musicologists/performers that Bach’s works weren’t actually intended for a “chorus” in the sense of a large group of singers. Instead, the soloists would also sing the chorus parts. In the case of the Mass, which was never performed during Bach’s lifetime, it’s written in a way that makes it seem likely that he didn’t expect to have completely separate teams of solo singers and chorus singers. Minkowski, in common with two or three other conductors who have recorded the Mass, uses ten solo singers who take turns doing the solo numbers and also act as the chorus: two voices to each part. Sometimes he seems to mix n’ match a bit, using just one voice to a part when that will sound better.

As the liner notes explain (and Naïve always has big, well-made book-like packaging with notes, essays, and texts; they make the best case for actually buying CDs as opposed to downloads), while Minkowski thinks this is probably the historically accurate way to do the Mass, that’s not the reason he chose it; he chose this method because it makes the Mass seem more like Bach’s famous Brandenburg concertos, where “a dozen or so instrumentalists collaborate as a tightly knit ensemble.” The idea is that instead of alternating between the chorus and soloists, or (as some recordings do) having the solos sung by members of the full chorus, you have a small team that does it all, and the drama comes from seeing and hearing what they’re going to do next or who’s going to sing what. This recording was made in conjunction with live performances — I don’t know if it was actually made at live performances; there’s no audience noise — and I suspect that this method, done right, would work wonderfully in a live performance. It’s a little more questionable on a recording, where the voices are all you have and it’s easier to hear how incredibly difficult it is for two people to carry an entire chorus part on their own. But it is pretty fascinating to hear, and there is some drama in hearing the singers try to blend into one unit, then become individuals again when they sing on their own. The soloists are mostly good, though the best-known of them, Nathalie Stutzmann, has a voice I can’t listen to with much pleasure (she not only sounds like a man, but a very depressed man). There’s also, of course, a Canadian, Colin Balzer. Canadians rule the classical world.

I wouldn’t want to hear this piece done like this every time, but there’s an argument for hearing it done this way once, especially in excellent sound and with the energy that’s typical of Minkowski’s conducting. I’m not always completely sold on Bach because he’s so… well… churchy rather than theatrical, but Minkowski seems to understand and convey the drama that’s inherent in religious music. His approach isn’t as extroverted as I might have expected, but it’s never sludgy or ponderous like some performances of this work can be. And maybe the small-chorus method helps here, by making the piece sound more intimate and human than it usually does.

There’s a YouTube video made by the record company as a promotion for the recording; this doesn’t really give a full idea of what the recording is like, but it does give an idea of the approach.

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