The Mutable Beauty of Bach’s B minor Mass

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 04.29.13 in Spotlights

Bach’s B minor Mass is a masterpiece that by rights shouldn’t really exist. A setting of Catholic liturgy by a Lutheran composer, it seems to have been willed into being for no clear purpose. Though it’s a work of formidable coherence, Bach tinkered with it over the course of 20 years, gathering its bits and pieces practically until his death. Meanwhile, musical fashion had moved on, and the younger generation surely thought of him as a curmudgeonly geezer, patiently scratching out old-fashioned counterpoint in the ancient language of the wrong church. He lived the life of a pragmatic professional musician, but even as he completed the Mass, he must have known that there was virtually no chance that he would ever hear the whole thing performed. But his audience was a God who would understand, and posterity is the beneficiary of his devotion.

Bach was generous with musical invention, but reticent with information about how to perform his scores. Accustomed to directing the players he worked with, he didn’t specify how soft or loud any given passage should be, how sharp the accents, or how colorful the sound. The players knew these things, and if they didn’t he would tell them. Only now, they don’t.

The lack of detail is part of the Mass’s magnetism, because it allows performers to project onto it whatever they imagine it contains. That’s one reason there are so many recordings, ranging from syrupy orchestrations (with whipped cream on top) to the first original-instruments performances so thin and jerky they sound like a wheezing squeezebox. Search carefully through the bin, and you emerge with a map of changing tastes inscribed in Bach’s tough and pliant music.

The B minor Mass crept gradually into the repertoire over the course of the 19th century, so that by the turn of the 20th, orchestras had inherited it bundled with a repertoire of vast romantic symphonies. That’s the way things remained for decades. Orchestras that had expanded to cover the huge sonic expanses of Mahler and Bruckner symphonies lavished resources on composers who could never have imagined gathering such immense musical armies. In a 1959 recording with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Hermann Scherchen opens the Kyrie Eleison with a vast, sunlit chord that seems to burst from an ocean of silence, a chord sung by a great gathering of souls. The numbers matter, and not just because a bigger ensemble produces a thicker sound, but also because it amplifies the distance between the loudest loud and the most reverent soft, between the group shout and the solo plea. Scherchen uses that acoustic fact to produce operatic extremes of intensity. The “Crucifixus” is terribly poignant music almost no matter how you play it, and in Scherchen’s sublimely mournful version, you can practically see the lights dim, and a procession of burlap-clad mourners tread slowly across the stage. The “Et resurrexit” follows in a flash of brass and drums, Christ’s resurrection heralded by outbursts of collective ecstasy.

The goes-to-11 treatment could easily turn into caricature, which is where Herbert Von Karajan took it in 1974, with the Berlin Philharmonic. His “Kyrie” is so intent on achieving instant glory, it’s practically hysterical. His “Crucifixus” is a juggernaut’s tread. The authentic performance practice movement was born partly in reaction to such excesses. Soon Karajan and his cohort were defending against a small but dedicated band of scholar-musicians who thought they knew exactly what instructions the composer gave and to whom. Joshua Rifkin declared symphonic Bach an abomination and insisted on one singer per part in lieu of massed choirs. In 1982 Rifkin produced a version that, in accordance with the new orthodoxy, was slender to the point of scratchiness. Still, he made his point: that the B Minor Mass is a work of vocal music and so the singers are the stars. He recruited agile, light-voiced singers like Julianne Baird, who skips through the “Laudamus Te” with an ingénue’s charm. Rifkin had launched a paradox: What is the authentic way to execute a work that had no place in Bach’s time? If the most historically accurate way to interpret the piece would be not to do it at all, then the only question is not how he did perform it but how he might have.

The next 20 years brought a flood of versions that were both scrupulous and musical, faithful to the evidence that Bach counted his musicians by the handful and not by the hundred, but also to the cosmic drama of the score. I have kept Philippe Herreweghe’s supple recording in rotation for many years, sometimes supplanted by John Eliot Gardiner’s more caffeinated version. Lately, though, I’ve been entranced by another finely tooled recording featuring the Bach Collegium Japan, conducted by Maasaki Suzuki. Instead of stunning revelations and volcanic upwellings of the spirit, Suzuki offers the Mass as an intimate, contemplative experience.

The wheel may be turning once again. The New York Philharmonic recently reclaimed the B Minor Mass from the early music specialists, performing it as part of the orchestra’s Bach Variations festival. That concert was recorded for future release, perhaps opening the door for a new generation of orchestral versions that are once large and light, baroque in spirit and modern in execution.