Mass in B Minor

J. S. Bach

Chorus and Orchestra of the Collegium Vocale (Philippe Herrweghe, cond.)

album cover

The World, in Music

The Bohemian-Austrian composer Gustav Mahler once argued that a symphony should incorporate and reflect the whole world. Good examples abound in his Second and Eighth Symphonies, which combine towering orchestral themes, extended passages for solo vocal, and other sections written for a large choir. However, Mahler was not the first to aspire to such comprehensiveness: Some 150 years earlier, J. S. Bach wrote the luminous and expansive Mass in B Minor, which is as close to a comprehensive inventory of human emotion—from grief to exaltation to doubt to wonder—as music gets.

Here the baroque master gathers everything he'd used in the more modest, contained cantatas that were his bread and butter—elaborate counterpoint, active running melodies, chorales of voices moving in contrasting waves—and sprawls them over an extra-large canvas. Then he takes the whole shebang to church. The Mass stands with the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion among the key pillars of Bach's religious output.

The Christe of the opening section celebrates God incarnated as man, and establishes the tone of mystery and awe that prevails throughout. As the Mass unfolds, its traditional sections and cadences find Bach exploring various aspects of religious devotion—there are passages that suggest trembling fear of a vengeful God, or the serenity of a true believer. The piece ends with the churchgoing equivalent of fireworks—a fantastical expression of what the "heavenly reward" might actually sound like.

This version of the Mass is notable for its exquisite detail. The piece is considered among the most challenging in the choral repertoire, and often it's performed with a huge assemblage of voices. The Collegium Vocale is much smaller—just twenty-three singers. Recent scholarship suggests that Bach, a practical composer, wrote for a handpicked group, with one voice to a part. That makes this configuration closer to his design. Each voice plays a critical role in bringing the rousing melodic inventions to life: Compare this with one of many cast-of-thousands renditions, and you may find that the gargantuan approach is overkill—the smaller forces render Bach's agile lines, particularly those written for interior voices, with breathtaking clarity.

Genre: Classical
Released: 1998, Harmonia Mundi
Key Tracks: Kyrie Eleison; Domine Deus.
Another Interpretation: Bach Choir of Bethlehem
Catalog Choice: St. Matthew Passion, Choir of King's College, Cambridge (Stephen Cleobury, cond.).
Next Stop: George Frideric Handel: Messiah, Gabrieli Consort and Players (Paul McCreesh, cond.)
After That: Johannes Brahms: A German Requiem, Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus (Otto Klemperer, cond.).
Book Page: 36

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