Radical re-assessment: B Minor Mass

Bach: B Minor Mass

I've read the books, and especially John Butt's excellent Cambridge Music Guide on the piece, its composition or maybe that should be its assembly, its reception and chequered history and reputation and for over 20 years I've listened to recordings and broadcasts of the piece, but it was only on 8 June 2011 that I "got" it.

And its a shame but now I have "got" it - it all makes sense. 

I could lay the problem firmly at the door of Herbert von Karajan - who's recording started me off on this journey, but before pointing fingers and throwing mud, I will describe the problem so you can see just how unfair palming if off on someone else is.

I never really got the B Minor Mass because I couldn't make sense of it after the first half.  Indeed I would regularly listen to the Kyrie and Gloria and then slowly tune out of it, maybe skipping to the Et ressurexit and then not even bother putting on the second disc.  The music of the second half seemed remarkably bland to me - out of kilter with the Gloria and its great drama.

After I read Butt's book I realised there was a complex and sophisticated vision in Bach's mind - this was after all an assemblage of existing movements and new work, but it was only later that I realised the B Minor mass is designed to demonstrate the rich variety of Bach's talent and the rich wealth of European culture at the time by borrowing style sand producing pastiches of them in the main sections of the work.  It felt disjointed because that was partly a design element.  The Gloria's style is supposed to stand alone.

But listening to Richter's version (Disc 9 and 10 of this set)

I was struck that I was very attentive to the inner workings of the movements: I was involuntarily listening closely. Richter demands this in a way Karajan does not (hence my problem with the Karajan versions).  the result was that layer upon layer of music was stripped off - familiar stuff, but the revealed complexities of fugues and balances, inner writing and out momentum.  It added up to new music to me and caused me to re-evaluate.

I commend Richter because - like all the greatest performances of masterpieces of classical music - we hear more than we knew before.  In my case this was all the more important for the pleasure of a piece which worked and for no longer feeling I'm a lap behind!


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