30th March 2018
Two veteran early music specialists venture into new territory: William Christie conducts Bach's Mass in B minor and Masaaki Suzuki turns to Beethoven's Missa solemnis.
Christoph Wolff tells us that Bach wrote this work as a summing-up of his entire life. It is his testament, his epitaph, a legacy to those who would follow him. He chose the Latin Mass, the oldest and most universal form of Christian worship as his model. The B-Minor Mass is a profoundly religious work. However he desires to give us a panorama of his art – secular as well as sacred. Bach is conspicuously absent in the most secular music of the baroque world-opera. Yet in his cantatas, his oratorios and even his masses, he draws on the operatic, lyric repertory of his German, Italian and French predecessors and contemporaries. Stupendous, intellectually complex counterpoint which is the main architecture of the B-Minor Mass is thus punctuated by a collection of soli and duetti, whose styles are decidedly secular, inspired by composers such as Telemann, Hasse, Marcello, Stradella as well as Lully and French composers of the early 18th century.
Bach himself conducted from the keyboard, sometimes beating time in the larger movements. Otherwise he played along with his fellow musicians, realizing the continuo baseline. And so do I ! I am a continuo player, harpsichordist and organist who thus participate in the joy of music making. Yes I conduct the great Kyrie which begins the mass. However in the second movement, the Christe, I am at the keyboard accompanying a light-hearted duo for two treble voices. I play rather than direct in nine movements of the mass out of twenty-six. My role as a performer-conductor has a number of important musical consequences. First of all the number of players: I formed an orchestra and a chorus of modest proportions. Fewer musicians as well as the absence of a conductor creates an atmosphere of chamber music, giving an independence and a freedom to both soloists and instrumentalists.
Another consequence and most important is that of tempo. Bach’s mass has been performed since the beginning of the Bach Revival 50 years ago and has much in common with the way Handel’s oratorios were performed in the past. One only has to listen to a number of recordings past and present to detect the problem – exaggeratedly slow tempi played and sung by an exaggeratedly large number of musicians – it is as if serious and religious sentiments were synonymous with slowness. My tempi are brisk, not only in the soli and the duetti but in the D major trumpet choruses as well. Quicker tempi suggest a more physical and dance-like approach to the music. I should conclude by saying that my goal in this recording is to show a human side of Bach’s art. Indeed, the B-Minor Mass is an affirmation of Christian faith but just as important, for a secular society of today, it is a powerful affirmation of humanism, the exaltation of man and his achievements. - William Christie