The Herald's Michael Tumelty is "electrified" by the Bach Mass

Michael Tumelty talks about the Dunedin Consort's new recording: 

I recently reviewed the brilliant new five-star recording of Bach's B Minor Mass, performed by the Dunedin Consort and Players for Linn Records. I hinted in my review that there was more to say, and indeed there is. The first time I played the double-disc set, I let it run through without taking notes (my usual methodology) just to pick up a feel and flavour of the recording and performance.

Second time through, I made notes about the performances, and a wee bell seemed to go off in my mind; an imprecise but sure instinct about something. Third time through, I let my instinct feed into the listening process, making yet more notes. Then I drafted my review, went back to the discs and got my head seriously into Dunedin conductor John Butt's lucid and dazzling programme book essay. Butt, pictured below, is one of the world's foremost authorities on Bach, a master musicologist who can actually write incredibly approachable prose.

He points out problems and contradictions with the mass's identity. We might perceive it as one thing, but it isn't. It uses the Catholic liturgy in a Lutheran environment where Latin was seldom sung. It was written in the early 18th century at a time when music was designed and written for occasions; but there is no evidence that Bach wrote it with any performance in mind.

It wasn't written as a single piece. It was written in bits and pieces and at different times. It wasn't even called Mass in B Minor until the 19th century. Further, a huge amount of the "complete" piece was borrowed or recycled from earlier works (a common practice at the time). The Gratias was borrowed from one cantata, bits of the Credo from another three cantatas, the Hosanna from yet another, and the Agnus Dei from an aria in an oratorio.

Indeed, says Butt, devastatingly, only the Confiteor seems to have been freshly written, while the rest of the huge, 102-minute Mass was compiled rather than composed.

So might we suggest that this greatest and most sizzling of all Baroque choral masterpieces is, in fact, a mosaic at best, or even a hotchpotch, a pre-Classic FM best-of-Bach compilation? Which brings me to the point of this column. The alarm bell of instinct that went off in my head as the Dunedin's performance went into my system, and a sense of the flow and structures of the performance began to emerge, was telling me the exact opposite of conclusions we might infer from Butt's analysis.

In this extraordinarily vivid and alive performance, the entire mass - especially in its first 50-minute section with the Kyrie and Gloria - has a staggering sense of integrity in its structure, with a compelling inevitability in its progress. I've actually sat and annotated in detail what happens within each section: I won't bore you with the minutiae, for which there isn't space anyway, but test this out against the recording.

The opening Kyrie - solemn, calm, unhurried and long-breathed - is performed as a single span of about 10 minutes. The following Christe section moves a little more, still calm, but with an unassertive certainty. It runs at almost five minutes. The Kyrie returns, moving yet more, with the men driving and the music more assertive. That runs at about three minutes. So the music appears literally to get quicker from one section to the other; but with each section getting shorter, the impression of momentum is intensified with the increase in the rate of turnover of events.

Out of this erupts the bright, swinging Gloria with an irresistible, exhilarating, one-in-the bar swinging lilt. And, with dips and moments of repose, that's how it goes for 50 minutes, through to the blisteringly climactic Cum Sancto Spirito, with trumpets and drums blazing and the choir at high speed with phenomenal articulation.

It's electrifying, and the whole thing feels like one vast span, like something composed in a single, radiant blaze of white-hot inspiration.

We know it wasn't, but, my God, what this performance does to the piece: it feels like an indivisible entity.

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