Systematic Discussions of Bach’s Other Vocal Works
Mass in B minor BWV 232 – Part 6: Early Recordings
Discussions in the Week of April 4, 2004Aryeh Oron wrote (April 13, 2004):
Early Recordings of the Mass in B minor BWV 232 - Review
In the year 2000, the 250 anniversary of Bach’s death, his greatest vocal work, the Mass in B minor BWV 232 (= MBM), crossed the magical line of 100 complete recordings. As such it is definitely the most recorded of his vocal works, whereas the Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 has 88 complete recordings, and the Johannes-Passion BWV 245 ‘only’ 80.
Listening and comparative reviewing of 104 complete recordings, each of them lasts around 2 hours, are beyond one human being capabilities. I do not mean that it is tiresome listening to so many recordings. On the contrary, it was Johann Nicolaus Forkel, J.S. Bach’s first biographer, who wrote in 1802: “Bach’s music does not arrest our attention momentarily but grips us stronger the oftener we listen to it, so that after a thousand hearings its treasures are still unexhausted and yield fresh beauties to excite our wonder.” This statement is valid even today, when we can listen to a certain recording as many times as we want, an option that was not, of course, available to Forkel. But such a project is time consuming and it means giving up listening to other works, even to Bach’s other works. Nevertheless, a few have dared tackling this frightening challenge. Teri Noel Towe published in 1991 an article, which reviewed most of the recordings of the MBM until 1990. This article was included in the book ‘Choral Music on Record’, edited by Alan Blyth (Cambridge University Press, first published 1991). Due to TNT’s kindness, this article can now be read at the following page of the BCW: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Articles/MBM-TNT.htm
Uri Golomb of our discussion groups has just now submitted his dissertation of the MBM’s recording. I hope to publish sometimes part of it at the BCW. There might be others, of whom I am not aware, who have tried their ears and hands in similar gargantuan project.
My effort would be on much smaller scale. I decided to focus on the earliest recordings of the MBM. The later recordings have much wider exposure, being easier to get and more comfortable to listen to, since most contemporary listeners are attuned to their sound and approach (small forces, original instruments, lighter voices, brisker tempi, original pitch, better recording techniques, etc.). Listening to recordings from 7 to 4 decades ago brings us to a totally different world. To do justice with those recordings, we must clear our heads from reminiscences of the newer recordings and open our ears to the ‘new‘ older sounds. Some of the recordings have never been issued in CD form, and I have never had the opportunity of listening to them in any form. My review would therefore include only the 11 recordings of the MBM at my disposal, which were done from 1929 to 1960.
The opening and concluding movements
The first impression one has of a recording of the MBM is the way the opening ‘Kyrie’ is performed. This movement is so impressive, that the experience of the rendition can hardly be erased from one’s memory when listening to the rest of the recording. If it is good, it can carry you successfully along the consecutive movements. If it is bad, you will not easily forgive the performers along the following movements. You might even lose patience to continue listening. The last impression one has is, of course, the concluding ‘Dona nobis pacem’. This last movement issue was the subject of a recent interesting discussion in the BCML. These two movements are actually choruses, with no solo parts, unless OVPP approach is adopted. But they are different from each other in almost any possible factor.
The opening movement of the MBM, based on Luther’s German Mass of 1525, is unique in comparison with any other beginning for a mass stetting. No orchestral overture prepares for this opening invocation, dramatically pictured by Bach as a vast multitude, pleading with God to have mercy upon them for their sins. A lengthy orchestral ritornello then follows. The Chorus represents the voices of all nations, as they make confession in a change of tempo to Largo un poco piano – a grief motif in a fugue which resembles a concerto movement on a vast scale with 126 bars in slow time, both of which Bach was adept at creating. The tenors appear first, then the altos and the sopranos, and this swelling throng reaches a vocal climax when the basses enter, eight bars from the end. Spitta claims that this first Kyrie is symbolic of mankind craving redemption from sin – the keynote of the whole work. He thinks that this universal plea for mercy is at its most epic and then dramatic in the change to various voices with their grief motif.
Bach concluded the MBM with a repetition of Chorus 6 “Gratias agimus”, because the original words of Cantata BWV 29 in German indicates thanks to God. But he included their prayer for peace in the solemn hymn of thanks giving repeated from the original music. This movement also fulfils the aesthetic function of rounding off this work, the repeating symbolizing coming back to familiar and safe ground.
Let us now look at some factors for comparative listening.
I feel that the opening chorus is most effective when it starts calmly and gathers momentum as it is progressing. If you start in the highest volume, where can you go from there? Thinks of a man trying to convince somebody to do something that the other person not necessarily wants to do. If he starts with loud voice he will convince nobody. The concluding movement should be calm from beginning to end. After the intense feelings the listener has experienced in previous movements he should get peacefulness, quite and confidence.
I have learnt from four years of comparative listening to the cantatas that tempo is an important factor, although not as important as much as we might possibly think. Many times we find that a rendition which might apparently sound slower to another is actually faster when the actual playing time is checked. In good hands a slow tempo can be full of tension. Another conductor is able to give a fast rendition without scarifying any detail. Some members have noticed in previous discussions of the MBM that in older days the TT of MBM’s recordings was about 130 minutes, where contemporary recordings are around 105 minutes. The tendency to brisker tempi characterises actually most modern recordings of Bach’s vocal works. Here we are on safer ground because only older recordings are in our concern. Therefore it is quite astonishing to find out how different from each other these recordings are regarding the playing time of these two movements.
The Kyrie eleison and Dona nobis pacem involve all the forces Bach orchestrated his work for: 5-Part Chorus (quite unusual for him) and full orchestra with trumpets, timpani, strings, woodwinds and continuo. We know that with Bach every detail is important, but so is the overall picture. One conductor might sacrifice details to get more homogenous structure, while another might get loss in details without sense of direction or building up. Some conductors are better with the choir while other are more orchestral in their approach. In short, these two movements leave a wide room for the conductor and his forces to express themselves. The final line is how does the conductor convince us that he understands what he is doing, that he has sense of direction and structure, that he can hold his forces firmly while keeping convincing expression of the deep feelings embedded in the music and the text?
Early recordings of Mass in B minor BWV 232 to which I listened:
 Albert Coates (1929) - Kyrie eleison: 12:01; Dona nobis pacem: 4:18
 Herbert von Karajan (1st recording, 1950) - Kyrie eleison: 10:15; Dona nobis pacem: 3:51
 Hermann Scherchen (1st recording, 1950) - Kyrie eleiso: 15:53; Dona nobis pacem: 2:41
 George Enescu (1951) - Kyrie eleison: 10:59; Dona nobis pacem: 3:52
 Herbert von Karajan (2nd recording, 1952) - Kyrie eleison: 12:14; Dona nobis pacem: 4:03
 Eugen Jochum (1st recording, 1957) - Kyrie eleison: 12:47; Dona nobis pacem: 3:10
 Rudolf Mauersberger (1958) - Kyrie eleison: 10:55; Dona nobis pacem: 3:09
 Hans Grischkat (2nd recording, 1958-1959) - Kyrie eleison: 11:21; Dona nobis pacem: 3:46
 Hermann Scherchen (2nd recording, 1959) - Kyrie eleison: 14:46; Dona nobis pacem: 3:56
 Walter Goehr (1960) - Kyrie eleison: 8:54; Dona nobis pacem: 2:50
 Robert Shaw (1960) - Kyrie eleison: 12:00; Dona nobis pacem: 3:55
Review of the Recordings
Important notice: you have to remember that my review includes only the two extreme choral movements. The movements with the soloists are not reviewed here. Every comment or generalization I make of a certain rendition relates only to these two movements. Deriving from my remarks any conclusions regarding the vocal soloists would do injustice with them. If you are interested in the vocal soloists, you should listen to them and judge for yourself. Some of the problematic recordings have excellent roster of soloists.
The first complete recording of the MBM, by Albert Coates , has many things to its credit, especially if we take into account the problematic circumstances of the recording process in those days (1929). Unfortunately, the weakest parts of this historic recording are the choral movements, which are the subject of this review. The singing is not coherent, some of the instruments play out of tune, and the balance between the choir and the orchestra is almost intolerable. There is nothing in the interpretation either, which attracts me. It is ultra-romantic, thick and heavy, both in the Kyrie and in the Dona nobis pacem. In short, I find no special reason to re-listen to this recording.
Karajan’s first recording of the MBM  is very problematic regarding the quality of the recording, which was done during a live performance. Its muddiness makes following the details very difficult. However the intensity of the conductor comes through, and the impression I get that it is more vivid than his second recording.
Now comes Scherchen’s first recording of the MBM . His Kyrie eleison is the slowest of all the 11 recordings, yet it is also the most electrifying. (A similar effect to Sviatoslav Richter in his recording of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B flat major, or Otto Klemperer conducting Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony in a concert I heard in 1967). He holds both the choir and the orchestra with firm hand and confidence, and builds gradually the tension along the progress of the movement. The sections of the choir almost never sing in louder voice. Sometimes they sound as if they are whispering. I have to admit that this was the only recording during the listening to it I could not write. I had to get up and join Scherchen and his forces in their plea for mercy. The level of singing and playing is very high indeed. It is quite surprising to find that after opening his rendition with so slow and convincing Kyrie, Scherchen concludes it with ultra-fast Dona nobis pacem. I am sure that Scherchen knew what he was doing, but I do not like it. The clarity and transparency of the opening movement are evident also here, but the atmosphere he creates sounds wrong to me.
George Enescu’s recording of the MBM from 1951  was released commercially for the first time only in 1998. It is always intriguing to hear a composer performs another composer’ work. What Enescu brings to his rendition is a unique sense of intimacy and humanity. The opening Kyrie ‘breathes’. The tension, which characterizes Scherchen and some others, is missing here. I also do not feel the level of intensity to be found with conductors as Jochum. This is the kind of rendition, which comes to you unforcefully and grows with every repeated listening. The same merits help to make the concluding Dona nobis pacem very moving.
The Kyrie in Karajan first official recording of the MBM  is as smooth and precise as possibly can be. Although he has good control of the choir, this rendition can be defined as orchestral or symphonic. With him the opening Kyrie sounds closer to Wagner than under the hands of any other conductor. According to the liner notes “Both Coates and Shaw recordings were important in their day. What neither offers is that unique mix of style and vision that gives Karajan recording its landmark status, its special appeal”. I find no appeal in this recording. Indeed, it has vision, but I do not find this vision reflecting Bach’s message. It leaves me unmoved. The Dona nobis pacem is unhurried and calm, as it should. Yet again it seems as a good and beautiful cover, which does not hide the emptiness of the emotional content.
I had now to skip over eight complete recordings of the MBM, because none of them was at my disposal. Some of them, as Werner’s (planned for reissue later this year), are quite intriguing. But what was waiting for me at the other side of this long jump has been worth the risk. Because Jochum recording  can simply be defined as a prayer of a true believer, a man talking with his God. Regarding the quality of the choir and the orchestra Jochum has nothing to be ashamed of, even in comparison with Karajan. I almost see him telling his choir and orchestra, “Pray, pray, ask for mercy”. The quite passages are incomparable with any other recording from this group. It is so convincingly done that you want to pray with him. The Dona nobis Pacem is relatively fast, and has more glory than calmness to my taste.
Then comes Rudolf Mauersberger , whose brother Erhard was to become later a Thomaskantor. The Dresdner Kreuzchor is boys’ choir in the good German tradition. The singing is precise and the orchestral playing leaves something to be desired. The main problem is the conducted that sounds heavy and not very involved. They start the Kyrie too strong and progress monotonously afterwards. One has to hear this rendition only to realize that this sublime music can be performed boringly. Apparently it is faster than both Karajan and Jochum, but it seems that it will never end. The Dona nobis pacem does not cause you to want listening to this recording all over again.
Hans Grischkat is another German conductor, whose recording of the MBM from 1958-1959  is actually the second. However, his first has never been issued in CD form. He is better conductor than Mauersberger with good control of his forces. This rendition can be described as reliable. Big picks can hardly be found in the Kyrie. But you do not get disappointed as with the previous recording. In many ways he reminds Jochum, although he does not get at the depths of feelings as Jochum does in the opening Kyrie. On the other hand, I would dare saying that I prefer his Dona nobis pacem to Jochum’s, because it is slower and more varied and because he uses changes of dynamics in the singing of the choir to achieve a most effective and convincing conclusion.
Hermann Scherchen was a pioneer in many areas. He was also the first major conductor to record the MBM twice  (Karajan’s first is unofficial recording). The main reason for him doing it was the new phenomenon of stereo recording. Although there are many similarities between his two recordings, I find his first as the most gratifying. It is better controlled and more moving. The length of the Kyrie is the second only to his first. Yet some of the electricity of the first disappeared in the second. On the other, for the Dona nobis pacem Scherchen chooses a slower tempo, and the result sounds more appropriate to the content of the movement. It seems that Scherchen was not satisfied with the break-neck tempo he had used for his first recording of the concluding movement and changed it the re-making.
Walter Goehr’s was the first recording of the MBM I have listened to . It was in the early 1970’s and I remember that I was not grabbed by this work as I did with the Johannes-Passion and Cantata BWV 4. Was it this rto blame or was it I? I re-listened to this recording only about two years ago, when I purchased it in CD form. I now know that it was I, because among the early recordings of the MBM, I find Goehr’s as one of the best. To the contemporary listener it sounds relatively modern due to the fast tempo Goehr’s chooses for the opening Kyrie, the small choir and the internal rhythm. Despite the fast tempo it does not sound rushed. The tension is being built gradually to a convincing and well-structured whole. The clarity of the vocal and instrumental lines allows you to follow the development easily. But what works so wonderfully for the opening movement fails in the concluding Dona nobis pacem. Instead of calmness and relaxation we get unsuitable hastiness.
Robert Shaw’s second recording of the MBM (his first has long been unavailable in any form) is the most impressive rendition regarding the quality of playing and singing. This man knew exactly what he wanted to get at and was successful in achieving his goal. Everything sounds so right in this rendition in both the Kyrie eleison and the Dona nobis pacem: the tempi, the size of the choir, the structure, the atmosphere. This is the kind of rendition to which you want to listen again and again.
My personal preferences are:
Opening Kyrie: Jochum 1st, Scherchen 1st, Shaw 2nd.
Concluding Dona nobis pacem: Scherchen 2nd, Grischkat 2nd, Shaw 2nd.
I would to hear other opinions regarding this group of recordings or any other recording from the same period. Listening to those older recordings is most recommended to any member of the BCML. The main goal of my review is evoking your curiosity and stimulating your appetite to have a taste of this almost forgotten world. For me this experience has been a most delightful and gratifying revelation.
Alfred Krause wrote (May 3, 2004):
It is with some trepidation that I make my first contribution after three years of lurking about this august assembly.
My BMM recordings include both Scherchens, Karajan II, Shaw II, Corboz I, Schreier I and Funfgeld.
I have experienced a cumulative effect to the BMM that surpasses the sum of the individual numbers.
To me this is what makes Shaw II and both Scherchen particularly memorable. They clearly have a plot: a beginning, middle and end.
By carefully listening to the shaping of the sections in relation to each other it is possible to hypothesize this plot and infer what the conductor may be trying to say beyond the actual content of the text.
In the case of Scherchen, however near to HIP the size of his forces or some of his tempos may be, he has an agenda that is clearly Mahlerian or possibly Miltonic. The vastness of the inital Kyrie expresses the immense gulf between God and man.
The Christe eleison is a first attempt to bridge that gap by calling upon incarnate emphathy. This launches a great ongoing transformation that begins immediately (the second Kyrie has "germinated", so to speak, in comparison with the first) / but continues through the Gloria and Credo to the cosmic striding of the Sanctus down to the Dona nobis pacem. By then the great work has been accomplished and a heartfelt plea like the Agnus dei receives an immediate response, as in Isaiah 30:19:
"He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. "
I think that this may be the meaning of the seemingly fast tempos taken by Scherchen I and even Goehr.in Dona nobis pacem. These effects, however, are not entirely dependant upon tempo alone. Schreier I is similar in length to Goehr in the Kyrie and loses little in expressing the greatness of the gulf and the longing (possibly by both sides?) to bridge it.
Mass in B minor BWV 232: Details
Recordings: Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001 | Individual Movements
General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12
Systematic Discussions: Part 1: Kyrie | Part 2: Gloria | Part 3: Credo | Part 4: Sanctus | Part 5: Agnus Dei | Part 6: Early Recordings | Part 7: Summary
Individual Recordings: BWV 232 - Abbado | BWV 232 - Biller | BWV 232 - Brüggen | BWV 232 - Corboz | BWV 232 - Eby | BWV 232 - Ericson | BWV 232 - Fasolis | BWV 232 - Gardiner | BWV 232 - Giulini | BWV 232 - Harnoncourt | BWV 232 - Hengelbrock | BWV 232 - Herreweghe | BWV 232 - Jacobs | BWV 232 - Jochum | BWV 232 - Junghänel & Cantus Cölln | BWV 232 - Karajan | BWV 232 – King | BWV 232 - Klemperer | BWV 232 - Kuijken | BWV 232 - Leonhardt | BWV 232 - Ozawa | BWV 232 - Pearlman | BWV 232 - Richter | BWV 232 - Rifkin | BWV 232 – Rilling | BWV 232 - Scherchen | BWV 232 – Schreier | BWV 232 - Shaw | BWV 232 - Solti | BWV 232 - Suzuki | BWV 232 - J. Thomas & ABS
Articles: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 (by Teri Noel Towe) | Bach’s B minor Mass on Period Instruments (by Donald Satz) | Like Father, Like Son [By Boyd Pehrson]