Biller’s B-Minor Mass Unusual, Impassioned


TRADITIONAL: Introitus: Hymnus auf das Pfingsfest – Spiritum sancti gratia. Intonation zum Gloria-Gloria in excelsis Deo (2 versions). Praefatio. J.S. BACH: Mass in B Minor / Ruth Holton, soprano; Matthias Rexroth, countertenor; Christoph Genz, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; Leipzig St. Thomas Choir; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; Georg Christoph Biller, conductor / Philips 28946594926 (live: Leipzig, July 28, 2000)

This performance, issued on a EuroArts DVD in 2006, is unusual in three ways. First, and perhaps most interestingly, conductor Biller chose to present this in a “liturgical style,” possibly following a tradition that Bach himself had to follow in Leipzig. I’ve read enough complaints written by Bach that his stingy employers didn’t like him writing so many long, original works for the services, but wanted more traditional hymns, so maybe there’s a precedent—maybe. Anyway, Biller prefaces the entire work with an Introitus, then inserts two versions of an Intonation–Gloria, one before Bach’s own Gloria and the other between Cum sancto spiritu and the Credo, and a Praefatio before the Sanctus. I found it a bit of a distraction, though it does point up just how great this Mass really is, how superior the music is.

The second unusual aspect—at least to me—is the use of a countertenor, a species of whiny falsetto singing that never existed in Leipzig or, for that matter, in Bach’s lifetime, in place of a conventional mezzo-soprano. And the third, of course, is the fact that the Leipzig St. Thomas Choir consists solely of boys, which of course is historically accurate.

I had no qualms whatever about the boys’ choir. This is, in fact, Biller’s second recording of the Mass with this choir, the first issued several years ago by Rondeau Productions. My impression of that performance, which used a second soprano (Susanne Krumbiegel) as well as a female contralto (Elisabeth Wilke), was that it was good but just a bit too lightweight for the music, an impression exacerbated by the overly-resonant sonics. On this Decca release, there is natural reverberance from the church in which it was performed, but the ambience sounds natural and the boys’ voices are miked much more closely. Moreover, I find that in this performance the orchestra is also miked better and plays with more energy. I still find the tempo of the opening Kyrie Eleison a shade too fast for my taste—I prefer Helmuth Rilling’s somewhat statelier pace—but there is no questioning the heartfelt performance given by the choir and orchestra. My real issue is with the unpleasantly queer-sounding, hooty voice and imprecise trills of countertenor Matthias Rexroth. I guess he’s OK but he’s no Russell Oberlin, Randall K. Wong or Philippe Jaroussky, the three greatest countertenors in the history of that unusual vocal category. Long before Laudamus te was finished, I wished he would have stuck his head in a large meat grinder and turned it up on high. Yeah, he irritated me that much.

By and large, however, I really liked this performance, particularly the choruses which are literally bursting at the seams with energy and love. I also very much liked the perky reading of “Domine Deus” as sung by Holton and Genz with a particularly wonderful-sounding flautist and basso Mertens’ “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” here sung with an actual French horn and not a substitute instrument like a trombone or something, as Rilling, Schreier and other conductors sometimes use.

If you choose to get this recording as a download, however, I urge you to download all of the music with contralto from Biller’s earlier Rondeau recording and substitute it for Rexroth. He’s that bad. Otherwise, this is certainly one of the best performances of the B Minor Mass you are ever likely to hear.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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