Marriner’s Mass in B Minor Revisited

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J.S. BACH: Mass in B Minor / Margaret Marshall, soprano I; Janet Baker, soprano II/alto; Robert Tear, tenor; Samuel Ramey, bass; Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Chorus & Orch.; Sir Neville Marriner, conductor / Philips 416 415-2, available at Arkivmusic or for free streaming on YouTube beginning HERE.

There’s nothing quite like getting old and forgetting some of your first loves in music, and for whatever reason, when I wrote my article proclaiming Helmuth Rilling’s last (2005) recording of this work the best, this 1977 performance by Neville Marriner had completely escaped by memory.

Part of the reason is that I wasn’t crazy about tenor Robert Tear, then or now. Though Welsh, he was considered the chief rival and sound-alike of British tenor Peter Pears, whose singing I happen to admire very much, but I never thought Tear as good as Pears. For one thing, the voice was much smaller in size; for another, despite the very similar timbre, neither his technique, his breath support, nor his skill in interpretation was quite as good as Pears’. But he was immensely popular in Great Britain during these years, and used on a great many recordings. Personally, I would have preferred Stuart Burrows on this recording.

But on this specific recording Tear isn’t really too bad, and the tenor doesn’t get all that much to sing. (For that matter, neither does the bass, but Samuel Ramey had a world-class voice in those years.) Unfortunately, being young and rash in my judgment, I threw the Marriner recording overboard in my collection and in my memory, particularly since it came out at the very time (1977) that we were all in the thrall of the early Historically-Informed Performance movement, which was led not only by British conductor Christopher Hogwood but also by the Austrian Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Dutchman Gustav Leonhardt, and we were told to look down our noses at Bach performances that sounded too lush or rich-sounding. Thin was In.

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Original 1977 LP cover, which I actually prefer to the CD version

Going back to this recording, however, was like a breath of fresh air for me. It was not nearly as heavy-handed or slow as the older recordings by Karl Richter, Otto Klemperer or Robert Shaw; in fact, in terms of tempo and phrasing, it was actually closer to that 2005 Rilling performance, but although Marriner only used a 40-piece orchestra the strings did not use straight tone, thus the sound is considerably fuller than we hear in most HIP performances of the work.

Marriner, who died about four years ago, was one of those British pioneers in “early HIP” along with Thurston Dart. He formed the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 1958 and led its first concert in 1959; they began recording the following year. Except for the period 1974 to 1980 during which violinist Fiona Brown was director, he remained their music director until 2011, when he retired and was replaced by violinist Joshua Bell. The Marriner-St. Martin’s discography was, and remains, the largest of any conductor-orchestra combination in history, yes, even more extensive than Toscanini and the NBC Symphony or Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. But Marriner’s leadership was not always of the highest order. Many of his recordings are good. A few are what I would call insignificant: not bad, but in one ear and out the other. And a few, like this Mass in B Minor, were great.

There is another thing to note. Here, Marriner uses a French horn to accompany the bass in “Quoniam tu solus sanctus,” which is proper since the score clearly calls for a “corno di caccia” or “hunting horn,” whereas in many HIP recordings they use something that sounds like a low trumpet. But listen to most recordings of Der Freischütz, where French horns are used for the huntsman’s song. Do you really want a group of low trumpets playing that music? I don’t, and neither did Bach want one for the “Quoniam.”

In musical style, orchestra and choral size and soloists, then, this is a superb midway presentation of Bach’s masterpiece that is neither too slow nor too fast, not too heavy or too lightweight. Small wonder that, although its last official release by Philips was in 2002, Arkivmusic keeps this recording alive on their website and still sells it. It will likely remain a viable performance of the Mass 40 years from now. Using judicious tempi throughout, much like Rilling, Marriner gives us a deeply felt performance that doesn’t sound too fast or too slow, but just right. As one commentator on YouTube put it, “As always, may the extraordinary English teacher rest in peace, surprising us and showing us that original instrumentation is not necessary when things are done respecting styles and times. Because here everything is wonderful and perfect. The modern and crystalline sound of the pure voices of the choir and the diaphanous performance of the incomparable Academy together with the extraordinary soloists. MARRINER, ONE OF THE GREATEST PIONEERS OF ALL THAT WOULD COME LATER.”

It was recorded just before the digital revolution, but the sound quality is so good (frankly, not all of Philips’ digital recordings had such a rich, warm sound as this) that you don’t even notice. And so, I regret to tell Rilling fans, this is now my preferred recording of this work…again.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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