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Bach: Mass in B minor / Schwarzkopf, Ferrier, Hoffgen, Gedda; Karajan
Johann Sebastian Bach, London Philharmonia Orchestra, Wiener Symphoniker
Bach: Mass in B minor / Schwarzkopf, Ferrier, Hoffgen, Gedda; Karajan
Genre: Classical
  •  Track Listings (14) - Disc #1
  •  Track Listings (17) - Disc #2

For all of his stupendous achievements in the realm of instrumental music, Bach's sacred vocal works hold the key to his expressive and spiritual essence. What's more, they reveal the fullest scope of his gifts as dramat...  more »


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For all of his stupendous achievements in the realm of instrumental music, Bach's sacred vocal works hold the key to his expressive and spiritual essence. What's more, they reveal the fullest scope of his gifts as dramatist, orchestrator, and word colorist. Just as Bach culled his B Minor Mass from disparate sources, Herbert von Karajan's 1952-53 recording stemmed from choral sessions in Vienna, with the vocal solos and duets taped later in London. You'd never know from listening; there's remarkable consistency to the sonic blend from one movement to the next. Stylistically speaking, this is "big-band Bach" at its full-throated best, rivaled in its day by only Hermann Scherchen's leaner, punchier monophonic account on Westminster (reissued in Japan). Karajan takes his time unfolding each section in smooth, subtly chiseled orchestral strands, which pulsate with more blood and sinew than the conductor's very refined, logy DG remake. EMI's new 20-bit transfer is more suave in equalization, compared to its more metallic CD antecedent. In addition, EMI includes five excerpts that were taped by Anthony Griffith during the dress rehearsal for Karajan's live 1950 Vienna Philharmonic B Minor Mass. These never have been released, although the broadcast of the concert has surfaced on several independent labels. Griffith's recordings were intended solely as experiments, not meant for release. Thank God they exist. Kathleen Ferrier's haunting contralto voice virtually envelops the Vienna Musikvereinssaal in the "Qui sedes" and "Agnus Dei." She and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf achieve a gorgeous blend in the "Christe eleison" duet sequence, while Schwarzkopf herself floats the "Laudamus te" with added freedom and a more ravishing tone than she was able to muster in the studio. In sum, this release is a major document of central European Bach performance-practice midway through the 20th century. --Jed Distler

CD Reviews

Probably as close to perfection as one can get
Derek Lee | St. Paul, MN USA | 08/21/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)

"This is truly a classic recording, and it deserves to be even more widely known than I think it is. Karajan is at his visionary best; every section is carefuly performed in such a way that one truly gets the sense that the Mass in B Minor is one, unified, composition, rather than just a bunch of extraordinary choral compositions that were stuck together with some arias. Here Karajan's vision of the B Minor Mass is a deeply spiritual one. For example, the Crucifixus is not so much dramatic, as poignantly, spritually, tragic, and the Incarnatus is just about the most haunting, spritual music you're ever likely to hear. Nowadays, most people think of Karajan's conducting as excessively bland, to the point of being smothering; perhaps this is true of some of his later recordings, but definitely not of his best early work, like this. Sure, there might not be fireworks like many other recordings of the Mass, but everything has such a purpose here the one gets the sense of truly understanding this monumental work, arguably the greatest thing ever composed, and for me that is much more important than the showy, heartless, and most importantly here, spiritless noise that has been put out in recent decades.
The soloists in the studio recording of the Mass are all exemplary, especially the incomparable Schwarzkopf. The arias are all just so beautiful, that I don't want to describe them in words; it's best just to listen to them. I will discuss the singing in the rehearsal excerpts later.
The chorus, rigorously trained by Karajan, is truly outstanding. Despite the complex contrapuntal structure of the choral music of this Mass, if you listen carefully, you can hear every line with perfect articulation, expression, and balance. I would like to point out that this thrilling clarity is one of the standouts in this recording, not just with the Singverein, but with the entire ensemble. Honestly, I cannot understand why anyone would get a period performance recording of the Mass when this is available. This is just as clear and transparent, it has excellent mono sound (sure, stereo is nice, but I am discovering it is not essential in many cases), and this is joyfully NOT secularised, unlike virtually all period recordings out there.
Whereas a meditative spirituality is the dominant characteristic of the studio recording of the Mass, powerful drama is the essence of the excerpts from the rehearsal for the 1950 Bachfest. The great Kathleen Ferrier is truly divine here, with heartwrenching drama particularly in the Agnus Dei, but which also has an otherworldly, angelic quality about it. Also, Ferrier and Schwarzkopf make an incomparably spontaneous duo, especially in the Christie Eleison. I would be tempted to get the live recording of the 1950 Bachfest B Minor Mass, except that I have heard that the sound quality is abysmal. Pity. To summarize, I cannot recommend this highly enough: it is an essential for any collection."
Great Recording -- But Not For Everybody
Tom Moran | New York, NY United States | 04/22/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)

"This recording of the B Minor Mass is a little misleading - one suspects intentionally so. If you look at the cover it ranks the first two singers as "Schwarzkopf Ferrier." This would lead you to believe that this is a recording of the B Minor Mass where Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is the soprano and Kathleen Ferrier is the contralto. Unfortunately, this is not the case.This two-CD package consists of two parts. The first and largest part is a studio recording of the B Minor Mass conducted by Herbert Von Karajan. Kathleen Ferrier does not sing on this recording, although Schwarzkopf does - the contralto part is sung by Marga Höffgen. The second part, consisting of only five tracks, is what is usually called "filler": they are excerpts from a rehearsal of a live performance of the B Minor Mass done a few years before this studio recording, and Kathleen Ferrier does sing on these tracks. But not (I repeat) on the complete performance.So if you're a huge Kathleen Ferrier fan, this might not be the recording for you, especially since the live performance from which the rehearsal excerpts were taken is available on CD from a few different labels (you can find it easily enough on Amazon). Of course, if you're a really big Ferrier fan you'll certainly want the few snippets of her in rehearsal, singing full out and sounding, as the liner notes justifiably claim, like an angel (and if you've never heard of Kathleen Ferrier and want to know what all the fuss is about, track down her recording of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" with Bruno Walter conducting, and see if you're not a huge fan by the time you're done listening to the "Abschied").So much for truth in advertising, I can hear you say: what about the performance? Is it worth buying? Well, yes and no. It really depends on what you're looking for in a B Minor Mass. If quality of sound is a primary consideration (as it is for a friend of mine who yearns solely for what he calls the "sterile perfection" of a digital recording), then this probably isn't for you - as decent as this sounds, there are orchestral subtleties that you simply will not hear. If you're into historical performances, however, this might be suitable (in which case I would also have you look up the Albert Coates recording from 1929). If you have a few recordings of the B Minor Mass already, I would certainly encourage you to pick up this one - but if you're looking for your first recording, I might go for something a little more modern.The fact is that since about 1980 there have been several very good Bach recordings, and it would be silly not to admit it. Where opera recordings seem to have gone into a steep decline in quality over the past twenty years, Bach has done quite well by himself. If I were recommending one B Minor Mass to someone who had never heard it before, it would probably be one of Philippe Herreweghe's recordings - most likely his first one, from 1989 on Virgin Classics (his 1998 Harmonia Mundi recording comes in a close second). I also must admit that I have a sneaking fondness for Gustav Leonhardt's 1985 recording, although it will probably sound a little too muted to most people.But whichever recording you choose, if you're an kind of a lover of classical music you need to have a B Minor Mass in your collection: it's as simple as that. So go buy one."
Karajan's B-minor Mass
Norma | Boston, MA | 11/06/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Those listeners who insist on modern, historically informed performances with the best of recording technology won't be as delighted as I was by the reissue of this great recording, but lovers of great singing and sensitive, impassioned performance will. For me, among the special delights of this CD was an added bonus, the preserved archival recordings of rehearals of Kathleen Ferrier and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for an earlier performance; in the recording of the Mass itself, Miss Schwarzkopf's performance of "Laudamus Te" combined virtuosity with deep religious feeling, a matchless expression of joyous adoration. Note that in the recording of the entire Mass, the mezzo-soprano is Marga Hoeffgen, not Kathleen Ferrier."