July 2005

Bach - Mass in B Minor
Soloists, Dresden Chamber Choir, Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Helmut Müller-Brühl, conductor
Naxos 5.110102-03
Format: DVD-Audio
Released: 2005

by Rad Bennett

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

This work stands as a pinnacle of choral composition, yet Bach wrote its sections at many different points in his career. He probably never heard the entire work at one sitting. Bach’s genius was such that we was always in top form, so one is never aware of any part of this work being lesser than any other. There are grand contrapuntal choruses included, as well as magnificent solos, many with important instrumental obligato parts, notably horn and oboe d’amore. Bach’s masterful and colorful use of instruments is in evidence everywhere, including his brilliant scoring for flutes, trumpets, and timpani.

This Naxos recording is splendid. The 20-voice chorus and 32-piece orchestra are splendid. There is not a weakness in the ranks. The chorus can sing rapid passages with Mercurial lightness, and the instrumental sections articulate with exceptional clarity. As a result, the fugal sections in choruses are clear and singularly transparent. The soloists are all first-rate. I was especially impressed with bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brahmann, who has a voice supple enough to traverse intricate passages with immaculate diction. Conductor Muller-Brühl paces every passage at exactly the right speed and secures tight precision from his singers and players.

The sound is very close to ideal. Listening to the multichannel tracks, the orchestra is spread across the front soundstage, the chorus clearly behind and, yes, above. Soloists sing from the front of the stage. The balances are all correct, with the thrilling high clarino trumpets heard in proper relationship to the rest of the orchestra. The surrounds are expertly used to give the sense of a medium-sized hall.

There is already one good performance of this work in the SACD format on Harmonia Mundi, but I think this Naxos one is even better, and it is also available as a hybrid multichannel SACD.