Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan have already made an impressive contribution to the recorded canon of Johann Sebastian Bach's sacred music; Suzuki's outstanding cycle of Bach's cantatas for BIS was up to Volume 36 by 2007. Suzuki has also recorded Bach's Passion settings, leaving only the Mass in B minor. With the release of BIS' Super Audio CD J.S. Bach: Mass in B minor, Suzuki thrusts his gauntlet forth on the largest and most visionary of Bach's sacred works.
Suzuki's area of expertise is in reproducing more or less exactly Bach's performance milieu, as far as that can be determined from existing sources -- Bach's "intentions" constitute the holy grail insofar as period-specific groups are concerned. In the case of the Mass in B minor, composed throughout Bach's life from about the late 1720s but not compiled into a finished form until the end of it, Bach's intentions as such were likely that he didn't expect the work be performed at all, at least not in his lifetime. A dedicated, stubborn Lutheran; nevertheless, Bach could not resist the pull of the Mass text and even cannibalized some of his own Lutheran service music to fill out the liturgical structure of his Mass, much too long and complex for an ordinary service anyway. By the time it was performed in the nineteenth century, the gigantic vision that Bach reserved for his only large-scale mass was already somewhat familiar from similarly ambitious music composed in the meantime. It was commonplace until the 1980s to perform the Mass in B minor with the large forces associated with the era in which it was first heard.
With the advent of the 1983 Joshua Rifkin edition of the Mass in B minor and its corresponding recording, the idea of a "one to a part" relationship between Bach' music and singers became the period ensemble's standard. It was radical thinking, fresh sounding at the time, and even a little sexy in its irreverence for the grand, romantic notion built up around the B minor. Rifkin's work is referenced in the course of Klaus Hofmann's notes for this set, mainly concerned with Bach's use of parody composition -- recycling of previously made scores into new -- in the Mass in B minor and other works. One gets the impression that Suzuki views the Mass in B minor as being the sum of the various works it parodies, fitting into the modest and intimate dimensions that characterize his outstanding realizations of Bach's cantatas -- outside of the soloists, his chorus is just three to a part for sopranos, two for altos, tenors and basses. The band consists of just 25 players, including only eight strings.
In light of what Suzuki has achieved in the past, this is hard to say, but this Mass in B minor really doesn't work. Ideally, with forces of any size, the opening of the Credo should sound like God coming down from the heavens, angels in tow -- it is one of the few sections of the B minor Mass original to the work and not parodied from elsewhere. Here, it sounds like a confusion, or competition, of voices and instruments; the polyphonic lines are unclear and do not balance out because everything is thrown into the foreground, whereas on the printed page it is easy to see the pattern of Bach's overall musical design even if one does not read music. There are fine soloists here, and Suzuki certainly paces things well, if a little quickly; the balance of BIS' recording seems a little off, a rare occurrence indeed, but certain sections are a bit too quiet and others sound cluttered.
It's not easy to diagnose just what's wrong with the patient, but the scrawny dimensions of the group in use seems to be the main culprit; to do this work justice you simply need more players. The Mass in B minor is just one among a number of late Bach works -- The Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue, for example -- where he was clearly looking beyond the resources of his own time into what might be possible in the future. Suzuki's recording of it -- most unfortunately -- shows that an inflexible attitude toward period realization serves only to straightjacket Bach's intentions, demonstrating a downside to this approach when applied in special cases like the Mass in B minor.