What’s the Best Version of Bach’s Great Mass?

A new recording conducted by leading Bach interpreter John Eliot Gardiner offers a golden opportunity to compare various performances of this masterpiece

Johann Sebastian Bach
Getty Images

It’s officially known as the Mass in B Minor (BWV 232), but is better known as Johann Sebastian Bach’s Great Catholic Mass. A work that most music lovers will cite without hesitation as one of the greatest achievements in the history of music. Being such a favorite, the piece is frequently performed and recorded, giving rise to periodic speculation as to which recording, or recordings, are the best and most convincing.

The latest round of this discussion was sparked by the new release of a performance conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, one of the foremost interpreters of Bach’s music. Exactly 30 years after his previous recording of the work, he has come out with a new and different performance that has been attracting a great deal of attention and positive reactions from most critics. The new recording was released by Gardiner’s boutique label SDG, the initials with which Bach signed all his church compositions and which stand for the Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria (“Glory to God Alone”).

What motivated Bach, a Lutheran, to write music for a Catholic mass? One important, if not very spiritual incentive: a livelihood. He worked on the first version of the mass during the months of mourning following the death of Augustus II the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, who was Catholic. Bach dedicated the piece to his successor, Augustus III, also a Catholic, with the aim of securing the title of Electoral Saxon Court Composer. The post he already held in Leipzig came with a lot of bureaucratic headaches, and the pay wasn’t great. The composer needed another job to support his large family.

Bach did finally present the mass to Augustus III, and win the position of court composer, but not until three years later. But something about the work continued to haunt him. He kept on amassing and inserting new material, as well as reworking old material. Over the course of 1748-49, near the end of his life, when he was already blind, he finally succeeded in assembling the puzzle: four sections that come together in a single Catholic mass. In a 1991 book, conductor and music scholar John Butt noted how impressive it is that in this mass Bach was able to assemble such a coherent sequence from such a large and extensive variety of material.

Bach - Mass in B minor (John Eliot Gardiner) - 2015

Bach conducted individual sections that were later added to the mass, but the work as a whole was not performed in his lifetime, nor during the lifetime of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who inherited the score and named the work the Great Catholic Mass. The first performance of the entire piece took place 109 years after Bach’s death, in 1859, in Leipzig, under the baton of Karl Riedel. It slowly found its way into the repertoire and into the consciousness of music-lovers, and only gradually achieved its special status as a masterpiece.

Since the 1980s, there have been an abundance of recordings, the majority of which have taken a historical approach in one way or another: with instruments believed to approximate the sounds of the composer’s era; with vocal technique that seeks to emulate the modes of singing that were customary then; with small choirs and orchestras – apparently with the aim of approaching the immediacy and intimacy that vocal works, usually performed in church, had in Bach’s time. It is impossible to know just how “authentic” these attempts really were, but they did help to create a new, contemporary tradition of interpretation notably different from the large-scale, festive productions that were dominant in the past.

BWV232 Missa in b Philippe Herreweghe 2011

Comparison listening

John Eliot Gardiner is one of the most prominent conductors in this genre and has been involved in a number of impressive projects, like the “Bach Pilgrimage” he undertook in 2000 – in which, over the course of 52 weeks, he traveled the world and conducted all of Bach’s religious cantatas in churches in Europe and the United States. His approach to the composer is religious, spiritual and deep, and his new recording of the mass, made in 2015, was eagerly anticipated.

Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232 | Jordi Savall

Unlike many British critics who effusively praised the 2015 recording, I was a bit disappointed upon hearing it. Gardiner’s regular singers – the Monteverdi Choir – are brilliantas ever. The playing of the English Baroque Soloists, featuring Kati Debretzeni on first violin, is highly polished. The phrasing flows energetically from beginning to end, and a real sense of unity comes through. What’s missing is the dramatic thrill that usually accompanies certain transitional passages, such as the shift from the bleak section about the crucifixion (“Crucifixus”) to the ecstatic section about the resurrection (“Et Resurrexit”). I didn’t feel the emotional explosion there. I also missed a lyrical depth in some sections, especially the arias and duets. Overall, the performance is very skilled and smooth, but not enthralling. If you’re thinking of buying it, because of who the conductor is or because of a review in a British magazine, try listening to a sample online first.

Repeated listens to Gardiner’s version spurred me to listen to many others as well. I listened at home on my own; I listened with a group of friends, and we compared a good number of sections of the mass among various recordings – in a “blind” comparison where we didn’t know who the performers were as we listened. By this process, I desperately tried to figure out: Who recorded the best mass of all? In my own listening, and in the group comparison as well, there was no single answer to this question. It’s a complex work, with numerous elements – soloists, chorus, orchestra, interpretation. Each performance showed certain advantages and certain relative weaknesses.

The 2011 recording conducted by Jordi Savall is one of my favorites – a sensitive and balanced performance. It is available on disc and there is also a full version of the mass on DVD (on the Alia Vox label). Philippe Herreweghe’s third and finest recording of this work, released in 2011, features a velvety chorus with excellent soloists. He, too, has his own private label, PHI. Concerto Copenhagen with Lars Ulrik Mortensen (CPO), offers a wonderful alternative version with fewer singers – only soloists who also serve as the chorus.

There are two splendid performances from the 1990s: one conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi) and one by Hermann Max (Capriccio). Both combine a marvelous flow with lyrical depth. Both feature superb countertenors.

With all these choices, most listeners will be able to find “their” mass. And when they do, to listen to it endlessly.