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One of the most celebrated choral masterpieces, Bach's Mass in B Minor is a glittering compilation of the composer's "greatest hits": written towards the end of his life, most of the mass's music was recycled from earlier works which Bach felt represented his art at its very best.
No one would dispute that the massed choir treatment favoured in the past by the likes of Eugen Jochum and Carlo Maria Giulini, while effective in its way, is not "authentic". More controversial is scholarship suggesting Bach wanted the polar extreme: a 10-voice ensemble with just one singer per part. Several recorded versions have adopted this approach, with varying degrees of success, from Joshua Rifkin's pioneering 1982 account on Nonesuch to Marc Minkowski's 2009 Naive release. Now John Butt and the Dunedin Consort & Players, who have made a name for themselves with acclaimed performances of baroque choral works using minimal forces, aim to "present the music as if for the first time" - no small feat with such a well-known piece.
Butt's direction is generally sound, sometimes inspired. The initial Kyrie deftly combines a measured, serious tread with vital buoyancy and momentum; the lively Cum Sancto Spiritu has terrific flair, and an invigorating flourish in the headlong sprint to its final Amen; the Osanna swings serenely. Impressive throughout is the crisp, animated playing of the small-but-perfectly-formed instrumental ensemble (just seven strings at its heart). The chief benefits of the one-to-a-part choir are agility and clarity, particularly welcome in the fiendishly complex fugues. The tutti sound certainly doesn't lack oomph, but some passages may feel a bit weedy at first.
The set's biggest drawback is the inferior calibre of its vocal soloists compared to many other versions (Minkowski's boasts a very strong line-up). Only bass Matthew Brook displays character and maturity - notably in a splendid Quoniam with delightfully chugging bassoons and pungent solo horn. The juvenile sopranos (Emma Kirkby sound-alikes without her expressive power) are especially bland: there is much more to say about the beautiful Laudamus te, for example, than is offered here, despite its sensitive violin solo. It's a shame that an otherwise engaging performance is let down in this way; nevertheless, lovers of this great work will find much to appreciate - and even discover anew.