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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 (Schwarzkopf, Gedda, Karajan) (1952-1953)
This legendary recording of Bach’s B minor Mass was made, most unusually, in two places and with two orchestras. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was booked, anonymously, to record the choruses with the Choral Society of the Friends of Music,Vienna, while the reduced forces of the Philharmonia, with the section principals for instrumental solo parts, accompanied the solos and duets in London. Critical comment on this recording when it first appeared in 1954 was virtually unanimous. The Record Guide (Collins, 1955) remarked “The principal qualities of Karajan’s reading are lightness, absolute clarity of sound and rhythmic buoyancy, all of them qualities that many performances miss … Karajan, and [the] engineers, allow us to hear all the vocal and instrumental parts. Choral and solo singing are delightful”.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Missa in B Minor BWV 232
To all intents Bach's Mass in B minor could be described as the composer's re-workings of his choicest pages of choral music, assembled in the closing years of his life. The genesis of the work, however, stretched back over more than two decades. It has also been suggested by some commentators that the composer may have intended the resultant work more as a monument than for any particular performance. Scored for four soloists, a choir divided into two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass voices, strings and continuo with three trumpets, a solo cor a caccia, two recorders (flutes), two oboe d'amore and two bassoons, the work is cast by Bach into four parts - the Missa comprising the Kyrie and Gloria, the Symbolum Nicenum containing the whole of the Credo, the Sanctus, and a composite Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Dona nobis pacem. Bach invariably gives his instrumentalists solos in the arias. For example, the violin in the Laudamus te, a recorder (flute) in the Domine Deus and Benedictus, an oboe d'amore in the Qui sedes and Et in Spiritum, a horn in the Quoniam.
The original Missa section was initially completed and performed in July 1733 when Bach was attempting to curry favour with the new King of Saxony, whereas the remainder of the work was assembled during the years 1748-49, just before the composer's death in 1750. The revised Missa survives in the hand of his wife Anna Magdalena while the second to the fourth parts are in the composer's handwriting. Bach, however, never heard his completed work. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel did direct a performance of the Credo in Hamburg in 1784 but it was not until the following century that the work was heard in full. By then, however, the composer's style and age had moved on into a new and entirely different world of performance.
The history of Bach's Mass in B minor on record dates back to 1926 when a number of choruses were recorded live in London's Royal Albert Hall by the Royal Choral Society under Edward Bairstow. The choral singing, albeit with a large choir as was common at that time, is remarkably good, even if the recorded sound is dim, distant and murky. More interesting from around the same era was the single chorus Cum sancto Spiritu by the Berlin Philharmonic Choir under Siegfried Ochs on HMV's German Electrola label, affording us a glimpse of the German approach to Bach which goes back to the time when Mendelssohn reintroduced Bach's choral works in the nineteenth century. The work was first recorded complete, however, over the months of March to May 1929 under Albert Coates. This recording is most decidedly uneven, inflated, and contains some bizarre examples of bad balance between chorus and orchestra. The four soloists, however, three of whom appear in the appendix to the complete recording on this Naxos re-issue, are exemplary, the soprano Elisabeth Schumann displaying an engagingly radiant tone, contralto Margaret Balfour gravitas and solidity, and baritone Friedrich Schorr (the most distinguished Wotan of his time) memorable in the ease with which he manages the high Et in Spiritum sanctum. It was not until 1947 that the Mass was recorded complete again when the American conductor Robert Shaw and New York forces employed a much smaller number of performers. The singers are all perfectly capable and unexceptionable but it is the chorus and instrumentalist soloists who particularly impress. The final track here gives a memorable example of an outstanding English Bach singer of half a century ago: Kathleen Ferrier. She delivers a poignant and telling account of the Agnus Dei, recorded a year before her untimely death in 1953. Much less well known is the rare recording of the Benedictus by the French tenor Georges Thill, which illustrates the prevalent French approach to Bach seventy years ago.
It was the year 1950 which marked the two hundredth anniversary of the composer's birth that brought about the first emergence of a revision of the interpretation of Bach's music. Musicians began to rethink and re-examine scores in an attempt to come closer to the performing style of Bach's time. In the half century since then the whole approach has been turned on its head so that today we have soloists who understand fully the conventions of a truer Bach approach together with the use of small professional, highly flexible choirs and instrumentalists who play on instruments of the period or modern copies. Tempi are also much brisker and more rhythmic with these smaller forces.
The Austrian-born conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-1989) first conducted Bach's Mass in B minor in 1936 whilst working in Aachen, where he was music director. It was this work with which he made his first appearance outside Germany, directing a performance in Brussels later in the same month. Four years later it served as his introduction to Paris with two performances in December 1940. His next encounter with the Mass was ten years later when he gave performances in Vienna, Milan, Venice and Perugia, the soprano soloist on every occasion being Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The choir Karajan used in these 1950 performances was the Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien, who had appointed him their concert director for life in that year.
The idea of Karajan recording the Bach Mass grew out of these 1950 performances but his recording producer Walter Legge (1906-1979) had virtually ceased working in Vienna the previous year in order to use his own Philharmonia Orchestra in London for his orchestral recordings. Furthermore the rival Decca Record Company had begun working fairly extensively in Vienna from June 1950 onwards. The problem for Legge was which choir to use, a London one (possibly the BBC Chorus, Britain's only professional choir at the time) or Karajan's Viennese ensemble which the conductor was obviously keen to use. The decision was made that the Viennese one, accompanied by members of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (anonymously), be used so twelve sessions where booked for rehearsal and recording between 26 October and 5 November 1952. The actual recordings were made on 2-5 and 7 November. The soloists were to be recorded in EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London later the same month using the reduced forces of Legge's own Philharmonia Orchestra with the section principals for instrumental solo parts. These included the flautist Gareth Morris, the two oboe d'amore players Sidney Sutcliffe and Peter Newburn, and the legendary horn player Dennis Brain. These sessions took place between 23 and 30 November. The contribution of the original baritone soloist, however, the Frenchman Camille Maurane, was deemed unsatisfactory, and the two bass-baritone arias were re-recorded with the Swiss baritone Heinz Rehfuss on 16 July 1953 and these were used in the published recording.
What is of interest in this 1952/3 recording is that a chamber organ was used for the continuo, lent by the actor Bernard Miles from his nearby St John's Wood home. At that time the No.1 Studio did have an organ installed but it was totally unsuited to the needs of the work in question. Three distinguished British organists were used during the London sessions, Geraint Jones and Thurston Dart in 1952 and George Malcolm for 1953.
Critical comment on this recording when it first appeared in 1954 was virtually unanimous. For example, The Record Guide (Collins, 1955) remarked "The principal qualities of Karajan's reading are lightness, absolutely clarity of sound and rhythmic buoyancy, all of them qualities that many performances miss … Karajan, and Columbia's engineers, allow us to hear all the vocal and instrumental parts. Choral and solo singing are delightful". Four decades later Choral Music on Record (CUP, 1990) remarked that "this incisive and persuasive reading remains a satisfying one, one of the best in the 'modern' style". Even today, Karajan's interpretation has stood the test of time remarkably well, for when Gramophone reviewed a CD transfer in March 2000 it remarked on a "[Karajan] performance which challenges all preconceptions about monumentalism in Bach … How prescient are the clear-textured counterpoints in the choruses… the snappy rhythms, the light articulation and lean accompaniments".
Karajan studied first in Salzburg and then in Vienna under Franz Schalk. He made his debut in Ulm in 1929 and remained there for five years, moving to Aachen in the years 1935-37. A much-praised Berlin debut conducting Tristan und Isolde led to his international career. Banned from conducting in public from 1945 to 1947, he made his first London appearance in 1948 and became a regular visitor for the next decade, appearing increasingly with the Philharmonia Orchestra. Karajan was appointed conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1955 and continued until his death. He also appeared during the same period both in Vienna and at the Salzburg Festival in July and August in addition to the Salzburg Easter Festival that he inaugurated in 1967, so that his prestige and influence were enormous. He became the most significant conductor during the second half of the twentieth century. In addition Karajan conducted regularly at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and appeared in Japan on a number of occasions. He left a large number of filmed recordings of his conducting. As an interpreter, never less than controversial, he is thought to have made more recordings than any other classical musician during his career.
The German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006) studied at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik and later with the soprano Maria Ivogün, making her debut as one of the Flowermaidens in Parsifal with the Städtische Oper, Berlin, in 1938. Originally a lyrical soprano she undertook rôles such as Adele in Die Fledermaus, Musetta in La Bohème and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos when she joined the Vienna State Opera under Karl Böhm in 1943. Her first overseas appearance was with this company on their visit to London in 1947 when she sang Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Marzelline in Fidelio. She then joined the fledgling Covent Garden Company, where for five seasons she sang a variety of rôles, mostly in English. Alongside these appearances, Schwarzkopf sang at the Salzburg Festival (1946-1964), La Scala, Milan (1948-1963), San Francisco (1955-1964) and, finally, the Metropolitan in New York in 1964. She was greatly admired in the rôles of the Marschallin, Fiordiligi, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro and Donna Elvira. She also had a distinguished parallel career as a Lieder singer in the concert hall. She was the wife of the impresario and recording producer Walter Legge (1906-1979), whom she married in 1953.
The German contralto Marga Höffgen (1921-1995) was born in Mülheim an der Ruhr and studied at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik with Hermann Weissenborn before making her concert debut in 1952. Later that year she made a highly successful appearance in Vienna in Bach's St Matthew Passion under Karajan. From then on she was active as a concert singer throughout Europe. Höffgen also appeared at Covent Garden in London in 1959 as Erda, the Vienna State Opera, the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires and the Bayreuth Festival. Marga Höffgen was one of the leading contralto singers of Bach's vocal works during the 1950s and the 1960s and recorded with a number of the leading conductors of the day.
The versatility of the Swedish tenor Nicolai Gedda has always been considered remarkable in that he has sung in and can speak seven languages. Born in Stockholm in 1925 of a Russian father, a bass member of the Kuban Don Cossack Choir and later cantor at the Russian Orthodox Church in Leipzig, and a Swedish mother, he studied with the Swedish tenor Carl Maria Oehman at the Swedish Royal Academy of Music. He made his debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1951 in the première of Sutermeister's Der rote Stiefe, followed by the rôle of Chapelou in Adam's Le postillon de Longjumeau in April 1952, an occasion which brought him to international attention. After taking part in the first Western recording of Boris Godunov under Dobrowen (Naxos 8.110242-44), Gedda made his La Scala debut in 1953 as Don Ottavio and the Groom in the première of Orff's Il trionfo di Afrodite. The following years saw him appear at the Paris Opéra (Huon in Oberon), the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Covent Garden (the Duke in Rigoletto), Salzburg Festival (Belmonte in Die Entführung) and the Metropolitan in New York as Gounod's Faust. In 1958 he created the rôle of Anatol in Barber's Vanessa, which he also gave in Salzburg. He first sang Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini at the Holland Festival in 1961, which he later repeated at Covent Garden in 1966, 1969 and 1976. He also appeared in Russia in 1980-81 to great acclaim. His London concert hall debut took place in 1986. He sang at the Met for 22 seasons in 27 rôles in 289 performances. He was still recording as recently as 2002. Gedda has proved the most versatile lyric tenor of his time with a vast discography covering every conceivable aspect of the repertory.
The German born, Swiss, and later American bassbaritone, Heinz (Julius) Rehfuss (1917-1988) was born in Frankfurt am Main, studying with his father Carl Rehfuss (1885-1946) and his mother, the contralto Florentine Rehfuss-Peichert. The family moved to Neuchâtel, and he became a naturalised Swiss citizen. Rehfuss made his professional operatic debut at the Städtbundtheater, Biel-Solothurn in 1938. Then he sang with the Lucerne Stadttheater (1938-1939) and the Zürich Opera (1940-1952) where he sang over eighty rôles. He subsequently was active mainly in Europe (La Scala, Paris Opéra, Vienna State Opera, Amsterdam and Munich) and in America (Chicago), later becoming a naturalised American citizen. Rehfuss taught singing at the Montreal Conservatory in 1961 and in 1965 joined the Faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo. He also toured Asia, giving vocal recitals in India and Indonesia. Heinz Rehfuss was successful mainly in dramatic rôles, such as Don Giovanni and Boris Godunov, but he was also respected as a Bach interpreter with his wide-ranging and highly flexible baritone voice. He died in June 1988 in Buffalo.
The formation of the Wiener Singverein which grew out of the Choral Society of the Music Friends (Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien) took place in 1858. Currently with 180 active members the Wiener Singverein is the largest concert choir of Vienna. The choir introduced Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem, Bruckner's Te Deum and Mahler's Symphony No. 8. The beginning of the last century saw the Wiener Singverein under Franz Schalk re-introducing Bach's oratorios in unabridged performances. Karajan shaped the Wiener Singverein during the years 1947 to 1989 when he was director of concerts of the Choral Society of the Music Friends, directing them in more than 250 concerts.
The complete Bach Mass was transferred from a single set of French LP pressings. For many years, EMI were coy about the participation of the Vienna Philharmonic and the Philharmonia Orchestra in this recording, crediting the fictitious Orchestra of the Society of the Friends of Music and leading listeners to assume that some of the Philharmonia's featured players had been flown to Vienna for the sessions. More recently, it has come out that this recording was in fact made in two countries with two different orchestras over eight months, not the two-week period in Vienna alone previously cited in EMI's LP releases.
The items in the Appendix come from a variety of sources. The Maynor disc was transferred from a postwar U.S. Victor 78; the Schumann/Balfour duet and the Schorr solo were taken from prewar Victor "Z" pressings of the first complete recording of the Bach Mass; the Thill 10-inch single came from a prewar American Columbia "Full-Range" label pressing; and the Ferrier came from a British LP copy of the original monaural recording (prior to its 1960 reissue with an overdubbed stereo accompaniment).
Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B Minor BWV 232
Recorded 2-5 and 7 November 1952 in the Musikvereinsaal, Vienna
(choruses sung by the Chorus of the Friends of Music, Vienna, with the Vienna Philharmonic)
and 23, 28 and 30 November 1952 and 16 July 1953 in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London
(solos and duets with the Philharmonia Orchestra)
First released on Columbia 33CX 1121 through 1123
Appendix: Historical Recordings of Bach's Mass in B Minor (1929-52)
Laudamus te (Dorothy Maynor, soprano / cond. Sylvan Levin)
Recorded 5 October 1945 in the Lotos Club, New York City
Matrix: D5-RC-1418, First issued on RCA Victor 11-9108
Et in unum Dominum (Elisabeth Schumann, soprano / cond. Albert Coates)
Recorded 29 May 1929 in Kingsway Hall, London
Matrix: Cc 16645-3A, First issued on HMV C 1720
Et in Spiritum sanctum (Friedrich Schorr, baritone / cond. Albert Coates)
Recorded 14 May 1929 in Kingsway Hall, London
Matrices: Cc 16632-1 and 16633-1A, First issued on HMV C 1722
Benedictus (Georges Thill, tenor / cond. Gustave Bret)
Recorded 27 April 1936 in Paris
Matrices: CL 5710-1 and 5711-1, First issued on Columbia LF 151
Agnus Dei (Kathleen Ferrier, contralto / cond. Adrian Boult)
Recorded 7 October 1952 in Kingsway Hall, London
Matrix: AR 17238, First issued on Decca LXT 2757
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BACH, J.S.: Mass in B Minor, BWV 232 (Schwarzkopf,...