BBC Music Magazine
Performance *****, Recording ****
Last August, John Butt’s Dunedin Consort and Players became my ‘benchmark’ recording of Bach’s last and greatest choral work. Now comes a performance with much in common – pace, exuberance, heart-felt commitment – yet so very different. The Rodolfus Choir is also young, students and recently graduated singers, but it includes 40 singers rather than ten. They’re recorded in an attractively reverberant acoustic, and in stereo rather than SACD. Their denser sound heightens contrasts with solo wind and few strings, though they achieve remarkable facility in fast passagework: I’ve never heard nine basses in such perfect accord in the tortuous ‘Et iterum venturus est’. Ralph Allwood sculpts movements over a long time-span: the suppressed ardour opening the ‘Cratias’ grows gradually to a magnificent climax at the end. Occasionally the scale creates balance problems: for instance, in the first Credo the triumphal violin entry is inaudible.
The soloists are a fine team. In ‘Domine Deus’, Sophie Bevan and Ben Johnson match perfectly in imitation – ‘Heavenly King’ and ‘Only-begotten Son’- before Bach’s inspired symbolic uniting of the two in ‘Lamb of God’. The basses are cleverly typecast, Colin Campbell regal in ‘Quoniam’, Häkan Vramsmo lyrical in ‘Et in spiritum sanctum’. Van der Linde’s dark countertenor tone is clean-cut in ‘Laudamus’. Highly recommended.
International Record Review, March 2011
The B Minor Mass has led a somewhat chequered history on CD, some truly great performances sitting alongside some decidedly mediocre ones, while a surprisingly large number of recordings dating from the LP era (and earlier) are of such enduring quality that they still grace the catalogue. That what is one of the great pillars of western art music has had such uneven treatment since the advent of digital recording is largely down to the development of Bach scholarship over the same period. What was the norm 30 or more years ago – large choirs, massive orchestras, quasi-operatic soloists and weighty, indulgent tempos – was abruptly swept aside by Joshua Rifkin’s landmark recording released in 1983 (coincidentally the same year that CDs made their debut), which gave us one voice per part and, in a word, reduced the work to its bare musical bones. Since then recordings have veered between the minimalist and the maximalist, with equally diverse artistic results. This latest version comes pretty well slap bang in the middle.
For a start, the Rodolfus Choir gives us 40 voices – 30 more than John Butt’s, whose recording with the Dunedin Consort and Players on Linn tops my list of ‘minimalist’ favourites, and around 30 fewer than Klemperer, who heads my ‘maximalist’ wish-list with his monumental 1968 EMI recording (numerologists who obsess over the number three in relation to Bach might begin to feel the hairs on their necks quivering as they keep reading the number 30) – which puts it very much on a par with the Dresden Chamber Choir on Naxos. Certainly the added choral weight allows the sound to be fulsome without becoming excessively cumbersome, while the orchestral numbers, too, take it beyond the chamber ensemble without encroaching into the symphonic. All this gives Ralph Allwood plenty of scope for subtle dynamic variety and tone- colour without losing any of the textural clarity and agility which is what has made the ‘minimalist’ versions so attractive. I certainly have no hesitation in recommending him above Helmut Muller-Brühl for the sensitivity and pace of his reading; the German is at times so brisk he verges on the breathless. Under Muller-Brühl the trumpet notes supporting the running choral lines in the ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ seem like harsh pin-pricks of sound whereas with Allwood they have more the effect of graceful exclamation marks.
Not that Allwood’s tempos are in any way slow; in fact, the overriding feeling of this recording is its lively pace and its refusal to hang around even when the music seems to warrant some space for inner reflection. The opening of the Credo finds the Rodolfus choristers presenting beautifully moulded choral lines with such an astonishing legato that they positively glide by. Allwood is also blessed with an outstanding team of soloists. There is uncanny vocal empathy between Sophie Bevan and Clint van der Linde, which, in ‘Et in unum Dominum’, results in the most extraordinary complementing of vocal lines; the voices are distinct yet seem to merge with each other at each phrase ending. Hakan Vramsmo dances with an easy grace through a very sprightly ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum’, while the deeper bass of Colin Campbell brings princely poise to the ‘Quoniam tu solus’, accompanied by some absolutely top-notch horn playing from Gavin Edward. Throughout, the musicians of the Southern Sinfonia lend distinction to the performance and a real highlight is the angelic flute playing which introduces Ben Johnson’s simply magical account of the Benedictus. Add to all this the warm acoustic of Charterhouse School chapel and the result is both stimulating and refreshing.
However, I’m never quite sure that stimulating or refreshing stand as unequivocal compliments, and in this instance I have one very big reservation: big enough to add this to the many discs of the work which don’t quite make it for me. The problem is the youth of the choir. Aged between 16 and 25, the voices positively throb with the eagerness and optimism of youth, and as highly gifted musicians the singers lap up the work’s technical demands with alacrity, but I miss the spiritual intensity and, let’s not beat about the bush, emotional impact more mature voices would bring to it. I’m glad we don’t have those big, bulbous Bach B minors any more now but I do hanker after something with a little more spine to it than this. Here, the grandiloquent opening Fugue seems almost glib and facile against what both Butt and Klemperer, in their very different ways, achieve, and there are moments in the Sanctus when the singing conjures up in my mind a bizarre image of cheerful skaters on a frozen pond. Young voices and eager musicianship are not enough to make this a profoundly satisfying B minor Mass, even if it is a remarkable one.
I’ve long admired the work of Ralph Allwood’s Rodolfus Choir, an elite group of singers aged between 16 and 25, founded in 1983. Its membership is drawn from past and present members of the annual Eton College Choral Course. I’ve experienced them in a variety of music but this is the largest work in which I’ve heard them. They could scarcely have been set a sterner test.
The choir, which on this recording numbers fourteen sopranos, eight altos – male and female – ten tenors and ten basses, made this recording after a couple of concert performances in the summer of 2009. One of these was given in the glorious setting of Tewkesbury Abbey, as part of the 2009 Three Choirs Festival. It was favourably reviewed for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by my colleague, Roger Jones. At least one of the present soloists, Ben Johnson, took part in that performance.
I enjoyed the recording very much. Inevitably, since the choir is made up of young singers it lacks some of the tonal depth, especially in the tenors and basses, that one gets with choirs that contain more mature voices. However, in compensation, there’s a freshness and a lightness about the singing that exerts its own very strong appeal. Allwood comments in the booklet that most of the choir hadn’t previously sung the work. I hope I’m not imagining it but the performance does seem to have a sense of joy and excitement about it that suggests enthusiastic discovery.
The singers are helped, I’m sure, by Allwood’s way with the work. He eschews heaviness and though the music never sounds unduly hasty he keeps it moving forward at lively speeds. So much of Bach’s music is founded in dance and the listener is reminded of that here. With crisp support from the members of the Southern Sinfonia, the music is always engaging and energetic. Furthermore, one notices time and again how these young, confident singers have been trained to produce clear, light textures. This means that the various strands of Bach’s fugal four- and five-part writing come across cleanly and naturally. This is a trait of the performance that’s in evidence right from the start in Kyrie I. The agile and pure voices of the soprano section offer consistent pleasure throughout.
There’s a good solo team on parade too. Usually in this work, five soloists means two sopranos – or a soprano and a mezzo – have been engaged but here it’s two basses. That’s not a bad decision for the tessitura of the two bass solos is very different and Colin Campbell’s firmness is well suited to the demanding line of ‘Quoniam Tu Solus Sanctus’. The second bass aria, ‘Et in Spiritu Sancto’, lies rather higher and the Swedish bass, Håkan Vramsmo, has the right timbre and, with his slightly lighter, more baritonal voice, is able to impart a welcome lilt and lift to the music.
Despite what it says in the track-listing, ‘Laudamus Te’ is sung by the alto. This is the South African, Clint van der Linde, himself a Rodolfus alumnus. He has a round, quite rich timbre and he does this movement, and his other solos, admirably. Soprano Sophie Bevan also makes a favourable impression, blending well both with van der Linde in ‘Christe Eleison’ and, even more successfully, with Ben Johnson in ‘Domine Deus.’ Johnson himself contributes a very good account of the Benedictus. He has a sweet tone and is at ease with the tessitura.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable and highly commendable account of Bach’s Missa, which has given me great pleasure and to which I know I’ll return. It may not dislodge the leading professional choir recommendations – such as the Monteverdi Choir – but that’s not the point. It’s a very worthwhile and commendable performance in its own right and if some forty young singers can produce a recorded account of the B Minor Mass of this quality then the future for British choral music is bright indeed.