British conductor Jonathan Cohen has a refreshing lack of concern for apparently ‘sacred’, apparently never to be tampered with, performance traditions that can, and do, leave other performances of the B Minor Mass historically boxed-in. Cohen calmly reconnects us with JS Bach’s actual sacred inner-life.
Like John Butt’s 2009 reading with the Dunedin Consort on Linn Records, intuition tells you that Cohen’s new B Minor Mass will be viewed kindly by history, the freshness of this conceptually rigorous and unified recording born of an active engagement with the material, rather than requiring the piece to slot conveniently inside an existing point of view. Not that Cohen has anything much in common with Butt. In Arcangelo, period and modern instruments coexist unapologetically, while the Dunedin Consort is an ideologically hardcore period instrument group. Butt unsurprisingly adheres to one-voice-to-a-part whereas Cohen deploys four voices – except in the Confiteor Unum Baptisma where he too reverts to one voice per part, appropriately framing Bach’s subliminal glance back to an older contrapuntal style.
But the nuances of Cohen’s perspective run deeper than mere matters of personnel. Butt – alongside other recent interpreters on record: hello Marc Minkowski and Philippe Herreweghe – need you to know that the B Minor Mass is the mutha of all music. Minkowski drives his Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble to the very brink of dramatic burnout and Butt’s account is characteristically Dionysian, the exuberant beauty of rough-hewn textures dancing in your head. But Cohen believes in moderation, for which please don’t read blandness or prudishness.
The opening Kyrie, pumped full of splendour and awe, moves at a noticeably broad and ominous tempo, arching tension lanced by the ecstatic gallop of the Gloria. And during these opening two numbers, Cohen sets out his stall for a B Minor Mass characterised by luminescent textures, tidily transparent contrapuntal lines and a sweet spongy ensemble sound.
Cohen’s architectural nous has him integrate the solo vocal movements within the choral bulk of the Mass like the gravitational pull of satellites orbiting planets. In the final part, he allows the visceral smack of the choral Osanna in Excelsis alternating with the solo Benedictus and Angus Dei, to telescope and compact the structure as the concluding Dona Nobis Pacem approaches. Tenor Samuel Boden and countertenor Tim Mead contribute beautifully contoured solos; earlier Ida Falk Winland’s Laudamus Te exhibits exemplary liquidity and delicacy. It is telling that Cohen doesn’t make a distinction between instruments and voices – that’s Arcangelo through and through, a unified mass of musicians all after the same goal.