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J.S. Bach and the Mass in B-minor

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Today yet another Bach purchase arrived in the mail... although in this instance the work is something of the Holy Grail of Bach recordings:

Last December I had planned upon purchasing this set of Bach recordings by Gardiner...

... but I ended up putting off this purchase wanting to save the money for the holidays. This disc contained the Saint Matthew Passion, the Saint John Passion, the Mass in B-minor, and the Christmas Oratorio and through Amazon Marketplace dealers it ran from $35-$45 US. I am now glad I put off buying, for this new box set (top) contains not only all four of those works but the Magnificat and 35 of Bach's Cantatas as well... 22 discs in all... and the price is no greater than the earlier set!!

These works are the central achievements of Bach as a composer of sacred choral music... and any number of the individual compositions (the Saint Matthew Passion, the Mass in B-minor, the Magnificat) might be counted among Bach's greatest works... and among the greatest works ever composed. The recordings by John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English baroque Soloists are regarded by many critics (in Gramophone, BBC Music, Penguin Guide, etc...) as being the "first choice" for many of these works. These recordings include such talented and renowned singers as Bernarda Fink, Barbara Bonney, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Magdalena Kozena, and Anne Sofie von Otter.

Currently, I am listening to the Mass in B-minor. This work was composed upon a scale beyond any of Bach's other works in terms of the orchestral forces employed. Here we find Bach utilizing the brass, timpani, massed choirs... and a variety of instrumental soloists. Some have suggested that Bach was inspired... a provoked to prove himself... by the example of the great choral works of Jan Dismas Zelenka. Zelenka, working for the Catholic court in the large city of Dresden had access to a far greater orchestra and choir than Bach in had in Leipzig, and the Mass in B-minor was dedicated and presented to Zelenka's patron, August III, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and Elector of Saxony, in a failed bid to obtain the position of court composer.

The scale of this work leads one to wonder just what Bach might have achieved beyond his already unfathomable achievements, had he ever been awarded a position worthy of his talents, such as the rank of court composer in Dresden, Vienna, Salzburg... or Paris... or a free-lance position such as Handel had in London. While Handel, Biber, Zelenka, and Rameau cannot rival the depth of spiritual feeling and the intimacy exuded in Bach's cantatas written for the relatively small Lutheran churches of Leipzig as required by his position as Cantor of Thomasschule and Director of Music in the principal churches in the town (primarily St. Thomas and St. Nicholas), one wonders what Bach might have done with the forces of a truly grand orchestra and choir. One can only imagine Bach's genius applied to choral works on the level of grandeur expected at the French court in Paris... or operas and oratorios written for the great London audiences and their marvelous grand orchestras.

Nevertheless... we still have the Mass in B-minor: