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There are two very different versions of Bach’s monumental Mass on offer here. On one side we have John Eliot Gardiner, unrepentant upholder of what must now be considered traditional choral performances of Bach’s sacred works and whose Monteverdi Choir here numbers 35. On the other side is Lars Ulrik Mortensen, a new member (on CD at least) of the one-voice-per-part (OVPP) school that evolved from the scholarship of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott. Mortensen’s forces involve five concertinists (soloists) and five ripienists to provide support in the bigger numbers, along with an orchestra more than twice that size, thus conforming closely to the historical ratio that has emerged from Parrott’s research.

Since it cannot but colour this review, I might as well own up now to the fact of having been an adherent of OVPP for many years, though not to the total exclusion of admitting to other performance possibilities. When Gardiner made his famously witty comment referring to OVPP as the ‘B-minor madrigal’ it was obviously intended to be pejorative, yet I think he stumbled on a truth. There are many contrapuntal passages in the Mass that are indeed madrigalian and performed OVPP consequently yield new insights into Bach’s astonishing counterpoint. There are a number of startling examples to be heard by comparing passages from these two versions, but I’ll highlight ‘Confiteor’ (Credo) where the solace derived from the ‘remission of sins’ is realised in Mortensen’s performance with translucent tenderness unmatched by Gardiner’s opaque choral texture.

Leaving aside the OVPP argument, the Danish set has other notable advantages, too. For the arias Gardiner uses capable (with one exception) soloists drawn from his Monteverdi Choir, but nowhere are they a match for Mortensen’s concertino team: Maria Keohane, Joanne Lunn (sop), Alex Potter (alto), Jan Kobow tenor) and Peter Harvey (bass), which I’m inclined to think is the strongest I’ve yet heard in an OVPP performance of this work. Then there are times when for me Gardiner’s direction is mannered, even precious – an example being the mannered transition from ‘Confiteor’ to ‘Et expecto’, the latter taken excessive slowly.

Obviously there are special moments, especially in more homophonic writing like ‘Et incarnatus’, sung by the Monteverdi Choir with rapt concentration. The playing of the EBS, too, is outstanding. Nonetheless in the long run I’m left in no doubt that Mortensen’s is the superior version. His tempos seem to arise more naturally from the music and I find his architectural sense more compelling than that of Gardiner, the huge span of the opening Kyrie being a case in point. If you’ve not yet succumbed to OVPP Bach, do give this splendidly sung and played version a try. I think you may be agreeably surprised.

Brian Robins Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing