Tuesday, 15 January 2013

'Baroque' choral music: a few recording recommendations

Over on Twitter, someone I follow was seeking recommendations for a recording of Bach's Mass in B minor. Klemperer I offered without a moment's thought as a first choice, with Richter (in any guise) and Jochum (ditto) as alternatives. Not long after, one of my followers tweeted to say how much he had enjoyed listening to Klemperer, and asked if I might offer some more recording suggestions on here from time to time. Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to leave that until a time when I am less manically busy - the beginning of term, indeed pretty much all of term, tending to be less than ideal - but then I am not sure that any time is particularly relaxed, and work tends to expand to fit the time available. Here, anyway, are a few favourites from Baroque and Classical choral music, since the Bach question had me thinking about that repertoire. I have limited myself to one recommendation per work, with two exceptions, which will be explained or at least argued. (Bach's cantatas are a different matter again, since we are mostly dealing with selections.) I certainly do not expect everyone, or indeed anyone, to agree, but I hope that some of these favourites might be useful. Where possible, I have included links to Amazon, which might be helpful to those seeking to explore the recordings.

Monteverdi - Vespro della beate Virgine

Certainly not the earliest great choral work - in a sense it comes at the very end of the greatest era for choral music - but perhaps the first great concerted choral 'blockbuster'. To my mind, at any rate, it is the greatest single choral 'work' - a moot term in this context, I realise - before Bach. Ranging in style from the polyphony of Monteverdi's Renaissance forebears to the madrigalian and operatic sensuality he was furthering and forging, it really has something for everyone. I have adored it since studying it as one of my set works for A-level music. Well represented in the recording catalogue, to my ears it is perhaps on balance still best heard in John Eliot Gardiner's first recording, for Decca. Modern instruments are still employed, though Gardiner would soon forsake them, and the vocal soloists are a starrier bunch, though not inappropriately so, than on his subsequent recording. This Decca bargain also includes a number of other works by Monteverdi and his Venetian contemporaries.

Schütz - Geistliche Chormusik 1648

If not quite the acorn from which the great tree of German music grew, there is enough truth in that - just as there is in Haydn as the 'father of the symphony' - to perpetuate the myth a little longer. Heinrich Schütz not only brought the fruits of Venetian music (from his teacher, Giovanni Gabrieli) to Germany; he not only proved instrumental, if the pun be forgiven, in the founding of what we know as the Staatskapelle Dresden; he also wrote the greatest German choral music before Bach. This 1648 collection is as all-encompassing in its way, more modest but no less profound, as its Monteverdian predecessor.

Carissimi - Jephte

Regularly cited in the history books as an exemplar of the mid-seventeenth-century oratorio, this is a highly dramatic work, telling the Book of Judges story of Jephtha. This 2-CD set offers a variety of equally ravishing works by Giovanni Carissimi.

Purcell - Verse Anthems
No composer, not even Britten, has been quite so at ease, quite so idiomatic, with respect to English word-setting as Purcell. Add to that his gorgeous harmonies, a melodic gift that at times seems almost to presage Mozart, Purcell's fusion of Continental and English styles, and that melancholy which one struggles not to think of in a sense as 'English', and we have the English Orpheus, Henry Purcell. This beautifully sung album includes not only a fine selection of verse anthems - a form now indelibly associated with Purcell - but also other choral works such as the splendid Te Deum and the unforgettable Funeral Sentences, as Anglican in the very best sense as the Book of Common Prayer itself.

Bach - Mass in B minor

Klemperer, as I said earlier, remains, at least in many moods, the ultimate first-choice in a fiercely contested field. There is not the slightest trace of Romanticism to his typically craggy, monumental performance; not that there is anything wrong with Romanticism, but it is not Klemperer's Neue Sachlichkeit way. If one wanted to define musical integrity, one could do worse than start with this and Klemperer's Missa solemnis.

Bach, St John Passion

Eugen Jochum's more Romantic way with Bach - sadly, an envisaged Klemperer St John was never to be - pays particular dividends in this, the more vivdly 'dramatic', at least as the term is conventionally understood, of Bach's Passions. For drama as searing as Tristan and indeed as erotic, come here. Soloists, chorus, and orchestra are without exception superlative.

Bach, St Matthew Passion

I said, go to the St John Passion for drama as searing as Tristan and indeed as erotic; for drama that surpasses even Wagner in both respects, the St Matthew Passion beckons: to my mind, the single greatest work of art in existence. For a dramatic experience words cannot begin to describe, Willem Mengelberg's legendary 1939 Palm Sunday performance cannot be approached. The opening chorus tells us all we need to know about what is at stake; at least until we continue to listen. Sadly, no tragically, it is cut, which is why I offer the alternative of Klemperer's great tableau: a ritual dance of death so involving that it, equally, will change you for ever. Comparisons are utterly odious here in any case; every human being needs to hear both. Often, but not too often, for a world in which the St Matthew Passion may be heard on tap begs more questions than it answers.


Bach - Christmas Oratorio

This extraordinary set of six cantatas for the Christmas season, infinitely more 'seasonal' than Handel's Lenten Messiah, is perhaps best heard in the recording by that great Bachian, Karl Richter. Richter's Lutheran understanding informed all his Bach, but little, if any, is greater than this joyous performance. 'Stellar' hardly begins to describe the soloists.

Bach - Magnificat in D major

This Magnificat also exists in 'Christmas' form, in E-flat major, but for 'everyday' usage, not that Bach should ever be relegated to the status of Gebrauchsmusik, the D major version is the one to hear. Once again, Richter is impossible to beat, and may not be equalled. Even Haydn is not more joyous than this.

Bach - Cantatas

The greatest treasure trove of all, from which many works seem to have been lost forever. (And to think what some musicologists fret over!) One might miss other music; one certainly would; however, it would be perfectly possible to live happily on this spiritual bread alone. Haydn's symphonies are perhaps the only point of comparison, but we shall leave them for another day. Richter's set of one cantata for every Sunday and major feast should be a cornerstone of every collection. (However at the price currently being charged, you may be well advised to wait, or at least to assemble from the individual five volumes!) Would that he had been permitted to record every cantata. As a taster - relatively speaking - there is also the set of Advent cantatas, which might be added to as required. Ultimately, one has to hear every one, in which case my recommendation would be Helmuth Rilling's set. But many of the cantatas are best heard on individual recordings, of which a few are offered below. Perhaps this is something I should return to in greater detail, but rest assured that any of these recordings will truly change your life. 'Vocal' might be a better description than 'choral' for much of this music, but let us not split hairs.

Handel - Messiah

For the moment, at least, I shall tear myself away from Bach and turn to his great contemporary, Handel. Messiah remains, of course, his most celebrated, most loved, work, and there is nothing wrong with that, however atypical it might be of his oratorios. Beecham here is hors concours, but for those who cannot take the Beecham-Goossens reorchestration - and they will be missing out on a great deal - Sir Colin Davis is an unanswerable 'straight', and relatively small-scale, recommendation.

Handel - Saul

When I first heard Saul, I thought it the greatest music-drama in the English language. I have since heard Dido and Aeneas and The Mask of Orpheus, but Saul remains, at the very least, a great drama, far more typical of Handelian oratorio than the more celebrated Messiah. Handel's dramatic genius was never greater than in his construction of the character of Saul, flawed, tragic, yet ultimately understandable to us all. And the choral writing is superlative. Sir Charles Mackerras did nothing finer than this; one can picture the action through listening alone.

Handel - Israel in Egypt

This, again, is not typical, but Handel's choral writing does not come any more glorious than Israel in Egypt, double choruses and all. The grandeur that is all too often lacking from modern-day Handel performances is still captured in Simon Preston's recording, despite the relatively small forces: a lesson to us all.

Handel - Theodora

Handel's two final oratorios, Theodora and Jephtha are perhaps more moving than anything else he wrote. So as to try to keep this entry within reasonable bounds, I shall limit myself to Theodora here. (Arbitrary, I know, but there is plenty of material for a second piece, and doubtless for more than that.) This tale of early-Christian martyrdom never fails to move in Johannes Somary's recording, blessed by a cast including Heather Harper and Maureen Forrester.

That is all for now. However, as I said, there may well be a further instalment or two, or I may venture forth into any other period or genre.

Soli Deo gloria!


Anonymous said...


"The St Matthew Passion beckons: to my mind, the single greatest work of art in existence"

Ok, but what do you make of Bernard Holland's opinion here:

"You may think me odd in saying so, but Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun" is just as good as the "St. Matthew Passion". We just don't know how to name it"


Mark Berry said...

In a word, nothing. And I speak as a great admirer both of Debussy and of that work.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thanks, Mark, for this posting in general and the shout-out to my beloved Schuetz in particular. I am looking for recordings of the Poulenc Stabat Mater and Berlioz Te Deum at the moment; do you have favorites of those works?

(And hello to the Pelleastrian, posting anonymously, but I'd recognize the combo of Debussy and Holland anywhere.)

Mark Berry said...

For the Poulenc I'd have to say I simply don't know. Though I've heard it - and I tend very much to like his choral music - I don't have a recording. As for the Berlioz Te Deum, perhaps unsurprisingly, I'd go for Colin Davis. I haven't heard his Dresden recording, but can certainly vouch for the excellence of that made with the LSO.

Zwölftöner said...

'Indeed as erotic', well, that's quite a claim.

For some reason I don't see links for most of your recommendations. As others haven't mentioned it presumably this is a problem only I am having?

Mark Berry said...

I suppose one man's eroticism is another man's - well, I'm not quite sure...

So far as I can tell the links are all working; they should be under each work. Given my general level of computer-technical nous, I'm not sure what to advise, though I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has a similar problem.

David Allen said...

Real thanks for this, Mark. It's becoming very difficult indeed to get non-HIP recommendations on anything written before 1800, so this has already proven very useful.

All the Amazon links are working fine for me. I'd also point out that everything on your list except the Carissimi, the Purcell, and the Britten Bach is available on Spotify, which is rather useful, if £3000 for the Richter induces a wince...

Lisa Hirsch said...

The Amazon links aren't visible in Google Reader but I can see them on the blog itself.

Zwölftöner said...

Just tried IE and now I see them.

Maybe Lisa could inform me what, if any, Chrome extension I might be missing...

Zwölftöner said...

Now I remember that I run Adblock on Chrome so with Amazon links I suppose that will be the problem. Sorry for bothering everybody, am technologically slow on the uptake at the best of times.

Mark Berry said...

David, my pleasure! Some day I might drag myself into the twenty-first century and discover what Spotify is, but I have yet to do so... As for what is generally fashionable/available now, I can but hope that the cynical marketing people who managed to persuade a host of fashion victims that out of tune Bach on a few (cost-efficient) obsolete instruments was somehow 'authentic' will at some point recognise a new gap in a 'market' presently saturated with absurdly-named emaciated ensembles.

The Wagnerian said...

I meant to thank you for the original recommendation by the way. And as to this? A rather good idea, especially for someone such as I. For odd reasons, I remain something of a 'Baroque' "virgin - never-mind 'Baroque' Choral. While I admit the odd exception: Matthäus-Passion and while not choral "The Rosary Sonatas" (indeed nearly anything by Biber), The Musical Offering (an extraordinary work), The Goldberg Variations (although not necessarily Gould - his humming starts to drive me mad after a while)and of course Orfeo ed Euridice (nothing to do with Wagner oddly, I just like Gluck).

But apart from this I always feel somewhat "lost at sea" in the 'Baroque' repertoire. Thus, this will provide some well guided investigation. Appreciated.

The Wagnerian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


Well, I find almost all of the recitatives in the "Saint Matthew Passion" annoying (even cringe-inducing)

As far as choral works go I still think Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" is the greatest.

welker said...

There are no visible links on my screen, which is unfortunate since you do not always specify in the text what recordings you are recommending.

Eric Bauer said...


First, let me say that I greatly respect and enormously admire your opinions (and writing!) on this blog. I'm 24, and grew up (so to say) steeped in late Romantic German and French 'impressionist' music. I live in Chicago, and the breadth of musical offerings as compared to other culture is a bit lacking; I have to credit my burgeoning interest in Bach/Schoenberg/Webern/Xenakis/lots of other stuff to you. Heady and effusive praise, yes, but I mean it sincerely.

If you have time (and I realize you might not), I was wondering if you could recommend a few recordings for me... or, rather, simply works in general. I'm curious about what you think the best introduction to Boulez as a composer is (I only know his second piano sonata and the piano and orchestral versions of the Notations), since I'd like to investiage him too--I'm going to a Pierre-Laurent Aimard concert of his piano works this March. Secondly (and lastly), you're obviously a big fan of Birtwistle, and he gets very little coverage of any kind in the US. What works would you suggest I look in to first to get to know him?

I understand that you may not have the opportunity to respond, but I'd be thrilled if you did :)

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm not Mark, but here are a few ideas:

- There's a complete Boulez box that was published last year, and you could just start there: http://www.deutschegrammophon.com/us/cat/4806828

- If you want to bite off less than that, Le marteau sans maitre, Incises, and sur Incises, perhaps.

- For Birtwistle, Moth Requiem, the recent chamber music CD that everybody seems to love (sorry, no link offhand), and hmm - one of the operas is available on Cd but I can't remember which (I don't own it yet).

Mark Berry said...


Thank you very much for your kind words. Lisa's recommendations seem spot on to me. Le Marteau sans maître stands to the second half of the twentieth century almost as Pierrot lunaire does to the first. Any of Boulez's recordings have a great deal to say, and are very different; the recording made by Odaline de la Martinez is an excellent alternative. Pli selon pli is perhaps still more beguiling - and labyrinthine. Again, Boulez's various recordings all have much to offer; if pushed, I'd probably go for his most recent, in the box Lisa mentions.

Where to start with Birtwistle? Again, as Lisa says, the recent Moth Requiem is a wonderful work. I'd be tempted to say begin with Punch and Judy: its violence and sheer theatricality remain undimmed. Earth Dances is perhaps as close to a second Rite of Spring as we shall come. The Mask of Orpheus is for me perhaps his single greatest work and is available on CD.