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Johann Sebastian Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232 – Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 – Motet “Fürchte dich nicht”, BWV 228 – Partita for solo violin No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004: Chaconne
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy: Elijah, op. 70: Aria “Höre Israel” & chorus “Fürchte dich nicht” (chorus)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, op. 67

Ruth Ziesak (soprano), Anna Larsson (contralto), Christoph Genz (tenor), Dietrich Henschel (baritone), Nancy Argenta (soprano), Viktoria Mullova (violin), Jürgen Wolf (organ), GewandhausKammerchor, Morten Schuldt-Jensen (chorus master), Thomaner Chor Leipzig, Georg Christoph Biller (chorus master), Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Herbert Blomstedt (conductor)
Recorded live at the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig (May 8, 2005) and St. Nicholas Church, Leipzig (October 9, 1999) – 195’
EuroArts 2059234 – Picture format: 1080i 16:9 – Sound format: PCM stereo, dts-HD MA 5.1 – Region free – Subtitles in Latin, English, German and French – Blu-ray disc and booklet with essays in English, French and German

The legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig is one of the most important and remarkable stories in all of classical music. The St. Thomas Church, where Bach worked for the better part of his life, still stands and is a destination for tourists from all over the world. It also attracts world-class performers from all over Europe. Of course, Leipzig has a historic and world-class orchestra of its own in the Gewandhaus from across town. This jam-packed disc is a celebration of the music of J.S. Bach, but also of Leipzig’s impressive orchestra and (at the time) outgoing conductor Herbert Blomstedt. Nearing 80 years old at the time of filming, Blomstedt’s own career was prolific and what more appropriate summation than performing Bach’s culminating Mass in B Minor with his Leipzig players in Bach’s own church?

The booklet notes that Blomstedt’s tenure at the Gewandhaus was marked by more eclectic programming than his predecessor, as well as invitations to several renowned early-music specialists to conduct the group. Judging by this performance, the maestro’s groundwork left a lasting impression on both the Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus. Their performance is unique in its balance of early-music “leanness” with beauty of sound. Tempos are generally brisk, even impressively so as in the “Cum Sancto Spiritu,” yet there is roundness of sound that one wouldn’t necessarily associate with an early music ensemble. Attacks are eased into and string tones, while straight, are disarmingly warm and lush. This style is pervasive to the point of almost lacking some dynamism and character, which will disappoint some, but it is hard to argue with the results. Blomstedt’s attention to detail creates moments of stunning clarity and breathtaking intensity as in the transition from “Confiteor unum baptisma” to “Et exspecto resurrectionem.” The joy on the old maestro’s face is contagious. Attention to text is painstaking, as in the chorus’ word stress in “Crucifixus.” Blomstedt finds a way to blend two schools of thought in approaching this music. Phrases are lyrically shaped, always stemming from Bach’s setting and natural stress of the text. His noble and intelligible reading of the “Sanctus” is an inspired example of how well this can work. Very rarely Blomstedt’s somewhat light-handed conducting manner can lead to slightly imprecise transitions and beginnings, but this is relatively minor, especially considering the nature of the recording.

Blomstedt’s soloists are quite satisfactory on the whole. Contralto Anna Larsson is the standout of the group, providing an effortless, rich sound with plenty of line. Her “Agnus Dei” is exquisite. Baritone Dietrich Henschel has an inviting sound, but is better suited to the higher “Et in Spiritum Sanctum” than lower “Quoniam tu solus sanctus.” Christoph Genz tends to pinch his sound occasionally when reaching his upper range which doesn’t quite mesh with the legato texture of his accompanying orchestra. Soprano Ruth Ziesak has a clarion and accurate voice that she’s able to maneuver adroitly and with sensitivity. Unfortunately the small booklet doesn’t list the orchestra or chorus members, but the concertmaster and principal flutist deserve praise for some remarkable solo work.

I would expect that the Bach would be ample enough to persuade prospective buyers, but the capacity of Blu-ray discs allows EuroArts to include an entire additional concert. Recorded in 1999, this “Refuge for the Rising” benefit concert commemorated the tenth anniversary of the “Monday Demonstration” which took place shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is a wonderful and generous supplement, the highlight of which is Blomstedt leading the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The performance is swift and lean, and occasionally fierce. The orchestra is not quite as polished as it would be some 6 years later, but they still play with an impressive freshness and unity.

One of the most appealing aspects of this release is its visual beauty. The St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches are both stunning in their own unique way, and the high-definition picture on this blu-ray is a joy. The St. Thomas Church is incredibly warm and saturated with the red braiding in the ceiling coming across extremely well. The picture quality from the 1999 concert is a bit more washed out, but the detail is impressive for its age, particularly in the stunning columns inside the church. Sound quality for the Mass is quite good and very detailed. The sound is immediate with a bit of space around it, as if one were in the balcony adjacent to the performers, not downstairs where the majority of the audience is seated. Balances are excellent throughout. The sound from the 1999 concert is much more constricted and not as full or dynamic, but it is acceptable.

Given the sheer volume of music (I haven’t even touched on the Elijah, solo violin, or organ selections, all enjoyable) this is indeed a generous release. It is a celebration of Herbert Blomstedt’s art, but more a celebration of the musical history and current vibrancy of Leipzig. For those who have visited or lived there, this release will hold a special appeal. The Mass is worth the price of admission here and the additional selections, as well as a bonus interview with the maestro, are icing on the cake. This disc has something for everyone and is extremely satisfying in every way.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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