Gardiner's account of the B minor Mass can on all counts be recommended as just listening to the breathtaking grandeur of the performance dispells any quarrels over his interpretation. Although one may quibble at the use of adult male altos rather than boys (as in Parrott's recording) or women, or at the large number of singers in the Choir, this recording should be recommended alongside the Parrott account (on Virgin Veritas) as a companion.
The choice of soloists is, as is usual with Gardiner, totally in keeping to the style of the work and although one might have expected a more crisp and concise tone of voice from Stephen Varcoe, the bass (as we hear from David Thomas in Parrott's recording), the soloists are all outstanding. Michael Chance especially excels his performance; many will agree that the mysterious tone of voice that only a countertenor can achieve is more suited to the sanctity of the mass than a boy alto - especially in the Agnus Dei. Of course we still must remember that Bach would have used boys in Leipzig, as is advocated by Andrew Parrott.
The arias in this recording are probably what sets it above any other. Nancy Argenta, Michael Chance Wynford Evans, Richard Lloyd Morgan and Stephen Varcoe all treat their respective arias in accordance with the spiritual message behind the text. Argenta especially evokes a feeling of "We praise Thee; we bless Thee" etc. in her beautiful aria "Laudamus te". The interplay with the violin (Elizabeth Wilcock) is executed superbly. Again on the first CD when we hear Michael Chance and Stephen Varcoe they seem to really convey to the listener Bach's deep spiritual devotion, especially the attacca chorus "Cum Sancto Spiritu" (after Varcoe's "Quoniam tu solus sanctus") which Gardiner takes at a champion speed.
On the second CD, the bass aria "Et in Spiritum Sanctum" in the more meditative "Credo" section of the Mass, Richard Lloyd Morgan imitates the phrasing of the two oboes d'amore and the result is most satisfying. Again in the tenor aria "Benedictus, qui venit" the Wynford Evans and Lisa Beznosiuk's flute playing make a charming and "blessed" combination. Michael Chance brings the Mass to a beautiful end with his superb singing of "Agnus Dei". His sustenance of tone and his purity of voice are what carries along this reflective (and rather slow) movement.
The only thing that seems to detract from the choruses in the mass is the conflicting vibrato s between the individual singers of the Monteverdi Choir. Take the first Chorus of the "Credo in unum Deum", for example. The very first phrase (from the tenor line) is quite "wobbly" with all the different speeds and styles of vibrato that emanate from this section of the choir. Even though there is nothing wrong with this interpretation, it creates quite a contrast to Parrott, who uses one tenor (Rogers Covey-Crump) with no vibrato! Clearly it is a matter of personal taste and choice.
For its orderly conciseness the Mass in B minor has to be the epitome of 18th century choral writing (when we consider it away from the two Passions, of course!). It is obvious that Bach at the height of his powers - the B minor Mass being a very pertinent example - held the world of western music in his hands. And he still does. As was felt by the audience in Hamburg who heard C. P. E. Bach direct a performance from the "Credo", this is the type of music that had "never been heard before, and will probably never be again". Let us hope that the Mass in B minor will survive as one of the greatest - if not the greatest - work ever written.