Naxos continues its juggernaut ascent in the record industry, having been a bargain-basement special label of varied quality at the outset that has within less than two decades gone on to become the best-selling and arguably most respected label in the industry. Its prices are still low, but its overall quality surprisingly competes quite consistently with its markedly less-prolific, more costly rivals. Here are two cases in point: a pair of huge masterpieces in the sacred/choral repertory presented in excellent performances and sound, two issues Naxos' major competitors can only envy for their quality and greater marketability.
How does Naxos do it? Beats me, but I can only observe that the label manages to corral many fine artists on their way up, or artists overlooked by the others (the late Georg Tintner readily comes to mind here), and puts them in a studio with very capable engineers and producers, and the generally successful results speak for themselves. Here we have vocal soloists not entirely unknown, but hardly household names, either. Sunhae Im and Hanno Müller-Brachmann appear in both the Haydn and Bach recordings and both are excellent.
Im, a South Korean soprano, should have a major career ahead of her, while bass Müller-Brachmann is a promising artist in his own right, even if he may have a few minor problems in his lower register. The tenor in The Creation, Jan Kabow, is also impressive, as are most of the other soloists in the Bach Mass. Oddly, the Haydn is an original-instruments recording, while the Bach is performed on modern instruments. I've never cared to engage in any argument regarding modern versus original instruments, though I'll take modern any day. That said, I'll also take this Haydn Creation as my first choice, and ditto for the Bach Mass in B minor.
Ironically, the often somewhat scrappier character that conductor Helmut Müller-Brühl achieves in the Bach Mass would seem more in the spirit of an original-instruments approach, and Spering's Creation has an epic quality that many will associate with a modern-instruments treatment. That said, the instruments in the Haydn do betray their 'historic' sound, and I should point out the 'scrappier' sound in the Bach is achieved mostly in the choral contribution – and is most appropriate and effective. Both ensembles play splendidly, in any event, and as suggested above, both performances are thrillingly executed and vividly recorded, both in their SACD and CD layers.
The big choruses in The Creation are utterly magnificent, but so much else is so brilliantly executed it's hard to single out highlights. In the Bach the choral parts of the Gloria are heavenly, but here too, there is too much to single out for praise. Suffice it to say that this pair of issues should garner awards for the top choral/sacred recordings of the year. What more can you ask for?
Copyright © 2005, Robert Cummings