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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Missa 1733" (Mass in B minor, BWV 232; version 1733)

Eugťnie Warnier, Anna Reinhold, soprano; Carlos Mena, alto; Emiliano GonzŠlez Toro, tenor; Konstantin Wolff, bass
Dir: RaphaŽl Pichon

rec: Nov 21 - 25, 2011, Paris, Temple du Saint-Esprit
Alpha - 188 (© 2012) (51'11")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Bach's Mass in B minor is generally considered one of the greatest masterpieces in music history. It is available in many recordings of different kinds, with large choirs, small choirs and in one-to-a-part performances, with modern or period instruments, with small instrumental ensembles and large orchestras. In whatever performance once listens to it, it seldom fails to make a lasting impression. This work is mostly performed in the 'definitive' version which Bach put together during the last years of his life. This recording brings the first version which dates from 1733.

It has the structure of a missa brevis, consisting of Kyrie and Gloria. This was a quite common form which appears in the oeuvre of various German composers of the 17th and early 18th century, such as Buxtehude, Johann Ludwig Bach and Johann Sebastian himself (BWV 233-236). However, the size of this missa brevis is exceptional, and one may wonder whether it has been written for actual performance. Bach sent this work to Dresden, hoping that it would result in an appointment as Kapellmeister. As the court had become officially Roman Catholic in 1697 when Augustus II 'the Strong', Elector of Saxonia, converted to Catholicism in order to be able to become King of Poland, this has led to some speculation about Bach showing 'ecumenical' views in religious matters. That is an example of wishful thinking on the part of some 'modern' minds who would like Bach to be a less than dogmatically-convinced Lutheran. There are no historical arguments in favour of this view, though.

The title Bach had set his eyes on was honorary; its main purpose was to improve his standing. There is no reason to believe that Bach really wanted to move to Dresden to become Kapellmeister at the court. Moreover, Lutheranism and Catholicism coexisted at the court; services were held in separate chapels. If Bach had become Kapellmeister he would not have needed to compromise his Lutheran convictions. As we have already seen missae breves were written by Lutheran composers; Kyrie and Gloria were part of the Lutheran liturgy, and so was Latin.

This recording is based on what a performance in Dresden could have been like. Such a performance must be speculative as no performance in Dresden is documented. However, in fact every performance has to be speculative as there is no evidence that Bach's Mass has ever been performed in his lifetime, neither in its early form of 1733 nor in its 'completed' version. Scholars and performers are still debating the issue of the number of singers and players Bach mostly used in his sacred music. In case of the Mass in B minor there is no performance material to rely on. RaphaŽl Pichon refers to research concerning the size and line-up of the vocal and instrumental forces at the court in Dresden. It results in a performance with a choir of 25 singers and an orchestra of eight violins, two violas, tenor and bass viol, cello and double bass, with the usual wind instruments, timpani and basso continuo. As interesting as it is to know how large a chapel was, music wasn't necessarily performed with all the forces available.

This performance is also based on the latest publications of the material of the different versions of this mass. In his liner-notes Pichon writes that this recording will allow the listener to hear the differences between the versions. It is regrettable that these are not specified in the booklet.

Several decisions in regard to the actual performance need to be noticed. The opening section of Kyrie I is taken at a very slow speed, based on the indication molto adagio at the cello part of the Dresden version. The second section is then performed at a higher speed. The differences in the indications regarding the articulation in the various parts of the Christe eleison have motived the performers to choose their own articulation. The Kyrie II is performed more legato than usual, based on a statement of Johann Philipp Kirnberger that in music written in the stile antico the notes should be played "in a more connected, legato manner than in moderno pieces", as Pichon describes it.

The performance of the Domine Deus (Gloria) also needs some attention. Pichon mentions that the Italian bass Cosimo Ermini was one of the soloists at the Dresden court at the time the first version of the B minor Mass was written. He was renowned "for his performances of swift coloratura arias in the operas of Hasse. With that in mind, we opted for a firmly vivace tempo, thus bringing out the virtuosity of all the performers and permitting a smoother transition to the final chorus 'Cum Sancto Spiritu', which is marked vivace", Pichon writes. These arguments have to be ranked among the least convincing in his notes. He doesn't make plausible that Bach wanted such a "smooth transition"; could it be that he rather preferred a marked contrast? Moreover, I can't see any argument in favour of Bach considering vocal virtuosity a quality in itself. He may have explored the skills of a specific singer in his compositions - some of the solo cantatas spring to mind - but would he like to speed up the tempo in order to display the capabilities of a singer? In this aria the natural horn is played without using the hand-stopping technique. Pichon argues that this technique doesn't reflect the performance practices of the time. That is fair enough, but what about the trumpets? Today some trumpeters specialize in playing without intonational aids. It is a little inconsistent that - as far as I can hear - this has not been practised here.

This should suffice to demonstrate that this recording is definitely challenging from an interpretational point of view. That makes it an interesting proposition for music lovers with a more than average interest in Bach's music or in the performance practice of baroque music in general. The actual performance is quite good. Despite its size the choral parts have considerable transparency. The interpretation is differentiated both in dynamics and in articulation. Most soloists have a slight vibrato which is not obtrusive; even so, it should not be there. It makes the duets less than ideal. Carlos Mena makes the best impression in Qui sedes (Gloria). The balance between Anna Reinhold and the orchestra in Laudamus te (Gloria) is less than ideal. Konstantin Wolff is alright in Quiniam tu solus sanctus, but the tempo has not convinced me as it gets more casual than it should be. The tutti sections are the best part of this performance.

All in all, this recording is interesting in regard to performance practice, but musically not entirely satisfying.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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