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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Purification Mass"

Julita Miroslawska, sopranoa; Jakub Burzynski, altob; Mariusz Cyciura, tenorc; Artur Janda, bass-baritoned; Rafael Gabriel Przybyla, oboee
La Tempesta; Congregational choirf
Dir: Jakub Burzynski

rec: July 12 - 14, 2007, Warsaw, Evangelic-Reformed Church
Arts - 47749-8 ( 2009) (58'17")

Bekennen will ich deinen Namen (BWV 200)b; Ich habe genung (BWV 82)be; Mass in g minor (BWV 235)abcd; Mass in b minor (BWV 232): Agnus Deib; Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (BWV 382)abcd; Sanctus in G (BWV 240)abcd; Wir glauben all an einen Gott (BWV 437)bf

These days most performances of baroque music are 'authentic'. This means that instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries are used and that they are played with the appropriate technique. But our listening habits are mostly very unauthentic. We are going to a concert hall to listen to music which was written to be played during dinner or supper. And we listen to Bach's sacred cantatas in the concert hall or in our living room, whereas they were written for liturgical use.

In recent years attempts have been made to present music within its proper context. Motets and masses of the renaissance were embedded into a service which also contained plainchant. In particular Paul McCreesh has recorded music of around 1600 in its liturgical or historical context. In regard to Bach such attempts are rare. McCreesh once recorded an 'Epiphany Mass' as it might have taken place in Leipzig around 1740. But I am not aware of any other attempts of this kind. It is also rather complicated as we don't always know when Bach's cantatas were performed, let alone which other music was sung and played on a certain Sunday. In addition some elements were the same in every service, and it doesn't make sense to repeat those elements every time.

This disc is no liturgical reconstruction. The idea behind the programme was to present music which can be liturgically connected, even though there is no evidence that these compositions have ever been performed in one service. Most pieces on this disc have been chosen because of the importance of the alto part, and as the cantata Ich habe genung (BWV 82) - performed here in the version for alto - happens to be written for the feast of the Purification of Mary (2 February) this has given the disc its title. The tutti sections are sung with one voice per part; the choir only sings in one of the German hymns.

We are well informed about what the Hauptgottesdienst in St Thomas's in Leipzig looked like. The key musical elements are presented here. The disc opens with the first two sections of the Mass. Here one of Bach's Missae breves - consisting of Kyrie and Gloria only - has been chosen, the Mass in g minor (BWV 235). Concerted settings like this were only sung during services on festivals and other celebrations. Next follows the Credo, which was always sung in the form of a German hymn, Wir glauben all an einen Gott. Then the Sanctus is sung. Bach has set this text several times; here the setting in G (BWV 240) has been selected. But the Agnus Dei causes a problem. No setting by Bach exists. It was usually sung again in the form of a hymn: 'Christe, du Lamm Gottes'. But here the Agnus Dei from the Mass in b minor (BWV 232) has been chosen which is very odd. This disc pretends to present music which could have been performed around 1740. But at that time the Agnus Dei wasn't even composed! Bach extended his Mass - in its early form known as Missa 1733 - to a full mass setting only in 1748/49. Equally odd is that only the Agnus Dei is performed, whereas the concluding 'Dona nobis pacem' has been left out.

The disc ends with the Communion; we hear the alto aria Bekennen will ich deinen Namen (BWV 200), which comes from a lost work which is assumed to be written for the feast of the Purification of Mary as well, although there is no certainty about it. The last item is another hymn: Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin. This can be associated with the same feast: Bach wrote a cantata for this feast based on this chorale (BWV 125).

Although the attempt to present Bach's sacred music in a certain liturgical context is to be applauded, this attempt isn't really convincing. Apart from the inclusion of the Agnus Dei from the B-minor Mass, the performance of four sections of the Mass in a concerted form within a single service seems to be hardly historically justified. It is probably telling that when Bach arranged a mass by Palestrina, he only reworked the Kyrie and Gloria. There is every reason to believe that the performance of concerted settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei was very rare.

The performances of the German hymns are dubious. These were sung by the congregation, unisono of course, with organ accompaniment. Here two four-part settings by Bach are used, but these were not written for congregational use. Wir glauben all an einen Gott consists of three stanzas: in the first the choir - acting as congregation - sings unisono, but a capella, the second is performed by the alto with instruments and bc (here a harpsichord), the third by the choir unisono with strings and organ. The closing hymn, Mit Fried und Freud, is sung by the four soloists with instruments playing colla parte. The performances of both hymns on this disc are without any historical foundation.

It is not only the programme which has serious flaws. The performances give little reason to celebrate either. The attempt of the ensemble to achieve a rhetorical effect, characterised by strong dynamic accents and a clear delivery of the text is admirable and deserves unreserved support. But in the way these principles are applied they have gone a little overboard. The accents are exaggerated and the close miking makes them even more unnatural. The text is indeed clearly delivered, but it can't be overlooked that the German pronunciation isn't always perfect. It is in particular the choir which produces some unidiomatic vowels.

A really big problem is the choice of tempi. In particular, two parts of this recording suffer from this. The first is the opening aria of the cantata, which is way too fast. Here it takes 5:18, whereas in most recordings this takes about 7 minutes. As a result the poor oboist is hardly able to play the virtuosic passage-work in his part. Most of the expression of this aria goes out of the window. That also happens in the Agnus Dei, which is again sung too fast: Jakub Burzynski needs 3:45, whereas in the recent recordings by Jos van Veldhoven (Netherlands Bach Society) and Masaaki Suzuki (Bach Collegium Japan) this section takes just over 5 minutes. The biting accents are ridiculous: they really kill the whole piece.

But it is also the recording technique which seriously damages this production. The balance between the voices and the instruments as well as within the instrumental ensemble is highly unsatisfying. The Kyrie begins with an instrumental introduction, but when the voices enter the instruments are completely overpowered and are pushed into the background. In addition the singers - whose voices don't blend very well anyway - are too close to the microphones. As a result there is no ensemble here; it is rather like singing apart together. In the cantata the same happens: the first aria begins with an introduction of oboe and strings, and as soon as the alto enters the oboe is brushed aside. There should be much more blending between the voice and the instruments. These defects are even more noticeable if one listens to this disc with headphones.

There is no doubt about the good and sincere intentions of these performances. But these go astray because of serious flaws in the programming, interpretation and recording.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

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