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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750): ‘Apocryphal Bach Masses’
Dorothee Mields, soprano; Henning Voss, alto; Henning Kaiser, tenor; Ralf Grobe, bass
Alsfelder Vokalensemble; I Febiarmonici
Dir: Wolfgang Helbich

rec: Feb 20 - 25, June 6 - 7, 2001, Radio Bremen
CPO – 999 834-2 (51'47")

The catalogue of Bach's works contains several pieces which once were attributed to Bach - mainly on the basis of the handwritings of the manuscripts, which were either by Bach himself or by people from his circle, who often acted as copyists. Later musicological research has shown that these works were merely copied for performing reasons, but were actually composed by others.
The German conductor Wolfgang Helbich has recorded apocryphal works before: a 2-CD set with spurious cantatas, a CD with motets and the St Luke Passion. The latest recording in this project is devoted to two Masses and a setting of the Magnificat.

The Masses are of the missa brevis type, consisting of Kyrie and Gloria only - just like Bach's own Missae breves (BWV 233 - 236). The composer of the Missa in C (BWV Anh 25) is still unknown, but it is thought to be written by a German composer in Dresden, who was influenced by the Italian style before Pergolesi.
That assumption can be justified on the basis of the close connection between text and music. In the Christe eleison, for example, the prayer for mercy to Christ in heaven is symbolised by the upward moving scale, played by the violins, creating a rhetorical figure, which is called suspiratio. In the Domine Deus the section about God the Father is sung by the tenor, the section about God the Son by the alto. At the end both are mentioned: "Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father" - appropriately here both voices join each other. There are two fugues in this mass setting: at the end of Kyrie II and Cum Sancto Spiritu at the end of the work. It is not difficult to see why Bach was interested in this piece.

The Mass in c minor (BWV Anh 26) was written by Francesco Durante. Unlike in the Mass in C major Bach made some changes here: he composed new music for the Christe eleison - a duet for soprano and alto - and Durante's music for the first section of the Gloria was transferred to the Kyrie II and replaced by a plainchant intonation. In this work the relationship between text and music isn't as close as in the first mass setting.

The third item on this CD - placed between the Missae breves - is an intimate setting of the Magnificat - on German text -, for soprano, transverse flute, 2 violins and basso continuo. In the 19th century it was attributed to Bach, but later a German musicologist considered it a composition by Telemann. This claim seemed to be supported when it was discovered that the work was closely connected to the Neue Kirche in Leipzig, where Telemann was organist and director of music until 1705. But more recently the true identity of the composer was established: Melchior Hoffmann, who is also considered the composer of the cantatas 53 and 189 in the Bach Werke Verzeichnis. He succeeded Telemann in the Neue Kirche in 1705. It is a small-scale work in the rhetorical tradition of German sacred music. We find here melismas to stress key words, like ‘mächtig’ (mighty), repetition to illustrate ‘währet immer für und für’ (endures for ever), strong accents in the basso continuo on the verse ‘Er stösset die Gewaltigen vom Stuhl’ (he has put down the mighty from their seats) and a sudden modulation on ‘fürchten’ (fear).

Some people believe that sacred music in the Germany of Bach's time was usually performed with one voice per part. This theory is controversial and subject of an on-going debate. But one doesn't need to embrace that theory to hold the view that a choir of 34, like the Alsfelder Vokalensemble in this recording, is simply too big. There is a lack of clarity and flexibility in the choral singing, even though the qualities of the choir are undeniable. In fact, the performance of the choir is pretty good, but it could even have been better if the choir had been about half the size - in accordance with the 'traditional' view of the kind of choir Bach had at his disposal. Only the Magnificat by Hoffmann is performed on the small scale the work so clearly asks for.

There is a strange discrepancy between the liner notes by Peter Wollny and the actual performance. Regarding Durante's Mass in c minor, Peter Wollny states: "In its original form the serious, melodically somewhat brittle, yet harmonically bold work has an orchestra consisting merely of two (tutti) violins and continuo. Therefore, the three choral parts are reinforced by trombones in order to fit out the middle range. It is not known, however, whether this change expanding the instrumentarium was undertaken by Bach or adopted by him from his source". But where are the trombones in this recording? I haven't heard them, and no trombones are mentioned in the list of players. Perhaps these parts are played here by strings, but with the choir being as large as it is that is impossible to tell. By the way, the orchestra is playing very well.
Most soloists are good; in particular the duets of soprano and alto are very well realised. I am less impressed by the bass Rolf Grobe: his singing is a little rough and lacks subtlety.

The booklets of CPO recordings are always of a very high standard: the lyrics are printed in the original and in English translation, all members of choir and orchestra are listed. And the liner notes are informative and well-written.

My reservations don’t hold me back from recommending this recording. As far as I know there are no other recordings of the Masses available, and Hoffmann’s Magnificat is performed here better than by Joshua Rifkin’s Bach Ensemble.

Johan van Veen (© 2004)

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