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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Missae breves (BWV 233 - 236)

[I] "Lutheran Masses, Volume I"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: May 20 - 24, 2013, London, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn
Coro - COR16115 (© 2013) (74'07")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben (BWV 102)a; Missa in F (BWV 233)b; Missa in g minor (BWV 235)c

[II] "Lutheran Masses, Volume II"
The Sixteen
Dir: Harry Christophers
rec: May 20 - 24, 2013, London, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn
Coro - COR16120 (© 2014) (73'52")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (BWV 79)d; Missa in A (BWV 234)e; Missa in G (BWV 236)f

Grace Davidson (solobf), Julia Doyle (solode), soprano; Robin Blaze (solobcd), William Purefoy (soloaef), alto; Jeremy Budd (soloaef), Mark Dobell (soloc), tenor; Ben Davies (soloabe), Eamonn Dougan (solocdf), bass


The liturgical form of the Mass is naturally associated with the Roman Catholic liturgy. However, elements of the Mass survived the liturgical changes which were part of the Lutheran Reformation. The texts of the Ordinary didn't create any problems from a theological point of view. After the Reformation mass settings from earlier times by 'Catholic' composers were still performed, and some of the early Lutheran composers set these texts themselves.

"Luther's German liturgy, Deutsche Messe (1526), introduced the concept of hymnic substitutes for the Ordinary (...). While the hymnic Gloria and Credo were regularly sung, The Kyrie was sung in a variety of forms and the German Sanctus and Agnus Dei became optional. Later Lutheran liturgical orders were generally conflations of Luther's two liturgical forms, with the first half of the eucharistic liturgy following more closely the Latin Formula missae and the second half approximating to the provisions of the vernacular Deutsche Messe" (Robin A. Weaver). Liturgical practice varied from one church to the other, and depended on the musical facilities. In larger churches the Kyrie and Gloria were sung in Latin by a choir, followed by the hymnic version of the Gloria, Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, sung by the congregation which always sang the credal hymn Wir glauben all an einen Gott.

Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei were seldom performed in Latin. The Lutheran practices as described in the previous paragraph is reflected in the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach. Although he composed various independent settings of the Sanctus, there are no settings of the Credo and the Agnus Dei from his pen. His inventory includes various complete Ordinary settings by Italian composers but that in itself doesn't prove that he performed all of their sections during liturgy. One piece which he prepared for performance in Leipzig is a Missa sine nomine by Palestrina. But as he only added instrumental parts to the Kyrie and the Gloria it seems likely that only these parts of the Mass were performed polyphonically and in Latin.

His four so-called Missae breves further support this assumption as they comprise only Kyrie and Gloria. They date from the late 1730s when Bach started to look back at his oeuvre and revised and reused the best from it. In the next years, until his death, he would create a number of works in which counterpoint played a crucial role. With that he swam against the stream of time as the musical taste turned into a preference for the galant idiom. It could well be that this process of evaluating previous fruits of his labour started with his writing of these four masses as they comprise mainly of older material adapted to a new text. It has not been possible to establish the sources of every part of these masses, but most of them have been identified.

The Missa in F (BWV 233) is taken from an earlier (lost) Kyrie (BWV 233a), two parts from the Cantata BWV 102 (Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben) and one from Cantata BWV 40 (Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes). Two sections have not been identified.
The same goes for two sections - including the Kyrie - from the Missa in A (BWV 234), whereas four cantatas delivered the material for the other parts: BWV 67, 79, 136 and 179.
The Missa in A (BWV 235) begins with a Kyrie which is an adaptation from Cantata BWV 102; four movements are taken from Cantata 187 (Es wartet alles auf dich), whereas the remaining part is derived from Cantata 72 (Alles nur nach Gottes Willen).
Cantata BWV 79 (Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild) is the source of two parts from the Missa in G (BWV 236); two further parts are from Cantata 179 (Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht) and the two remaining sections are from Cantatas BWV 17 and 138.

The very fact that these Masses were all built up from older material has contributed to them not being taken very seriously. Bach's first biographer Philipp Spitta called them "mindless adaptations" and Albert Schweitzer considered them "perfunctory and occasionally quite nonsensical". This suggest that Bach probably didn't take the tast of adapting parts of his cantatas to the Mass text that seriously either. But as he had access to various complete masses, why would he bother to create these short masses? He must have found it quite a challenge to re-use older material in a way which could make them useful for the liturgy. In his article on the Masses (*) Robin A. Leaver rightfully reminds the reader that the Mass in B minor is also largely a parodied work and is universally admired.

The four Masses are equally structured. The opening Kyrie is a choral movement, sometimes split into various sections. The Gloria is divided into five movements: two choral sections embrace three solo arias; the only exception is 'Domine Deus' from the Missa in G (BWV 236) which is a duet for soprano and alto. The amount of reworking varies greatly: sometimes little has changed, in other cases the adaptation has been rather drastic.

"Some years ago I devised a plan to record Bach's seldom heard Lutheran Masses. My intention was to use the full choir but, as luck would have it, it never materialised, because if there is any Bach that really does warrant more of a solo voice approach, it is these wonderful masses. I have actually adopted a pattern of using two voices to a part in the choruses, thereby allowing vocal support for the incredibly demanding and continuous phrases." With this approach The Sixteen are in the same realm as the German ensemble Cantus Cölln (Harmonia mundi, 2007). The best choral recording is that by the Collegium Vocale Ghent under Philipp Herreweghe (Virgin Classics, 1989/90).
Harry Christophers decided to add on each disc one cantata from which several movements of the Masses are taken. In Volume I he chose Cantata 102: two parts are re-used in the Missa in F and one in the Missa in g minor. He could also have chosen Cantata 187 which supplied four movements of the latter Mass. In Volume II we hear the Cantata 79: two movements return in the Missa in G and one in the Missa in A.

The performances are generally quite good, though not without ebbs and flows. If there is one basic minus it is the balance between the solo voices and the obbligato instruments in the arias. The soloists are generally too much in front, whereas the instruments are more in the background. Basically there is no such thing as a soloist in the baroque era. All the music is ensemble music in which the participants are equals. A vocal soloist and an obbligato instrument are equal partners, and that doesn't come off here. The most satisfying balance is that between the tutti and the four solo voices - members of the 'choir' - in the Kyrie from the Missa in A.

As far as the soloists are concerned: on the whole they deliver fine performances. They seem to have captured the character of Bach's music pretty well and I haven't heard any real errors in the German pronunciation. Some arias particularly stand out. Robin Blaze gives a fine account of 'Domine fili' (BWV 235), Julia Doyle is wonderful in 'Qui tollis peccata mundi' (BWV 234), and Jeremy Budd's interpretation of 'Erschrecke doch' (BWV 102) is outstanding. The duet 'Domine Deus' (BWV 236) is beautifully sung by Grace Davidson and William Purefoy. The latter adapts his voice to Ms Davidson's, whereas he unfortunately allows his voice to flutter in 'Weh der Seelen' (BWV 102). Eamonn Dougann takes the right amount of rhythmic freedom in the recitative 'Gottlob, wir wissen den rechten Weg' (BWV 79), but Ben Davies is too strict in 'Wo ist das Ebenbild' (BWV 102).

Sometimes I was really satisfied with the differentation between notes and the dynamic shading, for instance in the opening sections of the Gloria from BWV 235 and 233 respectively and the arioso 'Verachtest du den Reichtum seiner Gnade' (BWV 102). However, there were also sections where I noticed a lack of accents and a generally rather flat performance, such as in the Kyrie and the aria 'Domine fili' from BWV 235, in the chorale from BWV 102 and the aria 'Domine Deus' from BWV 234. Now and then I noticed too much legato in the solo parts (aria 'Weh der Seele' and chorale from BWV 102). The text is not always fully explored, for instance "schlägest" (strike) in the opening chorus from BWV 102. Tempo is a difficult issue in music without clear markings, let alone absolute indications in regard to timing, but I felt that the opening section of the Gloria from BWV 236 could have been a little faster. The instrumental playing is outstanding throughout, despite some issues just mentioned, such as a lack of accents and also too much legato here and there. I especially enjoyed the horns in the brilliant opening chorus of BWV 233. Lastly, just a technical issue: there is no space whatsoever between the first two arias in this same Mass which is very unfortunate and has certainly no musical reason.

All in all, despite my critical remarks, these are quite enjoyable performances which surpassed my expectations. Cantus Cölln remains my first choice in a small-scale approach like the present one. However, The Sixteen's recordings are a serious proposition, especially because of the inclusion of two cantatas from which Bach took some of the material for his Missae breves.

(*) Malcolm Boyd, ed., J.S. Bach (Oxford Composer Companions), Oxford 1999

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

The Sixteen

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