musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750): Magnificat in E flat (BWV 234a)a
Antonio Lotti (1667 - 1740): Missa Sapientiaeb
Balthasar-Neumann-Chor; Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble
Dir: Thomas Hengelbrock
rec: Nov 15 - 18, 2000a, Oct 16 - 18, 2002b, Gönningen (Ger), Evangelische Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 74321 98282 2 (61'40")

soloists: Constanze Backesa, Dorothee Mields, soprano; Jürgen Banholzera, Bernhard Landauera, alto; Hans Jörg Mammela, Hermann Oswalda, tenor; Wolf Mathias Friedricha, bass

It may seem a little strange to put a Mass by an Italian composer and Bach's Magnificat together on one disc. But it makes a lot of sense, since Bach was a great admirer of Antonio Lotti's sacred music.

Lotti was born in Venice, and received his musical education from Giovanni Legrenzi (1626-1690), maestro di cappella of San Marco. Lotti himself became a falsetto singer (1689) and later second organist (1702) at San Marco. He composed many sacred works, both for San Marco and the ospedali in Venice. He also got the reputation of being one of the leading opera composers in the city. It was this reputation which brough him the invitation to Dresden by the Prince Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August. From 1717 to 1719 Lotti composed and performed five operas in Dresden. During those years he and his musicians also regularly performed sacred music, which made a great impression in Dresden and beyond.

Among the composers who admired Lotti's music was Jan Dismas Zelenka. Around 1730 he copied the Missa Sapientiae - which consists of Kyrie and Gloria only - for a performance in Dresden. It was Zelenka who gave the Mass its name. He also adapted the work to the local performing habits. These adaptations mainly concern the instrumentation: Zelenka added parts for woodwinds and in some instances replaces a violin by a transverse flute or an oboe by a trumpet. It is this version which is performed here.

Handel was another admirer: he copied parts of the Mass and borrowed material from it to use it in some of his oratorios.
And Johann Sebastian Bach also owned a copy of this Mass. In the early 1730s Bach started to collect sacred music by Italian composers, apparently as part of his preparations for his own Mass compositions. There are some similarities between Lotti's Missa Sapientiae and Bach's Mass in B minor.

Lotti's Mass directly catches the attention by the fanciful first section of the Kyrie. It very much reminds me of some sacred works by Zelenka.
There are strong contrasts within this Mass setting, partly due to the use of solo passages and passages for reduced forces. In the Gloria the words "et in terra pax" are sung three times by one voice only, without any instrumental accompaniment.
Very impressive is the section 'Qui tollis peccata mundi'. The first half is dominated by a motif of two notes - short-long - followed by a pause, alternately played by the upper and lower strings. This is the kind of 'sighing' motif which we know from the 'Crucifixus' in Bach's B-minor Mass. The continuous repetition could be associated with death bells. And on the words "miserere nobis" Lotti has written strong dissonances which are reminiscent of his famous 8-part Crucifixus.
The following phrase "suscipe deprecationem nostram" (receive our prayer) is very strong and persistent - very appropriate for this text.

Bach's Magnificat is a far better-known work. But is it mostly recorded in its second version in D, which dates from 1733. The version performed here is the original one in E flat.
It has been thought that the E flat-version was first performed at Christmas Day 1723. At that occasion four traditional Christmas hymns were included: Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, Freut euch und jubilieret, Gloria in excelsis Deo and Virga Jesse floruit. But in his liner notes the German Bach scholar Ulrich Leisinger states that the first performance of this version took place on 2 July 1723, at the feast of the Visitation, which was celebrated in Leipzig. The performance at Christmas Day of that year was the second, and at that occasion the Christmas hymns were included.

There are some differences between the interpretations of the two works on this disc.
Lotti's Missa Sapientiae is performed at the most common pitch of that time, called the Cammerton: a'=415 Hz. But Bach's Magnificat is performed at the lower pitch of a'=392 Hz. This pitch, which was common in France, was called tief-Cammerton. During his first year and a half in Leipzig Bach composed several pieces at this low pitch. He could do so, since his predecessor as Thomaskantor, Johann Kuhnau, had collected woodwind instruments tuned at that pitch. The use of this pitch creates a special sound which is a little softer and gentler, and less brilliant than at Cammerton.
Another difference is that in Bach's Magnificat the German pronunciation of Latin is used, whereas in Lotti's Mass the Italian pronunciation is applied. That seems a little strange. Lotti was an Italian composer, but his Mass is recorded here as it was once performed in Dresden under the direction of Zelenka. How was Latin pronounced in Dresden: the Italian way? I doubt it.

It seems that Thomas Hengelbrock doesn't support the theory that sacred works in Bach's time were usually performed with one voice per part. In Bach the Balthasar-Neumann-Choir consists of 4 singers for every part (with the exception of soprano II, which is sung by three singers). The choir was created "as a small group with the possibility of employing its own vocal soloists even for highly virtuoso parts". This situation pays off in that all singers are on the same stylistic wavelength and that there is a unity between soli and tutti.
The four Christmas hymns have all different scorings. The first two are for voices a capella. Here in both hymns instruments are playing colla parte. This seems to me a good decision, which brings more unity between those hymns and the Magnificat. And it is also historically justified, since we know from other works that Bach has applied the option of instruments playing colla parte.

As a result this disc contains very impressive performances of two masterpieces. The strong expression of both works comes across very well. Two examples from the Magnificat are "Fecit potentiam" and "Deposuit potentes" which combine fast tempi with very strong accents.
Although I would have liked a sharper articulation here and there, the playing of the orchestra is very colourful and dynamic.

Johan van Veen (© 2003)

CD Reviews