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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Latin Church Music Vol. 1
Missa in F BWV 233 (late 1730s) [23:27]
Missa in g BWV 235 (late 1730s) [26:08]
Magnificat BWV 243 (1723, rev.1732-5) [25:19]
CD 2
Missa in A BWV 234 (c.1738) [30:46]
Gloria in excelsis Deo BWV 191(1741-6, 1745?) [14:48]
Missa in G BWV 236 (c.1738/9) [24:31]
Sanctus BWV 232 (1724) [5:09]

Johannette Zomer; Lisa Larsson; Deborah York; Caroline Stam; Elisabeth von Magnus (soprano); Bogna Bartosz (alto); Jörg Dürmüller; Paul Agnew; Gerd Türk (tenor); Klaus Mertens (bass)
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus/Ton Koopman
(P) and (C) 2008. No further information given. DDD.
Booklet with notes but no texts or translations.
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72188 [74:54 + 75:03]


Experience Classicsonline

Following his traversal of Bach’s Cantatas and concurrently with his planned complete survey of Buxtehude, Ton Koopman has turned his attention to Bach’s Latin Church Music; this 2-CD set is billed as Volume 1. Presumably Volume 2 will contain the B minor Mass, the Christe eleison, BWV242 and the Credo, BWV1083; perhaps, too, the original version of the Magnificat, BWV243a.

The four short Latin Masses would have been used on high days and holidays as part of the Lutheran principal service, the Hauptgottesdienst. Only the opening movements, Kyrie and Gloria were set, the Creed being sung by the whole congregation in Luther’s German paraphrase, Wir glauben all an einem Gott. Similarly, the Latin Magnificat would have been sung at Lutheran Vespers on principal festivals, the German version, Meine Seele erhebt den Herrn, being employed on more mundane occasions. 

You may have read that these Lutheran Masses contain recycled music from the Cantatas, which is true, and perhaps assumed that they are therefore not worth hearing, which is most assuredly not true. They are wholly made up of re-used materials, but what wonderful materials they are. If we rejected everything by Bach or Handel which consisted of self-borrowing, we should lose some very worthwhile music – the Christmas Oratorio, to name but one work in parts of which Bach recycled his own music. 

How masterfully he performed the recycling is demonstrated by his re-use of the Passiontide O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden in a totally different context in the Christmas Oratorio. Indeed, the tune pre-dates Bach – I think its ultimate source is Innsbruck ich muß dich lassen – so should we eschew parts of the St Matthew Passion as borrowed music? I think not. Of the music on these CDs, only the Sanctus, BWV232, may be judged less than wholly successful – and that is certainly worth hearing, not just in order to compare what happened to its music in the B minor Mass. 

Last year, to general acclaim, Harmonia Mundi issued a 2-CD set of Bach’s Missæ Breves, i.e. these four short Lutheran Masses (Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel, on HMC90 1939.40), which I purchased soon after its issue. I did not regret the purchase and was happy to give away my older Rilling recordings – reliable performances but outclassed by the newer versions. I hardly expected a rival to appear so soon, nor did I expect it to present such a strong challenge. 

Experience suggests that there are two Ton Koopmans – the one turns in faultless or nigh-faultless performances which silence criticism – the other, an occasional intruder, drives the music too hard. The first Ton Koopman directs my all-time favourite set of the Handel Organ Concertos, the second makes an occasional appearance on a CD of Christmas Organ Music which I reviewed last year. (Puer nobis nascitur, CC72234 – see review). Having listened once through uncritically and come to the conclusion that these new recordings sounded like Koopman at his unbeatable best – no sign of what I described last November as Koopman’s Technicolor excess – I was not surprised to see the set hailed as Recording of the Month by another reviewer.

The new set starts with one large advantage and one large disadvantage. Whereas the Junghänel set is rather short value at 110 minutes, the Koopman newcomer is forty minutes longer, including, in addition to the four short masses, the Magnificat on the first CD, the Gloria, BWV191, and the first version of the Sanctus which eventually became part of the great B minor Mass on the second. 

The disadvantage is that, whereas the Harmonia Mundi booklet includes texts and translations, together with a detailed table of the Cantata movements which correspond to the sections of the Masses, the Challenge booklet is devoid of any texts and lists only the numbers of the relevant Cantatas, not the actual sections. Yes, of course, the texts of the Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass and the Magnificat are pretty well known and easy to obtain, but this is another example of the cheese-paring which is becoming all too common even with full-price CDs. I have recently had cause to complain of Challenge Classics’ meanness in not providing texts of the Cantatas on another Koopman recording (CC72282). Now they don’t even tell us where and when the recordings of the Latin Music were made. 

Koopman’s and Junghänel’s tempi are very similar in the Mass in F, as the table shows – Koopman marginally faster in some sections, Junghänel in others.

Domine Deus
Qui tollis
Cum Sancto Spiritu

 The same pattern applies to the three other masses. 

What really matters is that both sound absolutely right within the terms of their own readings as a whole. Koopman’s tempo for the opening Kyrie of BWV233, for example, may look rather hurried on paper, but this is far from a penitential setting and neither conductor makes it sound dreary. If anything, Koopman’s slightly faster tempo sets the mood for the overall performance marginally more effectively, but I must emphasise that I could happily live with either. This is the one movement in the four Masses ‘borrowed’ not from a Cantata but from an existing work which set the words of the Kyrie and a German paraphrase of the Agnus Dei, Christe, du Lamm Gottes/Der du trägst die Sünd der Welt,/erbarm dich unser (BWV233a), composed between 1708 and 1717. 

Koopman consistently takes the Kyrie movements faster than Junghänel, generally to their advantage. Even the Kyrie of BWV236, where the contrast is most pronounced – 2:24 against 3:35 – does not sound rushed. The original text which this music accompanied comes from the opening of Cantata No.179: Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, und diene Gott nicht mit falschem Herzen! – take care that all your piety is not hypocrisy; do not serve God with a faithless heart – which adds further justification to Koopman’s forceful pace here. 

Even the most serious moments in Bach’s music rarely lend themselves to over-serious interpretation, as even the ‘heavier’ interpreters of the older school, such as Karl Richter, realised. Richter’s interpretations are still well worth hearing, though DGG appear to have deleted most of the box sets in which they were reissued, but newer interpreters such as Koopman and Junghänel are usually more effective in pointing the lighter side of the music. I noted in my recent review of Koopman’s performance of Cantata No.54 (CC72282) how both he and Philippe Herreweghe on a rival version demonstrated that beautiful, enlivening singing and a clear moral message can go hand in hand. 

When the first, ultra-reliable, Ton Koopman is in charge, detailed analysis is well-nigh superfluous. Almost the only thing which jarred was the pronunciation of the hard g in Agnus and agimus; Koopman’s singers at least have standard German practice on their side in this matter, but I still prefer the Italianate pronunciation. Perhaps track 9, the Sicut erat in principio section of the Gloria, BWV191, is arguably marginally too fast. 

Both Harmonia Mundi and Challenge Classics offer depictions of Martin Luther on the cover, the former in colour (Lucas Cranach), the latter in Aldegrever’s woodcut of 1540. Apart from the omission of the texts and recording dates/venues, the Challenge booklet’s brief but informative notes by the Bach scholar Christoph Wolff are at least the equal of those by Peter Wollny for Harmonia Mundi. 

Junghänel ousted Rilling from my collection in accordance with the rule that I have no room to keep two versions of anything. Does the new Koopman now oust the Junghänel? Every rule, of course, has its exceptions and Bach is one – a necessary one in the case of the Cantatas, since the couplings of rival versions make duplication necessary. At present, I cannot bring myself to decide between Junghänel and Koopman and it may well be that I shall leave matters thus. As I wrote in that recent review of Koopman’s recording of the works for alto and tenor, there is nothing like listening to Bach’s Cantatas – not a dud among them, despite the rate at which he churned them out – and the same is true of all the music on this CD. With such wonderful music on offer, in such fine performances and so well recorded, I see no reason not to recommend this new recording in the strongest terms. 

If you don’t already have a good version of the Magnificat, clearly you should go for Koopman. Of the many versions of this work which I have heard, with or without the Christmas verses (without them here) this is one of the most convincing. I should, however, add that there is an excellent and more economical version of the Magnificat, performed by the Taverner Consort and Players under Andrew Parrott, on a super-bargain Virgin Veritas twofer, with the Easter Oratorio and Cantatas 4, 11/249b and 50 (5616472, around £8-£9 in the UK). 

If you have a Magnificat with which you are satisfied, you can’t go wrong with Koopman’s or Junghänel’s version of the Masses. There is also another version of these which has received general critical approval and is now very keenly priced, albeit only in a 4-CD (5617212) or 5-CD (3728562) collection, that of Philippe Herreweghe on Virgin. I haven’t heard these performances and I should warn you that I have seen the recording described in some reviews as over-reverberant. 

I was tempted to downgrade this Koopman recording to a mere thumbs-up because of the lack of texts, but it would be unreasonable not to give it the highest accolade.

Brian Wilson


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