Why do we need a recording of Bach’s Missa?
The Missa (BWV 232a) is that first part of
what would later become the Mass in B minor. Composed in 1733,
it consists of the Kyrie and the Gloria - half of which is a reworking
of Cantata BWV 191. He dedicated
it to the Elector of Saxony as part of an ultimately unsuccessful
application for the job of Saxon Court Capellmeister in
Dresden. When Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the Missa as a stand-alone
piece in 1972, that was far from common knowledge: not until the
1950s did scholars propose that the Mass in B minor wasn’t a monolith.
Public perception of the works as a musical quilt set in only
much later. As much as anything else, Harnoncourt’s recording
was a statement calling on the listener to perceive Bach in new
ways. There are no changes from the original to the first half
of the latter gallimaufry-masterpiece. In the circumstances you
might as well experience the Missa by simply not listening to
CD 2 of your favorite recording of the B minor Mass.
Why, then, do we need a recording of Bach’s Missa?
Completism, that’s why. Good enough a reason for me. If not for
you, there is no reason to read on. Harnoncourt’s recording offers
nothing - except the sweet aural scents of nostalgia for those
Alte Werk” releases - that will transcend the limited initial
appeal the Missa has in an age burgeoning with great ‘complete’
recordings. The vibrato of the female voices (Rotraud Hansmann,
Emiko Iiyama, Helen Watts) isn’t at all in conformity with our
current understanding and expectations of historically informed
performances. The playing of the orchestra, especially the brass,
conforms only to our stereotypical negative expectations. HIP
orchestras - Harnoncourt’s Concentus Musicus Wien not the least
- have come a long, long way since those days. I have always liked
Harnoncourt’s idea of using a boys’ choir - one of the best available,
at that. Unfortunately the idea is nicer than the intonation-ambiguous
Those not reared on Harnoncourt - or not interested
in the Missa-only - but curious about his seminal recordings
for Teldec’s Das Alte Werk are better off with a recording
of a favorite cantata from his cycle. The rest can safely
stick to their Mass in B minor of choice - mine currently
being Karl Richter, Jos van Veldhoven, and Marc Minkowski.