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CD: Crotchet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Mass in F major BWV 233 [28.50]
Mass in A major, BWV 234 [35.41]
Mass in G major, BWV 235 [29.34]
Mass in G minor, BWV 236 [32.21]
Sanctus in D minor, BWV 239 [1.47]
Sanctus in G major, BWV 240 [2.45]
Sanctus in D major, BWV 241 [2.10]
Sanctus in D major, BWV 238 [3.23]
Christe Eleison in G minor, BWV 242 [2.12]
Sanctus in C major, BWV 237 [1.46]
Wally Staempfli (soprano: BWV233, 234, 236 & 242) Nicole Rossier-Maradan (mezzo: BWV236 & 242); Claudine Perret (alto: BWV233); Hanna Schaer (alto: BWV234 & 235); John Elwes (tenor: BWV235 & 236); Philippe Huttenlocher (bass: BWV233-36)
Ensemble Vocale de Lausanne
Orchestra de Chambre de Lausanne/Michel Corboz
rec. 1974
WARNER APEX 2564 69046-48 [70:21 + 73.42]
Experience Classicsonline

Bach’s Lutheran Masses - or Missae Breves as they are described in this disc - have had rather a limited recording history. There seem to have been five surviving mass settings, the first of which turned into the Mass in B minor. The remaining four are recorded here. The Lutheran liturgy allowed for the use of settings of the Latin Kyrie and Gloria and that is what we have.

They probably were written in the 1730s and their relative neglect by performers is perhaps because Bach simply re-used movements from his cantatas to create them. But they are rather terrific pieces nonetheless everyone should consider getting at least one decent recording of them.

The structure of the four masses is pretty standard; first of all a choral Kyrie, subdivided into three movements (Kyrie, Christus, Kyrie); almost all are fugal, all are solemn and sober. The Gloria is subdivided into five movements; the opening Gloria in excelsis Deo and the closing Cum sancto Spiritu are choral, the remaining three movements are assigned to soloists.

On this disc, which was recorded in 1974, the Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne are admirably sober in the austerely fugal Kyries. Their account of the Kyrie of the F major mass is all you could want it to be. But unfortunately in the following Gloria in excelsis Deo they make extremely heavy weather of the bouncy fugal number. You keep wishing that there were rather fewer singers, making a rather lighter noise. This feeling continues in the concluding Cum sancto Spiritu where the chorus make a steady solid sound which is frankly too steady and rather too stolid.

In the lovely Siciliano opening the Kyrie of the A major mass the choir’s sound is rather too dated and too blowsy for my taste. And in the Gloria in excelsis Deo movement of the G major mass, the balance between chorus and orchestra is poor, with the choral sound rather too recessed.

The orchestral contribution from the Orchestra Chambre de Lausanne is reasonably fleet and lively with some attractive solo instrumental contributions. But it is fatally flat footed, with the strings determinedly keeping their bow firmly on the string and allowing no air or bounce into the proceedings. I am not dogmatic about period instruments but I do prefer my instrumental accompaniment to bring lightness and air between the notes.

The vocal soloists are rather a similar mixed bag. Bass Philippe Huttenlocher has a finely attractive focused voice and his contributions are all a pleasure to hear. His Domine Deus in the A Major Mass, with its solo violin, is particularly attractive.

Soprano Wally Staempfli contributes a moving Qui tollis in the F Major mass, but in the same movement in the A major mass she sounds rather squeezed at the top of her voice. In the G major mass this movement is a delightful duet between Staempfli and alto Nicole Rossier-Maradan.

Claudia Perret, who sings the alto solo in the F major Mass has a big, firm, vibrant voice which sounds wonderful but very old style. Hanna Schaer, the alto in the A major and G minor sounds altogether rather too careful but really lets herself down by the way she snatches breaths at the ends of the long vocal lines.

John Elwes is the mellifluous tenor in the G major and G minor Masses. In the former his Quoniam tu solus Sanctus has a lovely plangent oboe solo.

The masses are accompanied by five of Bach’s independent Sanctus movements and a stray Christe eleison. These movements make admirable bed-fellows but the similar strictures apply to the choral sound as in the Masses.

This set got a good review in the Gramophone when it first appeared in 1974 but frankly it is now showing its age. You would be well advised to look elsewhere. The masses have been recorded, one to a part, by the Purcell Quartet with Nancy Argenta, Michael Chance, Mark Padmore and Peter Harvey and these are the discs that I would go for. But if you don’t fancy one voice to a part then try the 2008 recording from Ton Koopman and his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir; these discs would seem to be the current benchmarks.

Robert Hugill



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