These days most performances of baroque music are 'authentic'.
This means that instruments of the 17th and 18th centuries are
used and that they are played with the appropriate technique.
But our listening habits are mostly very unauthentic. We are going
to a concert hall to listen to music which was written to be played
during dinner or supper. And we listen to Bach's sacred cantatas
in the concert hall or in our living room, whereas they were written
for liturgical use.
In recent years attempts have been made to present music within its
proper context. Motets and masses of the renaissance were
embedded into a service which also contained plainchant. In
particular Paul McCreesh has recorded music of around 1600
in its liturgical or historical context. In regard to Bach
such attempts are rare. McCreesh once recorded an 'Epiphany
Mass' as it might have taken place in Leipzig around 1740.
But I am not aware of any other attempts of this kind. It
is also rather complicated as we don't always know when Bach's
cantatas were performed, let alone which other music was sung
and played on a certain Sunday. In addition some elements
were the same in every service, and it doesn't make sense
to repeat those elements every time.
This disc is no liturgical reconstruction. The idea behind the programme
was to present music which can be liturgically connected,
even though there is no evidence that these compositions have
ever been performed in one service. Most pieces on this disc
have been chosen because of the importance of the alto part,
and as Cantata 82 - performed here in the version for alto
- happens to be written for the feast of the Purification
of Mary (2 February) this has given the disc its title. The
tutti sections are sung with one voice per part; the choir
only sings in one of the German hymns.
We are well informed about what the Hauptgottesdienst in St
Thomas's in Leipzig looked like. The key musical elements
are presented here. The disc opens with the first two sections
of the Mass. Here one of Bach's Missae breves - consisting
of Kyrie and Gloria only - has been chosen, the Mass in g
minor (BWV 235). Concerted settings like this were only sung
during services on festivals and other celebrations. Next
follows the Credo, which was always sung in the form of a
German hymn, Wir glauben all an einen Gott. Then the Sanctus
is sung. Bach has set this text several times; here the setting
in G (BWV 240) has been selected. But the Agnus Dei causes
a problem. No setting by Bach exists. It was usually sung
again in the form of a hymn: Christe, du Lamm Gottes. But
here the Agnus Dei from the B-minor Mass has been chosen which
is very odd. This disc pretends to present music which could
have been performed around 1740. But at that time the Agnus
Dei wasn't even composed! Bach extended his Mass - in its
early form known as 'Missa 1733' - to a full mass setting
only in 1748/49. Equally odd is that only the Agnus Dei is
performed, whereas the concluding Dona nobis pacem has been
The disc ends with the Communion; we hear the alto aria 'Bekennen will
ich deinen Namen', which comes from a lost work which is assumed
to be written for the feast of the Purification of Mary as
well, although there is no certainty about it. The last item
is another hymn: Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin. This
can be associated with the same feast: Bach wrote a cantata
for this feast based on this chorale (BWV 125).
Although the attempt to present Bach's sacred music in a certain liturgical
context is to be applauded, this attempt isn't really convincing.
Apart from the inclusion of the Agnus Dei from the B-minor
Mass, the performance of four sections of the Mass in a concerted
form within a single service seems to be hardly historically
justified. It is probably telling that when Bach arranged
a mass by Palestrina, he only reworked the Kyrie and Gloria.
There is every reason to believe that the performance of concerted
settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei was very rare.
The performances of the German hymns are dubious. These were sung by
the congregation, unisono of course, with organ accompaniment.
Here two four-part settings by Bach are used, but these were
not written for congregational use. 'Wir glauben all an einen
Gott' consists of three stanzas: in the first the choir -
acting as congregation - sings unisono, but a capella,
the second is performed by the alto with instruments and bc
(here a harpsichord), the third by the choir unisono with
strings and organ. The closing hymn, 'Mit Fried und Freud',
is sung by the four soloists with instruments playing colla
parte. The performances of both hymns on this disc are
without any historical foundation.
It is not only the programme which has serious flaws. The performances
give little reason to celebrate either. The attempt of the
ensemble to achieve a rhetorical effect, characterised by
strong dynamic accents and a clear delivery of the text is
admirable and deserves unreserved support. But in the way
these principles are applied they have gone a little overboard.
The accents are exaggerated and the close miking makes them
even more unnatural. The text is indeed clearly delivered,
but it can't be overlooked that the German pronunciation isn't
always perfect. It is in particular the choir which produces
some unidiomatic vowels.
A really big problem is the choice of tempi. In particular, two parts
of this recording suffer from this. The first is the opening
aria of the cantata, which is way too fast. Here it takes
5:18, whereas in most recordings this takes about 7 minutes.
As a result the poor oboist is hardly able to play the virtuosic
passage-work in his part. Most of the expression of this aria
goes out of the window. That also happens in the Agnus Dei,
which is again sung too fast: Jakub Burzynski needs 3:45,
whereas in the recent recordings by Jos van Veldhoven (Netherlands
Bach Society) and Masaaki Suzuki (Bach Collegium Japan) this
section takes just over 5 minutes. The biting accents are
ridiculous: they really kill the whole piece.
But it is also the recording technique which seriously damages this
production. The balance between the voices and the instruments
as well as within the instrumental ensemble is highly unsatisfying.
The Kyrie begins with an instrumental introduction, but when
the voices enter the instruments are completely overpowered
and are pushed into the background. In addition the singers
- whose voices don't blend very well anyway - are too close
to the microphones. As a result there is no ensemble here;
it is rather like singing apart together. In the cantata the
same happens: the first aria begins with an introduction of
oboe and strings, and as soon as the alto enters the oboe
is brushed aside. There should be much more blending between
the voice and the instruments. These defects are even more
noticeable if one listens to this disc with headphones.
There is no doubt about the good and sincere intentions of these performances.
But these go astray because of serious flaws in the programming,
interpretation and recording.
Johan van Veen