Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
CD 1*
Missa in F major BWV 233 [27:11]
Missa in G major BWV 236 [28:03]
CD 2**
Missa in G minor BWV 235 [28:38]
Missa in A major BWV 234 [32:28]
Sanctus in D major BWV 238 [3:02]
Agnès Mellon (soprano); Gérard Lesne (alto); Christoph Prégardien (tenor); Peter Kooy (bass); Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale, Ghent
Philippe Herreweghe
rec. April 1990*; July 1989**, Abbaye aux Dames, Saintes, France. DDD
VIRGIN VERITAS 5099 6 28482 2 1 [55:31 + 64:19]

This is a welcome reissue of EMI releases from twenty years ago by performers under the ever-reliable Philippe Herreweghe - all at the top of their form. On the surface, even Bach's much better-known B Minor Mass comes as a surprise since such form of worship is usually associated with the Catholic service - while Bach was avowedly Protestant. Yet Luther's reforms also envisaged settings of the Kyrie and Gloria from the Latin Ordinary. There must have been something familiar (one daren't say 'comforting') about using the older language alongside the vernacular - especially on feast days and holidays. Maybe the very formality of Latin added a depth and a weight to the service in university towns like Leipzig. Maybe Bach welcomed, or at least allowed, these.

Yet these settings are neither gloomy nor unduly heavy. Indeed, at various points instrumental music and/or musical material from the cantatas (numbers 79 and 179 in the G major and A major; and 102 and 187 in the F major and G minor Masses) are adapted to give them real and palpable liveliness. In addition to using other composers' mass movements for services, Bach is known to have written at least five of his own, four of which are presented here. (The earliest dates from 1733 and found its way into the first half of the B Minor Mass, as BWV 232i.) The rest were all composed in the late 1730s (in the middle of the composer's tenure at Leipzig) and follow the same six-movement form: a choral Kyrie followed by a five-part Gloria consisting of alternating solo and choral movements. Yet each of these Masses is an original work in its own right: compelling, beautiful and whole, with innovative instrumentation and orchestral texture that respect and support the text at all points.

It's this integrity that stands out in these interpretations from soloists and the Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale, Ghent. And a gentleness and reluctance to accentuate anything spectacular or demonstrative. Listen to the Cum Sanctu Spiritu of the G major, BWV 236 [CD.1 tr.12], for instance: all the necessary power is there. But with a humility - not an underplaying, or understating - that adds to its impact. The supremacy of the text, which is what Bach wanted at all costs. By the same token, no excitement is sacrificed in the airy Gloria of the other G minor, BWV 235 [CD.2 tr.2]. Those aspects of its impact that come from the counterpoint endure alongside a maturity of interpretation and self-confidence which are deeply satisfying.

The atmosphere which Herreweghe and his singers create is also a personal one. The worshipper and his/her relationship with the divine. Yet neither overtly penitent nor supplicatory. At the same time neither routine nor excitable. The mass as an act of considered renewal using beautiful and profound creativity. It's almost as if the intensity strikes the listener (as it may have struck the worshipper) after the performance has ended as much as during it. In accord with Bach's purpose, this must also serve to extend the 'life' of the music.

The advantages that these recordings have over others - Koopman's on Challenge are superb - include a sense of calm, a confidence in the structure of the works; and a belief that thoughtful adherence to the score by performers who know and love it cannot but help to make for compelling listening. All four vocal soloists do splendid jobs and the chorus is especially impressive. Above all, the balance struck between detail and architecture is one of great musicality and expressiveness.

The documentation that comes with this two-CD set is a little sparse: nothing but track listings and a brief introduction to the Masses … no texts, no details of the performers or the rationale for this recording. Nevertheless, these are clear, communicative and well-executed interpretations that will not disappoint.

Mark Sealey