Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sacred Works
CDs 1-2
Mass in B Minor BWV 232 [106:42]
CDs 3-4
Missae BWV 233-236, Sanctus BWV 238 [119:47]
CDs 5-6
Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 [149:39]
Barbara Schlick, Angès Mellon, Catherine Atriasz (sopranos); Gérard Lesne, Michael Chance, Charles Brett, (altos); Christoph Prégardien, Howard Crook (tenors); Peter Kooy (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale, Ghent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. April 1988, Minderbroederskerk, Ghent, Belgium (BWV 232), April and July 1990, Abbaye aux Dames, Saintes, France (BWV 233-236, 238), January 1989, Minderbroederskerk, Ghent, Belgium (BWV 248).
VIRGIN CLASSICS 50999 648291 2 8 [6 CDs: 376:08]

Philippe Herreweghe has spent most of his career recording for Harmonia Mundi, yet, for a short time, he recorded some of Bach’s sacred music for Virgin. This box set contains 6 CDs and most of his Bach recordings for that label; it leaves out two discs of cantatas he recorded for them. Included are two well-known works - the Christmas Oratorio and the Mass in B Minor - as well as two smaller masses that are rarely recorded. It’s worth noting that Herreweghe recently left Harmonia Mundi to found his own label, f, whose name will make it too easy for people to fail to find his recordings.

Herreweghe’s experience with Bach goes back a long way. He was the chorus-master, with Collegium Vocale Gent, on a number of sacred cantata recordings made by Gustav Leonhardt in the ground-breaking set by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt for Teldec. Herreweghe has always had a very satisfying approach to Bach, both in his cantata recordings, and in the larger-scale works, such as the B Minor Mass and the passions. Herreweghe is no HIP conductor of Bach’s music; he also does not have a romantic approach to the music, with huge choirs and lush strings. His recordings can be situated in a middle ground between the extremes, and this makes Herreweghe one of the leading conductors of Bach’s sacred music.

The Mass in B Minor is easy to overdo from the very first notes. If the choir is too large, too present, the sound can become overbearing; yet a choir too small can be disconcerting. Some HIP recordings of the Mass in B Minor, with very small choirs, are very interesting, but most likely not to the taste of the majority of listeners. Herreweghe is a choir-master in addition to a conductor, and this helps make his Bach recordings stand out: there is always an ideal balance between the choir and the orchestra, and Herreweghe never lets the choir become too present. The five soloists in this work are all fine singers. The balance among the instruments, and between the soloists and orchestra, is ideal, giving this work an intimate feel. Herreweghe’s tempi are about average for this work, though at times there’s something about the music that makes me want to hear it just a tad faster.

The four short masses, BWV 23-236, are, essentially, choral cantatas set to Latin church texts. Bach may have intended these to be a series, and there are many stylistic similarities among them. These little-known and rarely-recorded works do not have the depth of the Mass in B Minor, but are excellent on their own. Like many cantatas, they contain both choral movements and solo arias, but they have no recitatives. As in Herreweghe’s cantata recordings, an intimate yet expansive approach is evident; the choral movements are very spacious, but the solo arias remain intimate and subtle.

Finally, the Christmas Oratorio is, as we know, more a collection of six cantatas than an actual oratorio. Many of the various sections are parodies - adaptations of earlier works - but together they form a fresh, unique set. Herreweghe’s total time for this work is on the fast side compared to many recordings, and, from the very first movement, this version has a bouncy, bubbling sound. Again, the, choir is excellent, and the four soloists - Schlick, Chance, Crook and Kooy - are wonderful. The Christmas Oratorio contains some of Bach’s finest arias, and the two-and-a-half hours of music on these two discs is delightful.

Herreweghe is, as I said earlier, a proponent of a sort of “middle way” in Bach interpretation. His meticulous attention to detail, his mastery of the choir, and his choice of soloists make the recordings in this set among the best in the discography. I would put Herreweghe alongside Gardiner and Suzuki in terms of approach; Gardiner is, perhaps, a bit more spontaneous and Suzuki a bit more polished, but I have long enjoyed Herreweghe’s many recordings of Bach’s sacred music. This budget box set is a great way to discover his fine recordings, and hear some of Bach’s most wonderful compositions.

Kirk McElhearn

An excellent budget box set of some of Bach’s finest sacred compositions.