Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Magnificat in D BWV243 [26:51]; Missa Brevis in A BWV234 [28:68]; Missa Brevis in F BWV233 [24:59]; Missa Brevis in G minor BWV235 [25:30]; Missa Brevis in G BWV236 [25:47]
Barbara Bonney (soprano); Brigit Remmert (mezzo); Rainer Trost (tenor); Olaf Bär (baritone)
RIAS Kemmerchor
Kammerorchester Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach/Peter Schreier
rec. November 1993, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin
no texts or translations included
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802057 [55:59 + 77:02]

Whilst the Magnificat is justly well known and often performed or recorded, the five Missae Breves crop up much less frequently. This is curious given the very attractive and varied music they contain. Perhaps one problem for some listeners may be that although they were written some time in the late 1730s they are all based on music originally written for Cantatas written over ten years earlier. However it is hard to see this as a serious objection when the music has been so thoroughly rewritten and when the final results are so good. Indeed it is possible to argue that they are more satisfying when heard in non-liturgical performance than are the Cantatas, which can be somewhat unbalanced in their structure when heard simply as a series of pieces out of their original context. The Masses in contrast consist of settings of the Kyrie and Gloria only – that is what makes them short (brevis) – and each is in six sections, the first being the Kyrie and the remainder the Gloria. The latter always consist of two large-scale choral movements separated by three arias or duets for the soloists. Overall they are very satisfying to the listener, especially given the variety of scoring and musical character that each Mass contains.

Given the ever-increasing number of recordings of the Cantatas appearing, many boasting an impressive use of historical instruments and understanding of the latest Bach scholarship, it is interesting to go back to performances that are not twenty years old but which appear to belong to a much earlier age in terms of their approach and sound. The recording does not sound its age in general, but the forces employed – apparently modern instruments - and the general manner of performance reminded me strongly of the work of Karl Richter in the 1950s and 1960s and even at times of Karajan’s B minor Mass of the early 1950s or of the Swingle Singers. This is not necessarily a criticism although it did take a little time to get used to it. There can be no doubt as to the technical expertise of all involved. The kind of heavy vibrato-laden singing and dubious tuning that used to be heard in Bach in the 1950s and even later is not found here, and there is a general lightness of approach. My concern, however, is with a sense of anonymity for much of the time; a lack of real engagement with the character of individual movements. Also the very light singing style in the choruses can reduce the impact of the music. It is interesting to note that the Magnificat goes much better than the Masses, and I suspect that its greater familiarity to the performers has helped greatly with this. Nonetheless overall I enjoyed these performances, and with soloists of the distinction of those here it would be hard not to. The set forms a handy package from which to get to know the music, all of superb quality but I suspect that its merits would be even more obvious in more committed performances, preferably in groups using only one per part and with a more historically informed approach.

John Sheppard

A handy package from which to get to know the music, all of superb quality.