The Latin text of the first two sections of the Mass, Kyrie and Gloria, was performed in Lutheran usage in Bach’s time on high days and holidays and he made four settings, BW233-6. Volume I of this series, containing the other two Masses, BWV233 and 235 and Cantata No.102 were released a few months ago on COR16115 – DL News 2013/14. As on that recording, The Sixteen become The Eight in the Masses.
Though these works contain some fine music, much of it is pastiche, cobbled together from the cantatas, but no-one could cobble like JSB except, perhaps, Hans Sachs. What if he borrowed from himself? So did Handel and many other leading composers of the time and it’s fun to try to spot where the music came from. If you want to see if you were right there’s a detailed diagram at bach-cantatas.com here.
The Lutheran term for such a work was Missa. Sometimes known as short Masses, or Missæ breves, they are in fact far from short, clocking in at around 30 minutes for only the first part of the Eucharist, but the good burghers of Leipzig were quite used to the Hauptgottesdienst – Matins, Sermon, Cantata and Communion – lasting for hours.
Competition is surprisingly hot for these works:
Complete Bach Edition:
Soloists, Lausanne Vocal Ensemble; Lausanne Chamber Orchestra/Michel Corboz
Teldec USB 256466112-7 (see also below: b-minor Mass)
Challenge Classics CC72188 (2 CDs): Amsterdam Baroque Chorus and Orchestra/Ton Koopman (with Magnificat and shorter works) – review and review: Recording of the Month
Harmonia Mundi HMC901939/40 (2 CDs): Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel
Chandos CHAN0642 (BWV233 and 236 – review) and CHAN0653 (BWV234 and 235 – review): Purcell Quartet
ALPHA130 (BWV234 and 235) ALPHA170 (BWV233 and 236) or as part of 6-CD set ALPHA889 – review.
All these recordings were made with period instruments and all employ varying combinations of small forces, in the case of the Coro recordings just two singers per part, plus instruments. I could be very happy with any one of them, with a slight inclination to go for Ton Koopman. Where the two Coro albums score, however, is in the generosity of the fillers, in this case Cantata 79, parts of which Bach raided for these two Masses.
There’s a degree of inconsistency in the pronunciation of the Latin: in gratias agimus tibi, agimus is sung with a hard g, as it usually is in German-speaking countries and, presumably, was in Bach’s day, but for unigenite Jesu Christe a little later in the Gloria a soft Italianate g is employed. In propter magnam gloriam tuam the gn comes out as a cross between the Germanic hard g + separate n and the Italianate ñ sound. In Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, the gn has a definite ñ sound.
These are not, however, problems that would worry most people – just me being unreasonably picky. Of the actual singing, the recording quality and the booklet of notes and texts I have no criticism. I heard it in 24/96 quality as a download from thesixteendigital.com but I’m sure it’s also fine on CD. There are also mp3, aac and alac downloads.
In Cantata No.79, too, the performance stands up well against the principal competition from Masaaki Suzuki (BIS-SACD-1671) and John Eliot Gardiner (SDG110, 2 CDs). If that work is your principal interest, you may safely choose on the basis of preferred couplings. Don’t overlook the Gustav Leonhardt recording on that complete works USB (above) or on the 60-CD set of all the sacred cantatas (Warner/Teldec 2564699437), still a very active contender. I’m not sure that Leonhardt’s slightly more relaxed tempi don’t work better than anyone in this cantata.
This new release joins the earlier Coro recording as strongly competitive. If you like the cantatas which fill the central sections of each of those recordings they may well be your first choice.
Appendix - Bach's mass in b minor
I’ve been assuming that you already have a recording of the great b-minor Mass, BWV232, which also began its life in 1733 as a short Lutheran mass, sometimes dubbed BWV232/I. If you don’t, there are plenty of first-class recordings on offer. Of those that I know I can happily recommend the following:
Complete Bach Edition
Angela Maria Blasi (soprano); Delores Ziegler (soprano); Jadwiga Rappé (contralto); Kurt Equiluz (tenor); Robert Holl (bass); Arnold Schoenberg Chor; Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt – rec. 1986
WARNER TELDEC 256466112-7 [b-minor Mass runs for109:04] (equivalent to 153 CDs and one DVD on one USB stick in 320kb/s mp3 sound) Recording of the Month – review.
Stocks of this, which I understand to be a limited bargain edition, containing all JSB’s extant works are fast running out. The b-minor Mass is included in Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 1986 recording. It isn’t available singly but it’s still competitive despite excellent recent alternatives, but be warned that some think this recording mannered by comparison with his earlier recording. The set also includes the short Lutheran Masses in creditable performances directed by Michel Corboz.
Lynne Dawson (soprano), Carol Hall (soprano), Nancy Argenta, Mary Nichols (contralto), Ashley Stafford (tenor), Wynford Evans (bass); Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
DG ARCHIV DUO 4779984 [105:56]
This classic recording has recently been reissued less expensively (around £11.50 or download in 320kb/s mp3 from 7digital.com for £8.49) but it’s even better value as part of a 9-CD set with the two Passions and Christmas Oratorio (4697692, around £26). It still makes my top choice.
Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Rachel Nicholls (soprano); Robin Blaze (alto); Gerd Türk (tenor); Peter Kooij (bass)
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel, March 2007
BIS-SACD-1701/02 [52:58 + 54:33]
See review by Jens F Laurson.
I listened to this in the very fine lossless version from eclassical.com where it’s available in mp3, 16- and 24-bit sound: the first two formats for a competitive $15.64, the 24-bit still less expensive than the 2-CD set at $21.89. The virtues of Suzuki’s devotional accounts of Bach’s sacred music are well enough known by now – I recently awarded Recording of the Month to the 55th and final volume of his series of the cantatas, BIS-SACD-2031, effectively for the whole undertaking – DL News 2013/16. The Gloria on that recording, catalogued as Cantata No.119, is actually a transitional version of part of the b-minor Mass.
Susan Hamilton, Cecilia Osmond (sopranos); Margot Oitzinger (alto); Thomas Hobbs (tenor); Matthew Brook (bass); Dunedin Consort and Players/John Butt
rec. Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 13-17 September, 2009. DDD.
Booklet with texts and translations included
LINN RECORDS CKD354 [102:09] – from linnrecords.com (mp3, lossless and 24-bit Studio Master)
I’m going to be lazy and repeat what I wrote in July 2010: As might have been expected, since it uses the Rifkin edition, this recording has already divided critical opinion: for some reviewers it has been the best thing since sliced bread – there already were eleven positive reviews on the Linn website when I downloaded the recording – but others have been left cold. I’ll come clean at once, for the benefit of those who dislike long reviews which list the pros and cons and sit on the fence, and say that parts of this new recording knocked me out, that it will certainly be a version of the work to which I shall return frequently, but that ultimately I shall not be throwing out John Eliot Gardiner’s now classic DG Archiv version.
I’m not partisan on the vexed issue of whether Bach envisaged one voice to a part or many, especially as it is likely that he never heard the b-minor Mass in toto, except in his head. If the practice works, as it certainly does on a number of cantata recordings which I have heard – I’m thinking especially of Rifkin’s recording of six cantatas on mid-price Double Decca 458 0972 and a further six on 455 7062 – it’s fine by me.
There are some marginally less than secure moments – the tenor at the start of Credo in unum Deum, for example – and, inevitably, the soloists are sometimes hard pressed to be heard above the orchestra, but, by and large, the singing is a delight. With sensitive playing from the smallish ensemble, the vocal swamping is minimal; in fact … the small forces actually achieve a larger sound than usual, thanks to the intimate (but not over-close) recording. I can’t imagine that the SACDs and the Studio Master downloads add much to the quality of the very good CD-quality wma version*. John Butt’s notes are a delight – scholarly, as befits someone whose Ph.D. was on this very work, but comprehensible for the reasonably well-informed lay-person.
* I’ve since been converted to the benefits of 24/96 downloads when played via a decent DAC.
Dorothea Mields (soprano I); Hana Blažiková (soprano II); Damien Guillon (counter-tenor); Thomas Hobbs (tenor); Peter Kooij (bass)
Collegium Vocale Ghent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. 14-17 May 2011, Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem. DDD
PHI LPH004 [50:47 + 50:32]
John Quinn, who made this a Recording of the Month, thought it ‘a splendid and important addition to the discography of this life-enhancing masterpiece’ – review; Robert Hugill also liked it but with some reservations – review. I listened to the lossless download from elcassical.com (also available in mp3) and greatly enjoyed it.
Emily van Evera (soprano), Emma Kirkby (soprano), Panajotis Iconomou (boy alto), Rogers Covey-Crump (tenor), David Thomas (bass); Solisten des Tölzer Knabenchors; Taverner Consort; Taverner Players/Andrew Parrott
ERATO 5619982 [103:17]
How could a recording featuring such fine soloists and Andrew Parrott not be highly recommendable? Reviewing the Herreweghe (above), Robert Hugill preferred this Andrew Parrot recording. It, too, is very well worth considering and it has the added advantage of being available at budget price – around £8.50 in the UK. Sample from Naxos Music Library but don’t click the purchase button there for classicsonline.com unless it’s come down from the £15.98 being asked at the time of writing. 7digital.com’s £14.99 is also too expensive. In fact, I can’t find a download to recommend: the craziest economics of all are from amazon.co.uk, who have the 2-CD set for £8.45 and the download for £17.49.