Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Lutheran Masses I
Missa in g minor, BWV235 [25:18]
Missa in G, BWV236 [25:31]
Sanctus, BWV240 [2:22]
Sanctus, BWV241 (Version in E) (Johann Casper Kerll, arr. Johann Sebastian Bach) [2:00]
Kyrie in c minor from Missa, BWV Anh.26 (Francesco Durante) with J. S. Bach Christe in g minor, BWV242 [5:29]
Sanctus in D, BWV238 [2:33]
Sanctus in C, BWV237 [1:37]
Hana Blažíková, Joanne Lunn (soprano); Robin Blaze (counter-tenor); Gerd Türk (tenor); Peter Kooij (bass)
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. 2013/14, Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel; Saitama Arts Theater Concert Hall, Japan. DDD
Booklet with texts and translations included.
Reviewed as 24/96 lossless download, with pdf booklet, from
BIS BIS-2081 SACD [65:30]

The Lutheran Church in Bach’s day remained a conservatively evangelical body, as it still is in Scandinavia, though elements of Calvinism were beginning to enter its North German heartland.  Thus the Latin Magnificat still featured at Vespers on high days and Bach composed two versions of his setting of this, one specifically for Christmas, the other for general use.

On such days, too, the opening sections of the Hauptgottesdienst or principal service featured the Latin Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass and Bach composed several settings of what is generally known as a Lutheran or short Mass. As it happens, I’m writing this review at Pentecost (Whitsun), which would have been such an occasion: certainly it seems likely that another Mass section, the Sanctus in C, would have been heard on Whit Sunday or the following week, Trinity Sunday, 1723, soon after Bach’s arrival in Leipzig.  The notes which accompany this new recording entertain the possibility that the Masses may not have been performed in Leipzig but could have been externally commissioned.

Four such settings are extant, BWV233-236 and two of these are included on the new recording.  The existence of such works is easy to explain as part of the needs of the congregation which Bach served, though the purpose of the complete and lengthy b-minor Mass, BWV232, suitable only for the Roman Rite, is still something of a mystery, albeit that it, too, started life as a short Lutheran Mass.

All the music of these short Masses is ‘borrowed’ from Bach’s other works – that was his way and Handel’s, too – but its fits the new context well, sometimes better than the original, and there need be no holding back on that account, in spite of the disapproval of no less a Bachian than Albert Schweitzer who called these settings ‘perfunctory and nonsensical’.

If you think that settings of just two sections of the Mass approaching half an hour each hardly sound ‘short’ and that they would have made for a very long service, especially when there would also have been a cantata between the Matins and Mass parts of the service and a lengthy sermon, you will not be surprised to learn that the Hauptgottesdienst ran to upwards of two hours – and that seems to have been the norm for the Anglican Church, too, in earlier times, with Matins, Litany and Communion, including a sermon or official homily, the main Sunday morning fare.

Occasionally, too, a setting of the Latin Sanctus would be performed and four such settings by Bach, one of them an arrangement of music by his predecessor Johann Casper Kerll and one of a Mass by the Italian Francesco Durante, are also included on this CD.

The qualities of Suzuki’s Bach hardly need to be elaborated at this stage: my colleagues and I have had much to say in favour of his now-complete set of the church cantatas and the great b-minor Mass.  In the cantatas there is fierce opposition from complete sets and individual recordings but, without trying to assign a rank order, Suzuki and his team’s BIS recordings come at or very near the top of any assessment.  Two of my colleagues chose his cantata cycle for MWI Recommends and the same qualities are in evidence here again.

The competition in these Lutheran Masses is also surprisingly strong, with very fine recent recordings from The Sixteen (Coro COR16115 and 16120 – review), Ton Koopman (Challenge Classics CC72188, 2 CDs – review and review: Recording of the Month), Konrad Junghänel (Harmonia Mundi HMC901939/40, now download only), Pygmalion (Alpha 816, 3 CDs, budget price, with Motet Der Gerechte kommt um and Cantata 118), the Ricercar Consort (BWV235 on Mirare 102) and equally fine older recordings from the Purcell Quartet (Chandos CHAN0642 and 0653 – review) and Philippe Herreweghe (super-budget Erato/Virgin Veritas 6284812, 2 CDs, or 6482912, 6 CDs, with Mass in b minor and Christmas Oratorioreview).

My colleague John Quinn has reminded me of the wonderful 2-CD performance of BWV233 which used to be available on DG Archiv as one of Paul McCreesh’s masterly reconstructions, in this case of a Lutheran Mass for Epiphany.   Incredibly it’s no longer available, even as a download.  Amazon UK are offering a copy for £52 which, for once, doesn’t seem exorbitant.  Too many of Paul McCreesh’s very fine recordings have disappeared from the catalogue, though I’m very pleased to see that Signum have now taken him up: there’s a new recording of Handel’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato hot off the press (SIGCD392, 2 CDs, mid-price).

I can’t imagine any Bach lover being seriously disappointed with any one of these recordings, least of all the new BIS.  Working with his Japanese Bach Collegium and a well-tried team of soloists, Suzuki brings this life-enhancing music to us in performances which help to explain how those Lutheran burghers managed to sit for so long without complaint.  I wouldn’t have minded sitting through the Hauptgottesdienst myself for music of this quality – the cantata for the day, too, remember – though I doubt whether the forces at Bach’s disposal at the Thomaskirche were anything like as good as these.  If I have one reservation it is that I find the hard t and g in gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam grating, but I can’t complain: that is the pronunciation which prevailed in Germany and throughout Northern Europe in Bach’s time.

The new BIS recording is on SACD and is obtainable in 24/96 sound of comparable quality from – whenever I have been able to make direct comparison between the stereo HD layer of a BIS SACD and the 24-bit download I have been unable to prefer one to the other.  Having raised doubts about the recording level of some recent BIS SACDs, I’m delighted to report that I have no complaints at all about the excellent quality of this new recording.  At the time of writing 24-bit was available for the same price as mp3 and 16-bit: watch out for these limited-period offers.  If you can’t run to the extra cost of 24-bit, however, 16-bit and mp3 are also very good of their kind.

There are first-rate notes in the booklet – the information on the provenance of BWV Anh.26a, for example, supplements my favourite introduction to Bach by Malcolm Boyd in the Dent Master Musicians series where it isn’t even listed.  With a second volume clearly implied in the title, BIS make the competition even hotter than before.  Those who collect Suzuki’s Bach and those in search of SACD-quality sound will have no hesitation, while others should also be confident that this is one of the finest of several very fine recordings of some life-enhancing music.

Brian Wilson

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