Classical CD Reviews
BACH: Missae Breves BWV 233-236 – Cantus Cölln/ Konrad Junghanel – Harmonia mundi
Published on October 17, 2007
Listen carefully to these fairly late works by Bach (he was around 53 when they were composed); what you hear you have heard before, if you are a fan of the cantatas at all, especially BWV 79, 102, 179, and 187. Was this a case of recycling for its own sake, or, as ever, was the old master resorting to that eminent practicality that played such a strong role in his publication decisions his whole life? We can’t be too sure. Most of his gigantic and well-performed choral works were behind him at this point, and it may strike us as a tad odd that he would create these missae “short” masses at this juncture in his life.
What we know for sure is that Bach, freshly released from the burden of his massive cantata output, began rehashing much of the music into other forms. Perhaps he was anticipating the demise of some of the old forms—his own children no doubt kept reminding him of the need to “update”, something he steadfastly refused, but his overriding concern was that his music survive, and he was perfectly willing to take any measures need to ensure that happened. These pieces all have a similar formal structure, with the “Kyrie” a choral movement often in multiple sections, and the “Gloria” consisting of solo and smaller movements book ended by larger choral movements. In other words, this is not the Mass of catholic proportions but of Lutheran sensibilities and it would be welcomed in any Lutheran church at the time, and indeed, was still being performed as late as the year before Bach’s death.
Bach was very consistent in his use of the material, sometimes leaving the borrowed music virtually untouched, other times maintaining a structure in the new texts that paralleled that used in the original sources. And perhaps because of this massive borrowing, we don’t see many recordings of these works currently available. Michael Corboz had a go at them, as he has at so much else, but only the first two are currently available on the Teldec label. Thomas Folan and his Rochester-based Publick Musick ensemble released these last year on Musica Omnia with a 20-voice chorus and 20-instrument orchestra that has gotten some very fine reviews, and since I have not heard it I cannot make a this-or-that recommendation, except to say that this ensemble has only eight singers (who double in solo roles) and 25 total orchestral members, not always playing at once. So it comes down to choral considerations, and how large and loud you like ‘em.
But this group is full and rich, producing a warm and completely satisfying sound so that I have a lot of trouble imagining its better. These are period instruments too, and they play with a soft, beautifully-sculpted sound that rests in the glowing acoustic HM has provided them. Tough choice, seeing how the Folan recording is fully one-half the price of these new discs. I doubt you can go wrong with the Folan recording, but I know you won’t go wrong with this one.
– Steven Ritter