JS BACH Missæ Breves complete recordings BWV 232-236
Now presented complete, Raphaël Pichon and Pygmalion’s exceptional Lutheran Mass performances, in this often unjustly neglected genre, remind us of Bach’s telling psychological shift in the early 1730s from ephemeral duty to collating collections of music for posterity. The four parody Missae breves, comprised of a Kyrie and Gloria only, in the north German way, were compiled by Bach from cantata movements he clearly admired and felt could be productively recycled. Then there’s also the Missa of 1733 – the work which Bach offered to the new Elector of Saxony in search of wider recognition and which was to become the blueprint for that summa anthology, the Mass in B minor – now assembled with the others and strengthening the identity of Bach’s Mass oeuvre further.
While early commentators asserted that the parodies were comparatively second-rate, the truth is rather different. The transformation of the Voice of Christ from the post-Easter Cantata No 67 is masterfully fashioned by Bach and brings the momentous sentiments of the Gloria of the A major Mass (BWV234) into a form of relief and counter-relief which is both coherent and highly original. The way in which the ‘Laudamus te’ morphs into the ‘In terra pax’ and ‘Adoramus te’ with such grace camouflages reference to any previous model.
Indeed, it is a return to these four lesser-known Masses which defines Pichon’s essential grasp of their especially soft-drawn contours and mature elegance. His Paris-based ensemble may not always boast the incisive precision of Herreweghe (although his pioneeringly luminous Virgin recordings of nearly 25 years ago seem less durable these days) but the textural landscape is supremely refined: the flutes play an exquisite part in the A major Mass, and the balance between voices and instruments is always beautifully judged and intuitively matched to the natural pace of each movement.
Expressive ambition and cultivated instinct are what make these performances the finest currently on offer. The opening of the F major Mass (BWV233) glows like none other but, as well as an unfolding poise, displays a critical articulation that always affirms Pichon’s purposeful direction. While several one-to-a-part readings can bring a chamber-like intimacy, you get the best of all worlds here: red-blooded warmth, intense coloration, grandeur and crackling vigour and not a scintilla of mannered-ness. As I have commented previously, Pygmalion’s multi-dimensional world of linear and textural variety is key to bringing these fascinating essays, from both prima prattica and pre-Enlightenment worlds, towards the mainstream of Bach’s choral output.
Of the many highlights, the Kyrie of the G major Mass (BWV236) teems with joyful conversation, and the two additional motets – Der Gerechte kommt um (re-adapted by Bach from Johann Kuhnau, his predecessor at St Thomas’s) and the almost unbearably moving funeral ‘motet’ O Jesu Christ, meins lebens Licht – are case studies in how to manage the joint expectations of tension and release to superb incremental effect. The latter is presented in the second version, with the four-part voices accompanied by strings and oboes, rather than the more visceral version with cornetts and trombone – the more common scoring which may summon up the fragility of the human condition but does not always achieve the long-breathed arches of sound here.
Performing the Missa, later to become the opening two parts of the B minor, without an expectation of the complete journey it was to become by 1749, presents an interesting interpretative challenge. Pichon certainly plays on a restless spirit – the composer fed up with the parochial machinery of Leipzig – by effectively driving forwards the most succinct motifs with an immediacy in its supplication. What might appear pre-emptive in the context of the complete Mass actually reignites the imagination: the ‘Christe eleison’ duet chimes with the kind of boisterous theatrical exchanges the new Elector might have clocked from the portals of his Dresden opera houses.
The Gloria also enchants with its fresh, narrative qualities, even with a few blips (a flat horn throughout the ‘Quoniam’). Altogether, though, this is a Bach project of the highest calibre.