Bach: Epiphany Mass

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Epiphany Mass
PERFORMER: James O’Donnell, James Johnstone (organ); Congregational Choirs of Freiberg and Dresden, Gabrieli Consort & Players/Paul McCreesh
CATALOGUE NO: 457 631-2
They must have been tough in 18th-century Leipzig. The Sunday morning Eucharist or ‘Hauptgottesdienst’ went on for a good three hours in Bach’s church of St Thomas’s, including an hour’s sermon. And the amount of music played and sung was extraordinary – a good two hours’ worth. This wonderful two-CD set recreates the Mass for Epiphany, with two Bach cantatas and his Missa Brevis in F set in the austere and dignified context of Lutheran hymns, organ preludes and readings (in German), all chosen with an eye to their seasonal connections. The discs are a marvel of careful and imaginative reconstruction, but the whole idea of recreating context isn’t entirely convincing. For one thing, McCreesh has to soft-pedal some of the exigencies of the original – his sermon is only six minutes long, and the congregational hymns are implausibly well-drilled. And in any case, isn’t our imaginative connection with Bach’s world hindered rather than helped by all that laborious apparatus, read and sung in a language we probably don’t understand? Fortunately none of this matters – you use the hymns and readings to put the kettle on, then you sit back to enjoy the inspired performances of what for us is bound to be ‘the real thing’ – Bach’s music. On that level these discs are a joy. Listen out especially for James O’Donnell’s spirited playing of the organ preludes, and the thrilling sound of natural horns at trumpet pitch in the Cantata BWV 65. Ivan Hewett