JS Bach: Missae breves BWV 233-236

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: Missae breves BWV 233-236
PERFORMER: Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 901939-40
In a characteristically informative note, Peter Wollny describes the opening Kyrie of Bach’s A major Missa brevis as being unusually lightweight for Bach. Do I detect a hint of disapproval of a Bach embracing a modern style as opposed to an older one, more firmly anchored to counterpoint? Be that as it may, the music in question has always struck my ears as one of the most sublime movements to be found among the Missae breves, so called because they contain only the Kyrie and Gloria sections of the Mass.

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Bach’s intention in compiling these four Masses included in Cantus Cölln’s recording has remained to some extent obscure. Two of them, the A major and the G major, have survived in Bach’s autograph and seem to date from 1738; the other two perhaps belong to the same period or a little earlier. The greater part of the music was drawn by Bach from his vast store of sacred cantatas, offering us an insight to pieces which he himself rated highly. Some are parodies, others reveal more elaborate re-working. Wollny remarks that because of the re-workings the Masses were long considered to be second-rate music, citing the small number of recordings as evidence. But there have been many recordings over the past four decades and I

can think of at least eight.

Konrad Junghänel and his musicians incline towards small forces with only two voices for each of the four vocal strands and a commensurately lean string ensemble. The resulting translucency and butterfly-light articulation are unmatched by any competing version, though Philippe Herreweghe’s excellent account of the same music for Virgin, albeit with larger forces, loses little or none of its charm beside the newcomer. Choosing between the two may depend on whether or not you consider that more is less, or a predilection for the one- or, in this case, two-to-a-part principle. To my mind, both versions qualify for benchmark status. Any others that may be around do not.

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Nicholas Anderson