The complete series of Bach's cantatas by The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under Koopman has been widely judged as a huge success. Koopman's are the first performers to have finished recording those works in the entirety. The series has exhibited greater maturity and more deeply satisfying interpretations as the series has gone on. Now, the ever-enterprising and equally dependable Challenge label has continued the trend: here is the first in a series by those same forces (some of the soloists are the same too) of J.S. Bach's Latin church music. And a superb offering it is too: warmly recommended.
The two-CD set is described as a "representative cross section" of the church music in question; the works are from Bach's time in Leipzig: the Magnificat from 1723 (BWV 243), the Sanctus of the following year (BWV 232¹) from the 1730s the the four Kyrie-Gloria masses (BWVs 233, 234, 235, 236) and the Christmas Gloria (BWV 191) from the mid-1740s. These are splendid and uplifting works, of course. Not all are regularly in the repertoire. Although there are handsful of recordings of the Masses, there is no Gloria (BWV 191) in the current catalogue. That's the first thing that makes this a desirable set to have. The high standard of performance with its plain sensitivity, gentle directness and beauty of sound is the other. The accounts are compelling, Koopman and his musicians bring us with them all the way. By the end of each piece we feel we have been involved in something special. And all without losing the rigor and detachment which Bach surely also expected.
The Magnificat was Bach's first large-scale choral work after he took up his new position in Leipzig, having moved there from Cöthen to be capellmeister and wishing to make an impact as cantor, not school teacher. That the Lutheran Bach should show such devotion in a Latin work has occasioned much discussion, of course. But listen to the quietly persuasive account on this disc and it will be apparent that it was Bach's desire – and great talent – to write "well-appointed" church music for committed worshipers that mattered; not the working out of any confessional dogma.
Each of the four masses truly is a gem. And performed with gem-like precision and sparkle here. It was the Lutheran practice in the Leipzig of Bach's time to set just the Kyrie and Gloria of the ordinary Mass for use on such holidays as Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. Before he composed the Kyrie-Gloria mass, BWV 232¹, Bach tended to use other composers' works for such occasions. Indeed, each of BWV 233-236 also borrows to greater or lesser extents from Bach's own earlier compositions – re-workings of cantata movements from the 1720s in particular. Because essentially Lutheran and German music had to be 'repurposed' for a Latin context, this was not so straightforward as it might seem. In view of the time which this undoubtedly took, it makes more sense to attribute Bach's re-use of the earlier material to a wish to develop it, rather than to save effort. And there is a splendor, an exuberance and a greater self-confidence in these masses that would have been inappropriate in the cantatas. Koopman and his forces are very much in tune with this sense of uplift; delight, almost. Their steady yet enthusiastic approach brings the Masses to life with a generosity that also exudes spontaneity and restraint in the service of clarity in equal measure.
The Gloria was written late in Bach's life – between 1743 and 1746. It was probably intended for Christmas although the emphasis on the "et in terra pax" passage supports the theory that it was composed (as well?) to celebrate the signing of a peace treaty between Saxony and Prussia at Christmas 1745. The Gloria incorporates three movements from the Kyrie-Gloria Mass, BWV 232¹ from ten years or so earlier. Again, the chorus is alert, focused and energetic without defaulting to the spuriously spectacular. As should be the case with Bach, there's a sense of all available musical force being directed to Bach's God first and foremost; and for the benefit of the worshippers only after that.
The Sanctus from the B minor Mass (BWV 232) actually originated as a separate composition in its own right. It was only towards the very end of Bach's life that it became part of the larger work. In that sense, it's older than the B minor Mass, records of its performance existing from the 1720s. It makes a great ending to the set. It also makes interesting listening on its own like this and Koopman and his performers convey the majesty and dignity of the marriage of words and music in a fresh and convincing way.
The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir are on fine form throughout, then. They have a momentum, a lilt almost, that lends the performances immediacy and energy. The continuo playing is relaxed yet focused. Of the soloists there is little but praise to be awarded… Paul Agnew's tenor and Klaus Martens's bass stand out. But there is a weakness: Bogna Bartosz's alto has a markedly dulled and slightly flat tone to it in much of her delivery; she's also more 'breathy' than many listeners will be comfortable with. This does, unfortunately, detract from the otherwise accomplished measure of the whole.
The CD set is very well recorded and well presented with a short but apposite introductory essay by Bach specialist, Christoph Wolff. To have these wonderful works situated and contextualized as these two CDs do is useful. To have the music so expertly performed and with such conviction is, true, what we have come to expect from Koopman et. al. But it's a delight to work your way repeatedly through the music.
Copyright © 2008, Mark Sealey