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Bach: Lutheran Masses, Vol 1 - Suzuki

Bach: Lutheran Masses, Vol 1 - Suzuki

BIS  BIS-2081 SACD

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Johann Sebastian Bach:
Lutheran Mass in G minor, BWV 235
Lutheran Mass* in G major, BWV 236
Sanctus in G major, BWV 240
Sanctus in D major, BWV 238
Sanctus in C major, BWV 237
Johann Casper Kerll (1627–93): Sanctus from Missa Superba, arranged by Johann Sebastian Bach BWV 241
Francesco Durante (1684–1755): from Missa, BWV Anh. 26 with Christe** in G minor, BWV 242

Hana Blazíková* and Joanne Lunn** (sopranos)
Robin Blaze (counter-tenor)
Gerd Türk (tenor)
Peter Kooij (bass)
Masamitsu San’nomiya (oboe & oboe d’amore)
Natsumi Wakamatsu (violin)
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki (conductor)


By Bach's time, the Reformation had fundamentally altered the traditional forms of church service, and in German churches Latin had yielded to the country's own language. To a limited extent, however, the Latin mass text did remain in use in the Protestant church – in particular the Kyrie and Gloria sections, which were often set to music as an entity in their own right. Albeit incomplete, this form of mass setting was termed ‘Missa’, a name it retained even in Bach’s day.

Nowadays, to differentiate them from complete settings, these pieces are often referred to as 'Lutheran Masses'. Bach's famous Mass in B minor, later expanded into a complete mass, began its existence as a work of this type, and four other examples from Bach's pen have survived. They all make extensive use of earlier compositions, and the two masses on the present disc consist entirely of so-called parodies: reworkings of arias and choruses from cantatas, in which Bach demonstrates his skill in adapting existing music for new uses.

Performed by Bach Collegium Japan – who under the direction of Masaaki Suzuki have already recorded the original settings as part of their acclaimed cantata series – the Missae BWV 235 and 236 are here combined with four separate settings of the Sanctus, another section of the traditional mass that in Bach's time could be heard in the churches of Leipzig during important feast days. Two of these are original compositions, whereas BWV 241, and possibly also 240, is an arrangement of a setting by another composer.

The 'Kyrie – Christe' BWV Anh. 26 is also an example of how Bach in his task of providing the music for church services used music by other composers. In this case he turned to a movement from a mass by his contemporary Francesco Durante from Naples, but adapted it for his own purposes by composing a new setting – a duet for soprano and alto – of the Christe eleison section, labelling it 'Christe di Bach' in his autograph.

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Review by John Miller - June 4, 2015

Many collectors of Bach's Sacred Music in the epic and recently completed Cantata series by Collegium Japan will be pleased to know that there is more to come. Here is the first of two discs presenting Bach's Lutheran Masses, which date between 1737 and 1748 in the composer's Leipzig period.

During the Reformation, many of the ceremonies and liturgies of the Catholic Church were carried over into the Lutheran Church, with modifications to reflect their distinct doctrines. In larger towns and cities the liturgy was an amalgam of Latin and German. Compared to Lutheran practice elsewhere, an uncharacteristic amount of Latin was used in church services in Leipzig; it appeared on ordinary Sundays as well as its usual appearance on high holidays (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost), and the Magnificat, also on Marian feasts (Annunciation, Visitation, Purification). In the quest of repertoire, Bach repeatedly performed not only compositions of his own but also arranged works by contemporary composers, of which there are two examples on this disc - Johann Casper Kerli (Sanctus, BWV 241) and Francesco Durante (Kyrie in C minor with Bach's Christe in G minor, BWV 242).

Bach followed the Lutheran service, where a Missa was a setting of only Kyrie and Gloria, sometimes referred to rather misleadingly as a Missa brevis (“short mass”), as there also are masses such as Mozart's called Missa brevis, where all movements were present but each was short. A 'Lutheran Mass' (a more accurate term) consists only of Kyrie and Gloria, for it was customary in the Lutheran liturgy to sing Latin Kyrie and Gloria in polyphony. The Glorias of Bach's masses are symmetrical, five-movement settings in which a central movement (in BWV 236 a duet) is framed by two arias and two choruses. For recording purposes, these sections are presented as tracks. Bach's only setting of the complete Ordinary of the Mass was the masterpiece Mass in B minor BWV 232m, completed near the end of his life. Masaaki Suzuki has already provided a very fine version of the B minor (Bach: Mass in B minor - Suzuki).

Four complete Lutheran Masses are extant (the C minor one is only a fragment). This first disc of Masaaki Suzuki's set has two of them, in G minor, BWV 235 and G major BWV 236. Are all 'parodies', i.e. comprised of existing material, in this case by Bach himself, who chose his favourite pieces to be welded into Kyries and Glorias. This would hardly have saved him much time; the existing music being raided was in German, and adjusting the language's accentuation and speech rhythms to the smoother, melodious and flexible Latin would be a difficult, time-consuming task. Although the origin of some of the parody music used in the Lutheran Masses has been determined, some scholars are still working on this difficult and frustrating task, as Bach's arrangements were complex and often unexpected, often interpolating newly composed lines and altering orchestral instrumentation.

Also featured in Disc 1 are four separate Sanctus settings, BW 237, 238, 240 and 241. Probably these were prepared for celebrations, such as Christmas Day or Easter, as in BWV 238, giving Bach full rein with trumpets, trombones and drums and some striking effects, such as the opening fugue of BWV 238 where the successive fugal entries from the choir occur under striking violin tremolos - not a feature usually found in a fugue; Klaus Hoffman describes this in the booklet as " the emotion of reverent trembling before the face of God".

Masaaki Suzuki has elected to have a choir of 6, which as usual includes the soloists. This gives weight and clear sound with good diction (other rival recordings have one to a line or smaller choirs). The attack of both singers and instrumentalists is crisp, showing that choir and orchestra are intently listening to each other, and this synergy fits Suzuki's brilliant approach, based on restrained operatic style in arias and lively dance rhythms in choruses, all with a superb sense of the long line and carefully sculpted integration of textural detail while keeping sight of the larger conception of the piece.

In terms of performances, choir and period instrument orchestra are at the top of their form, aided by a perfectly balanced church acoustic - or two acoustics, as two venues were used, but it is very hard to distinguish them. The soloists too, relish the music which Bach selected from his favourites. They join in all the other musicians in exploiting all the emotional material and sheer beauty which these Latin settings evoke. It is perhaps shameful to name one particular player in the orchestra, but I seem to want to give special praise to the Collegium's first oboe, Masamitsu San'nomiya, for magnificently enchanting musicianship.

Bach's Lutheran Masses have been pushed towards the back pile of Bach recordings for some time, but the quality of the music and presentation of both self-parody and parody from other composers brings performances and transparent recording to a deeply satisfied listening experience for the collector. This is a very welcome resurrection of JSB's Lutheran Masses. And yes, it may be trite to say it, but I can't wait for Part 2.

Copyright © 2015 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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