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Bach: Missae Breves Complete Recordings / Pygmalion

Bach / Pygmalion
Release Date: 10/29/2013 
Label:  Alpha Productions   Catalog #: 816   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Sydney FierroMagid El-BushraEmiliano Gonzalez-ToroEugenie Warnier
Conductor:  Raphaël Pichon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pygmalion
Number of Discs: 3 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Pygmalion is a Paris-based choir and period-instrument orchestra founded by Raphaël Pichon in 2006 and has since been active in promoting the music of Bach and Rameau, appearing in various European festivals and making several well-received recordings, including the ones contained in this new box, which were previously issued as three separate releases over the past five years. Unfortunately, if you purchase this set and you happen to be new to this group, you won’t find any of that information in the liner notes; except for track and performer listings and 13 pages of meaningless photos from recording sessions, there is virtually no information included about the music, the important particulars regarding the performances, or even Read more about the performers themselves. Nothing. And that’s a shame, because these are the finest renditions of these works on disc–and the original liner notes, available in the increasingly common but annoyingly inconvenient “on our website” format, are detailed and informative, essential to fully appreciate what this conductor and his first-rate singers and orchestra have achieved.

And yet, even without knowing important performance details–such as decisions on instrumentation, tempos, and size of orchestra and chorus–and without the benefit of any commentary on the parodical sources of the music–within minutes of listening you’re convinced not only by the extraordinary musicianship all around, but by an awareness that this is a realization of Bach as majestic, as brilliant, as joyful, and as profound as his music can and should be interpreted and performed. You can start anywhere, but I recommend the Mass in F major, which opens the second disc; from beginning to end, this is a celebration of Christian liturgy that could only come from an ecclesiastical world free from extra-musical constraints of church hierarchy–and that could only have come from Bach, whether or not reconstituted from earlier works.

But then, there are countless places to go for some serious associative uplift–such as the brilliant choral singing and perfect, complementary instrumental colors in the “Cum Sancto Spiritu” movement of BWV 236; the driving energy of the BWV 233 “Gloria”; the passionate, rich-toned singing of bass Christian Immler (supported by exceptional string playing in the “Domine Deus” of BWV 233); the sweetly beautiful BWV 236 “Quoniam” of tenor Emilio Gonzalez-Toro and the equally ingratiating sound and affecting performance of alto Carlos Mena in BWV 232; the lovely choral tone and very sensitive singing at the opening and throughout the Kyrie of BWV 233 (likewise the Kyrie of BWV 236); the almost painfully gorgeous rendition of the motet O Jesu Christ, meins lebens Licht.

The fact is, there is not a wrong turn, instance of imperfect ensemble, or missed moment of interpretive nuance–and we hear everything, including every one of the marvelous instruments of color–bassoon, horn, oboe, theorbo, horns, trumpets–that Bach so carefully and cleverly (in the best sense of the word) uses throughout, but never more effectively–and affectingly–as in the Kyrie and Gloria movements of the Missa BWV 233 that one day was to be the beginning of what we know today as the B minor Mass. These are the original two movements, substantial as they are, that Bach offered in 1733 to Friedrich August II in hopes of gaining a title at the Dresden court, and their inclusion was a smart decision that adds immeasurably to the value of this set.

We’re treated here to one exemplary and memorable moment after another from both chorus and soloists, not least of which is the lovingly sung “Laudamus te” (unfortunately, we’re not told which of the two sopranos is the soloist here), accompanied by Sophie Gent’s masterful obbligato violin, followed by a thrilling “Gratias agimus tibi”–those trumpets!–and then a lovely, dancing soprano/tenor “Domine Deus” duet (complete with sprightly plucking theorbo) that melds movingly into a “Qui tollis peccata mundi” that emotionally overwhelms while centering on the theological heart of the movement. The concluding “Cum Sancto Spiritu” certainly could arouse and uplift the most downtrodden soul. This is extraordinary singing and playing that benefits from first-rate direction–vibrant, absolutely in sync, and inspirited by an infectious rhythmic energy and well-judged tempo and dynamic contrasts.

Too bad we don’t get those liner notes–in them we find out interesting things such as why the horn sounds the way it does in the “Quoniam” of BWV 232; why the choice of theorbo instead of lute; how the problem of the “lituus” was solved; a description of the Dresden court–its music and relationship to churches–and Bach’s relationship to it; and a useful discussion of the origin of the music for the missae . Being forced to download from a website and select and print pages that we could have gotten–and used to expect to get–in CD-booklet format is just not acceptable. Liner notes always have been a part of classical recordings–the best ones are both illuminating and entertaining, and often we count the reading of the notes as part of the whole listening experience, especially when new music or performers or composers–or new approaches to old works–are involved. The idea that some record labels now are just expecting us to accept as normal the absence of notes and the inconvenience of looking for them online serves to frustrate and ultimately devalues one’s purchase.

Fortunately, bad packaging decisions will never devalue the music or the performances or the recorded sound on offer here, which are after all the most important reasons to own this set–which you should if you love Bach and want to experience these interesting works presented with a freshness and spirit that others have not achieved, online or off.

-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

1. Missa brevis in A major, BWV 234 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Sydney Fierro (Baritone), Magid El-Bushra (Alto), Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro (Tenor),
Eugenie Warnier (Soprano)
Conductor:  Raphaël Pichon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pygmalion
Period: Baroque 
Written: after 1735; Leipzig, Germany 
2. Missa brevis in G minor, BWV 235 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Eugenie Warnier (Soprano), Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro (Tenor), Sydney Fierro (Baritone),
Magid El-Bushra (Alto)
Conductor:  Raphaël Pichon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pygmalion
Period: Baroque 
Written: after 1735; Leipzig, Germany 
3. Dem Gerechten muss das Licht, BWV 195 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Sydney Fierro (Baritone), Magid El-Bushra (Alto), Eugenie Warnier (Soprano),
Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro (Tenor)
Conductor:  Raphaël Pichon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pygmalion
Period: Baroque 
Written: circa 1737; Leipzig, Germany 
4. Missa brevis in F major, BWV 233 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor:  Raphaël Pichon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pygmalion
Period: Baroque 
Written: after 1735; Leipzig, Germany 
5. Missa brevis in G major, BWV 236 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor:  Raphaël Pichon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pygmalion
Period: Baroque 
Written: after 1735; Leipzig, Germany 
6. O Jesu Christ, mein Lebens Licht, BWV 118 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor:  Raphaël Pichon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pygmalion
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1723; Leipzig, Germany 
7. Mass in B minor, BWV 232 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor:  Raphaël Pichon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pygmalion
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1747-49; Leipzig, Germany 

Sound Samples

Der Gerechte kommt um, BWV deest
Mass in G Minor, BWV 235: Kyrie (Chorus)
Mass in G Minor, BWV 235: Gloria (Chorus)
Mass in G Minor, BWV 235: Gratias (Bass)
Mass in G Minor, BWV 235: Domine Fili (Alto)
Mass in G Minor, BWV 235: Qui tollis (Tenor)
Mass in G Minor, BWV 235: Cum Sancto Spiritu (Chorus)
Mass in A Major, BWV 234: Kyrie (Chorus, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass)
Mass in A Major, BWV 234: Gloria (Chorus, Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass)
Mass in A Major, BWV 234: Domine Deus (Bass)
Mass in A Major, BWV 234: Qui tollis peccata mundi (Soprano)
Mass in A Major, BWV 234: Quoniam tu solus (Alto)
Mass in A Major, BWV 234: Cum Sancto Spiritu (Chorus)
Mass in F Major, BWV 233: Kyrie (Chorus)
Mass in F Major, BWV 233: Gloria (Chorus)
Mass in F Major, BWV 233: Domine Deus (Bass)
Mass in F Major, BWV 233: Qui tollis (Soprano)
Mass in F Major, BWV 233: Quoniam (Alto)
Mass in F Major, BWV 233: Cum Sancto Spiritu (Chorus)
Mass in G Major, BWV 236: Kyrie (Chorus)
Mass in G Major, BWV 236: Gloria (Chorus)
Mass in G Major, BWV 236: Gratias (Bass)
Mass in G Major, BWV 236: Domine Deus (Soprano, Alto)
Mass in G Major, BWV 236: Quoniam (Tenor)
Mass in G Major, BWV 236: Cum Sancto Spiritu (Chorus)
O Jesu Christ, mein Lebens Licht, BWV 118

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