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Bach: Mass In B Minor - 1733 Version / Pichon, Ensemble Pygmalion

Bach,J.s. / Pygmalion Ensemble / Pichon
Release Date: 10/09/2012 
Label:  Alpha Productions   Catalog #: 188  
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor:  Raphaël Pichon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pygmalion
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Missa 1733 Raphaël Pichon, cond; Eugénie Warnier (sop); Anna Reinhold (sop); Carlos Mena (alt); Emiliano Gonzalez Toro (ten); Konstantin Wolff (bs); Pygmalion ALPHA 188 (56:57 Text and Translation)

The disc title is a bit misleading to the uninitiated—is this a newly discovered Bach Mass setting? No; it is instead the original version of the Kyrie and Gloria movements for the Mass in B Minor. The work is referred to in the booklet notes as a “fifth Missa Brevis” setting, but Read more is on a far grander scale than those of the four Lutheran Masses, BWV 233-236. Frustrated by his continual difficulties with the Leipzig town council, Bach wrote the work to apply for a position as court composer in Dresden to Augustus III, the newly crowned Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. While the actual position went to Johann Adolf Hasse (already well established there), in 1736 Bach was belatedly granted an emeritus title, the prestige of which gave him greater leverage in his dealings with the Leipzig authorities. Upon compiling the entire B-Minor Mass in 1749, Bach made numerous minor revisions to the original versions of these movements. The rationales for this recording are thus twofold: to make available to the public this earlier version and to complete a set of “Missa Brevis” settings.

In 32:4 and 34:4 George Chien gave enthusiastic reviews to the recordings of the Lutheran Masses by the forces of Pygmalion, a combined period instrument-choral ensemble based in Paris, whose conductor Raphaël Pichon sang in ensembles under the direction of Ton Koopman and Jordi Savall. In the first of those reviews, he complained that “Unfortunately, the notes for this disc have a lot to say about Breugel the Elder’s painting The Fall of the Rebel Angels (which is not reproduced), but precious little about Pichon and/or Pygmalion.” That fault has been modestly rectified here, but unfortunately in the wrong direction. Here the digipak provides color reproductions of the subject painting for this release, the 1445 Creation and Expulsion from Paradise of Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia (1403–c.1482), including more detailed close-ups of two sections, to accompany a four-page essay devoted to it; but apart from a complete list of the instrumentalists and choral members, once again not a word is provided about the ensemble and its conductor.

Even more frustratingly, Pichon provides over eight pages of notes in which he discusses in detail the history of this Missa, the determination from historical evidence of the size of forces to employ for his recording, numerous details about interpretive decisions with respect to tempos, phrasing, articulation, etc., which is all to the good. However, he has next to nothing to say about the matter of single greatest import, which is the primary raison d’etre for this project: the actual differences between this version and that of 1749. Instead, airily referring to information provided by recently published critical editions, he only says: “They show a number of differences compared to the version that is commonly played today, and thus give rise to minor variants....For the first time, the different versions of the Mass in B Minor have been identified and compared, thus giving us a better understanding of the genesis and history of the work. The original aria for bass voice, horn, and two bassoons, ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus,’ in particular, reveals many differences in the vocal parts.” Somebody ought to smack him upside the head!

Fortunately, as suggested by the more informative aspects of Pichon’s notes, far greater thought has been devoted to the performance than to the booklet contents, and overall it is quite a fine version. Be warned that this is the period-instrument approach with a vengeance. Both the strings and choral voices have a rigorously “straight” tone and total absence of vibrato to the maximum degree; the horn part is performed solely by overblowing rather than using any hand stopping in the bell in order to alter pitches; the timpani is played with the explosive aggressiveness of a howitzer; tempos in the faster sections are brisk indeed (the closing “Cum sancto Spiritu” is a mad dash to the finish line); and so on. However, Pichon makes a very satisfying unity of what in lesser hands would degenerate into an exercise in hidebound pedantry. I am particularly taken with the exquisitely delicate use of the theorbo in accompaniment passages, such as for the alto-tenor duet “Domine Deus,” which dances with airy lightness. Of the soloists—who do sing with vibrato!—the two sopranos, male alto, and tenor are excellent; the bass has a somewhat diffuse and unfocused vocal emission, but not to a degree that is a serious detriment. The chorus and instrumentalists are first-rate, as fine as those of any other top-tier period-performance group; the recorded sound is up close and has a welcome degree of resonance that takes the edge off the astringency of this ensemble’s sonic palette. Quite needlessly, the brief Latin text (with English and French translations) is spread out over three pages.

All things considered, this disc is something of a curiosity, primarily of interest to the Bach completist. However, if you have the curiosity and the funds to investigate it, and are partial to this type of interpretive approach, the rewards are considerable, and so I commend it to your attention accordingly. It will be interesting to see where Pichon and Pygmalion choose to go from here.

FANFARE: James A. Altena
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Works on This Recording

Mass in B minor, BWV 232 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor:  Raphaël Pichon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Pygmalion
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1747-49; Leipzig, Germany 
Notes: Version of 1733. 

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