OPERA NEWS - Lutheran Masses, BWV 235-236
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Bach: Lutheran Masses, BWV 235-236

CD Button Blažíková, Lunn; Blaze, Türk, Kooij. Bach Collegium Japan Chorus and Orchestra, Suzuki. BIS BIS-2081, texts and translations

Recordings Lutheran Masses Cover 1215

DURING THE REFORMATION, those churches that followed Martin Luther began offering their Sunday liturgies in the German vernacular. Much of the time, however, the Kyrie and Gloria would retain their Latin texts. Musical settings of just these two prayers are called "Lutheran Masses," to distinguish them from settings of the complete Ordinary of the Mass.

Bach assembled these two of his four Lutheran Masses using so-called parody techniques, drawing their musical materials from his own earlier compositions, mostly movements from the cantatas. The development of the earlier music and the retrofitting of the liturgical texts to it is smoothly accomplished, always sounding natural, though with the odd anomaly: in the "Qui tollis" of BWV 235, the tempo picks up at "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" in a way that's common enough in the composer's choruses, but less usual in his arias.

Masaaki Suzuki's performances are cultivated yet full of life. Rhythms are sprightly and alert, with a graceful, dancelike lift in the syncopations; a gentle, pulsing momentum keeps the music flowing. The conductor also takes care to bring each score a distinctive profile: his lively, almost bubbling handling of BWV 235 plays against its minor key, while he treats BWV 236, in G major, with a reverent restraint that doesn't sacrifice impulse. The well-trained, well-blended chorus offers clear differentiations of timbre among the various parts—compare the sopranos and the altos, for example, at the start of BWV 235—and Suzuki delineates their parts firmly, though the interior legato motifs in the "Gloria" of BWV 235 don't always cut through. The orchestra plays beautifully.

Although these are predominantly chorus-and-orchestra works, the soloists are allotted prominent roles. The two shiny, vibrant sopranos—it's not clear to me which sings where—are fetching; so is tenor Gerd Türk, who maneuvers fluently and with firm tone over a wide range. Countertenor Robin Blaze sings well, but, in BWV 236, he's at a disadvantage in the low tessitura of the "Domine Deus" duet. Peter Kooij's bass sounds rather narrow and forward in BWV 235 but altogether more resonant in BWV 236, where he handles the fioritura well.

The program is filled out with four brief, stand-alone settings of the Sanctus, and a choral Kyrie by Francesco Durante, to which Bach has appended a duet version of the Christe. Suzuki plays these with the same verve and sensitivity that he brings to the Masses. 

In the lighter textures, BIS offers its customary pinpoint imaging—the solo oboe is breathtaking—and a natural sense of space. As the sonorities fill out, however, they turn uncharacteristically thick and opaque, at least in plain frontal stereo. Perhaps unfolding the SACD layer of this "hybrid" disc helps to open out the textures. —Stephen Francis Vasta

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