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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Bach’s Missa

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Bach, Missa (1733),
N.Harnoncourt / Concentus musicus Wien et al.
Warner Classics 2564-69057
(Teldec, Das Alte Werk) [54:26]

The Missa (BWV 232a) is that first part of what would later become the Mass in B minor. It consists of the Kyrie and the Gloria (half of which is a reworking of Cantata BWV 191) Bach composed in 1733 and dedicated to the Elector of Saxony as part of an (unsuccessful) application to the job of Saxon Court Capellmeister in Dresden. When Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the Missa as a stand-alone piece in 1972, that was far from common knowledge: not until the 1950s was did scholars propose that the Mass in B minor wasn’t a monolith. Public perception of the works as a musical quilt set in only much later. So as much as anything else, Harnoncourt’s recording was a statement to perceive Bach in new ways. Since there are no changes from the original to the first half of the latter gallimaufry-masterpiece (in fact, I believe this is simply the first disc of Harnoncourt's first B minor Mass), you might as well experience the Missa by simply not listening to CD 2 of your favorite recording of the B minor Mass.

Why, then, do we need a recording of Bach’s Missa? Completism, that’s why. Good enough a reason for me. If not for you, there is no reason to read on. Harnoncourt’s recording offers nothing (except the sweet aural scents of nostalgia for those early “Das Alte Werk” releases) that will transcend the limited initial appeal the Missa has in an age burgeoning with great ‘complete’ recordings. The vibrato of the female voices (Rotraud Hansmann, Emiko Iiyama, Helen Watts) isn’t at all conforming to our current understanding and expectations of historically informed performances. And the playing of the orchestra, especially the brass, conforms only to our stereotypical negative expectations of it. HIP orchestras—Harnoncourt’s Concentus musicus Wien not the least—have come a long, long way since those days. I have always liked Harnoncourt’s idea of using a boys’ choir (one of the best available, at that). Unfortunately the idea is nicer than the intonation-ambiguous result.

Those not reared on Harnoncourt (or not interested in the Missa-only) but curious about his seminal recordings for Teldec’s Das Alte Werk are better off with a recording of a favorite cantata from his cycle. The rest can safely stick to their Mass in B minor of choice—mine currently being Karl Richter, Jos van Veldhoven, and Marc Minkowski.

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