Gramophone Editor's Choice -
This is one of a pair of albums devoted to Bach's Missa Brevis settings by French ensemble Pygmalion. Both are strongly recommended. These settings, with Kyrie and Gloria only, were repurposed by Bach from various earlier works, mostly cantatas; they're not among his unquestioned monuments, but they do bespeak his genius. The presentation here by France's Alpha label is compelling. The label packages works from the 16th to the 19th centuries inside high-quality reproductions of paintings that related to the given music in some way, explained by an art-historical essay. Here the painting is The Sermon of Saint John the Baptist by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, of 1566; it is not chronologically matched to Bach, but the correspondences are nevertheless fascinating. Both drew religious scenes out of the cultural materials of ordinary folk. And both were, in the words of essayist Denis Grenier, "ecumentical": Bach was a Protestant who was at the very least influenced by styles of Catholic regions and wrote Latin masses, while Brueghel lived in the Catholic-controlled Habsburg Netherlands but depicted religious events in the down-to-earth way that would emerge under Protestant belief systems. The appeal of the music lies partly in the ways Bach adapts Protestant cantatas for the Catholic mass. The Gloria in excelsis movement of the Missa Brevis in G major, BWV 236, is based on the opening chorus of the Cantata No. 79, "Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild" (God the Lord is Sun and Shield), BWV 79: not a total stretch, but also not precisely the same thought, and Bach reworks the music rather than simply resetting it. Similar processes occur in several other movements, and they're fascinating for those well acquainted with Bach's choral music. The general listener may prefer to simply luxuriate in Pygmalion's coolly elegant sound, in the singing of a consistently strong group of soloists headed by soprano Eugénie Warnier, and in the superb Kyries of both masses, each embodying Bach's contrapuntal perfection on a modest scale. The program is rounded out by a short work sometimes known as a cantata but designated by Bach himself as a motet: O Jesu Christ, meins lebens Licht, BWV 118, a funeral work with two parts written for instruments designed by Bach with the name lituus. The booklet goes into a good detail about efforts to decide just what these were supposed to be; the players make the unadventuresome choice of a pair of oboes, but the musical execution is gorgeous. An exceptional Bach release.