BACH: Lutheran Masses, Vol. 1 = Mass in g, BWV 235; Mass in F, BWV 233; Cantata No. 102, “Lord, Your eyes look for faith!” – The Sixteen/ Harry Christophers – CORO 16115, 74:07 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

1735-1744 saw the creation of the four Missa Brevis that really provide the only examples of the mass genre in Bach, aside from BWV 232 which provides the basis of the great Mass in b, one of the pinnacles of western art. Luther of course did not reject the Latin Mass in theory, at least not its structure, though as these “short” masses show, the German mass that he introduced allowed for the native-speaking tongue to be used for parts of the Ordinary, hence the reduction of these works to the Kyrie and Gloria only. At this point in his career—and all these are late works, in a sense—Bach was cantata-depleted, and perhaps was looking for a change, embracing the “parody” idea as something that might possibly bring to light some of his favorite moments from the cantatas. 

In this grouping, Harry Christophers has wisely decided to give us not only the masses, but the cantata from which most of the music for these pieces were culled. In the case of the two here, No. 102 from the tenth Sunday after Trinity, and the third cycle of cantatas, is presented as well. Bach was originally castigated by many critics in the early part of the last century for having one-offed these works without thinking much about what he was doing, but careful listening to the two reveals that the master was quite precise and direct in his parodies, changing instrumentation and scoring when needed to fit the new texts, and also devoting not a little amount of space to fully original composition. The pieces strike us today as very worthy Bach, and it’s good to see the Sixteen take them up.

The sound is wonderful on these standard stereo recordings made at St. Augustine’s Church in Kilburn, London, very vibrant and full despite using only eight singers. I can’t say that the performances are any better than those of Konrad Junghanel with Cantus Colln on Harmonia mundi, but that two-disc set has only the masses, whereas this set when complete will offer the parodied cantatas as well. Your choice.

—Steven Ritter