Bach: Epiphany Mass

Album cover art for upc 028945763125
Catalog: 4576312
Format: CD

Gabrieli Consort & Players. Paul McCreesh

It seems obvious that Bach's sacred music and organ works were written for church services, yet we listen to them almost exclusively as disembodied concert pieces. Luckily, Paul McCreesh makes a specialty of remedying this; here, for the first time on any commercial recording, he's placed Bach's music into the order of service (in this case, for the Epiphany, or Three Kings Day) from Bach's own church in Leipzig. For that reason alone, this is an important release; as usual with these performers, it's thrilling music-making as well. McCreesh uses very small forces in the vocal works--usually one singer per part and never more than two--yet the performance never feels underpowered. Quite the contrary: the opening chorus of cantata no. 180, for example, gets a good-humored, jaunty swing; the Kyrie of the Missa builds from gentle grace into magnificence, while the Gloria sounds deliriously joyful (with ferocious horn playing). What's more, listeners familiar with these works may hear a lot of instrumental detail that's usually obscured by a larger choir. The singers acquit themselves well in the "choruses"; while countertenor Angus Davidson doesn't sound quite up to the breathless "Quoniam" in the Missa, the other soloists are very good indeed, particularly the nimble tenor Charles Daniels. It's a pleasure to hear Bach's organ music brought together with his cantatas, and the two organists even improvise (as Bach did) brief flourishes between each line of the hymns. Which brings us to the performance's one flaw: the congregational hymn-singing, so exciting on this group's Praetorius recording, can get a bit tedious here. Don't let that put you off, though (CD players have "skip" buttons, after all)--even by McCreesh's formidable standards, this is one fabulous record. --Matthew Westphal