Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Church Without Talking

Bach: Epiphany Mass
Gabrieli Consort & Players
Deutsche Grammophon ARCHIV Produktion, 457 631-2


Looking back on the short tenure of this music blog, I find that the previously-reviewed recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort & Players, The Road to Paradise, stands out as my favorite recording of the year (at least so far). The more I listen to it, the more deeply impressed I am: profoundly conceived, flawlessly executed, stunningly captured; this disc is a rare, rare treat.

Well, the ensemble have been together for quite a while--since 1982, to be exact--and I'm the one showing up late to the party. So there's quite a catalog of recordings to explore. I've chosen next the group's 1998 recreation of the musical portions of a Mass at the St. Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was employed for the last half of his life. The intent here, it appears (there are no notes with the iTunes download), is to show Bach's purpose-made music in as close to the exact context as possible to what people would have experienced at the time. And as such, we find his composed mass included among some of his organ works, a cantata and a number of other pieces by other composers. All these disparate elements would have been skilfully integrated and managed to achieve the appropriate ecclesiastical experience (as it was judged at the time).

I am, I've often said, a stickler for precision and intonation, attributes present to the point of conspicuity in their Road to Paradise CD. Not surprisingly, the current disc proves that Dr. McCreesh and company did not suddenly stumble upon their skills just prior to that most recent recording. This one reminds me of the axiom that our elders were pounding into our heads when we were kids: through discipline comes freedom. By choosing ensemble members carefully and holding everyone to very exacting standards, the work produced blossoms before us as something more than the sum of its parts. This particular setting places our Bach and his work among that of other composers, most notably Johann Pachelbel, which, with the chants and other service-related details, gives us a sense of his modernity and his perfection of craft. It's a glorious and elevating experience.

I'm less disposed to respond to the efforts at replicating the church service per se, doubtless because the ecclesiastical functions and origin of this music are lost on me. So in that sense, this effort as a concept album doesn't hit its mark for me. That element of Bach's music, his piety, has never played a role in my love of his work. I'm taken with his miraculous mind, his singular genius for purely musical logic. There is all the mystery of the human experience right there.

Still, I would not grudge the believer their synergy with Bach's religious message, and McCreesh et al. have given us the best possible chance to find the wonder of this music, however we define it.


shrimplate said...

Baroque performance practice has developed quite a bit over the past few decades. It really wasn't that long ago when "original instruments" was still something of a novelty.

Gustav Leonhardt and a couple German outfits were the only ones doing that sort of thing not so ago. Virtually all of the very excellent English bands have cropped up only since then.

McCreesh comes from that same fold of musician/scholars who were poring over old musical treatises and such, working to restore authenticity to early music practice. I think he's hit it spot on, as have many of these specialists, and I'm so thankful for their hard work.

wunelle said...

Agreed. This kind of detective work seems of highest value to me.

I remember discovering period practice, especially with stringed instruments. The gambas were mesmerizing to me, a much-improved version of more modern strings to my ears. It must be something hard wired, as I still feel this way.