Bach: Masses in F and G, by the Purcell Quartet (reviewed by Bernard D. Sherman)

Bach: "Lutheran Masses," vol. :, Masses in F, BWV 233, and G, BWV 236; Trio Sonata No. 5, BWV 529 (transcribed by R. Boothby). The Purcell Quartet, with reinforcements, plus Nancy Argenta, soprano, Michael Chance, countertenor, Mark Padmore, tenor, and Peter Harvey, bass. Chandos 06653 (one disc: 65 minutes: DDD) Text and translations included.

reviewed by Bernard D. Sherman for Gramophone Early Music.

Can a mere four singers put across a jubilant Bach chorus? Those who doubt it should compare the Gloria of the F Major Mass in the new Purcell Quartet recording with Paul McCreesh's fine recent version. McCreesh, with two singers per part, seeks to gain excitement in this movement through a breakneck tempo. The one-per-part Purcell take it a touch more slowly, but attain greater power because of the ardent declamation that soloists can bring. And in the 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' they build as potent a climax without vocal reinforcements as McCreesh does with them. I do prefer McCreesh's reinforced chorus in the Kyrie, but the Purcell are excellent there as well.

No one will pretend, of course, that the Purcell re-creates historical sound, or even historical scoring. Joshua Rifkin argues that Bach probably never used fewer than two players per string part (except for the double bass) in Leipzig, but the Purcell use only one player per part. And the acoustic is more intimate than what the congregation would have heard in Bach's church. The close sound might justify the reduced string section, which in any case comes through quite clearly. I can even hear the syncopated viola line of the Gloria of BWV236, a line I can't detect in the overly reverberant acoustic of the Herreweghe recording.

Nor do the Purcell's singers, particularly the soprano, try to simulate the sounds one imagines coming from Bach's choir. But such simulation will probably never attain its goal anyway, and the singing here has a lot to offer. Peter Harvey and Mark Padmore remain as outstanding as they were on Vol. 1 of the Purcell's survey of the shorter Bach masses; Harvey's eloquent Gratias in BWV236 is a fair example. Two singers new to the project are Nancy Argenta and Michael Chance. Argenta brings her characteristic intensity, and it suits the music. As for Chance, his lower range is weaker than that of Robin Blaze, who sang on Vol. 1 of the Purcell Quartet's Bach series; but his artistry is unquestionable. One of the high points of this recording is the opening of the Gloria of BWV 236, in which Argenta and Chance do all the singing for the first 42 bars. The pair's flawless blend here coexists with a characterization of each line that is the preserve of soloists. Their singing of the Domine Deus duet of BWV 236 is similarly memorable.

The instrumentalists are distinguished too, and the filler, a transcription of the Fifth organ sonata, is charming.

If you want a period-instrument recordings of the Lutheran Masses - and no Bach lover should miss out on these masterpieces - the Purcell are (at least in the USA) your only available option at the moment. Even if the market were crowded, their performances are so committed and responsive that they would remain a highly recommendable choice.

- Bernard D. Sherman / click here for my article reprints page