Dating from the 1730s, Bach’s four short Mass settings are the red-headed stepchildren of his choral output. Several Bach scholars have actively belittled them as “mindless” (Philipp Spitta in the 19th century) and “quite nonsensical” (Albert Schweitzer). Moreover, they contain abundant recycling of cantata movements not always perfectly suited to their new Latin words. Still, now that they have attracted such significant directors as Konrad Junghänel (Harmonia Mundi) and Philippe Herreweghe (Virgin Classics), competition in this repertoire is quite tough.
Harry Christophers uses just two voices per part, a practice inherently neither good nor bad. In churches, even one-voice-per-part choirs can often convey unexpected vigour. Yet too frequently in a recording context, a tiny choir necessitates damping down the orchestral contribution, neutralising genuine drama, as opposed to mere indiscriminate briskness. So here. Junghänel, with forces comparable in size, obtains a spectrum of vocal and instrumental colours to which Christophers seems indifferent, allowing his musicians, in comparison with these impressive rival versions, to sound unduly genteel. The appropriately robust horn-players briefly heard in BWV233 appear to have wandered in from a different and more impassioned performance.
Elsewhere, one might as well be listening to a robust Vivaldi opera as to anything indicative of religious faith. The appended cantata (it supplied material for the Masses) receives a likewise glib account. Fine engineering and glamorous packaging cannot redeem the musical disappointments herein.