Publick Musick & Thomas Folan
Missae Breves, BWV 233-236, Musica Omnia
from the American Choral Review
by Christopher Eanes
It well may be that there exist more strong opinions about performance practice in the music of Bach than about the music of any other composer, at least insofar as the choral world is concerned. It takes gumption, therefore, to proffer for public scrutiny yet another take on the volumes of scholarship that have been written on the subject. Thomas Folan’s recording with Publick Musick of the Missae Breves, however, is both informed and musical; it is a recording of artistry and musicianship, and it is an elegant and graceful interpretation of four of Bach’s more underperformed works.
The four Missae Breves have been largely overlooked until recently, perhaps because nearly every movement is a parody of a movement from an earlier cantata. Bach, of course, didn’t place any less value on what we would consider recycled music; rather, it gives him a chance to develop compositional ideas and refine the original even further. The result, in this case, if four closely related “Lutheran” masses (from the same parentage as the B-Minor Mass), all of similar duration, scoring, and formal structure.
In an era when ‘authentic performance practice’ has taken on a previously unequalled degree of pedantry, Publick Musick ahs chosen uncontentious ground – relatively speaking – on which to build their performance. Publick Musick presents the Missae at baroque pitch (a half-step below modern pitch) on period instruments, employing a choir of five and six per part. A unique aspect of this recording is that the soloists sing with the choir; most choirs this large tend not to bother, so it adds a nice air of authenticity to this recording. However, as anyone who has recently performed a Bach choral work knows, we are tending towards smaller and smaller vocal ensembles, egged on by the scholarship and performances of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott. This scholarship, of course, hinges in great part on the reading of Bach’s Entwurff (“Draft” or “Outline”) in which he states that “concertists are ordinarily four …[and] ripienists must also be at least eight, namely, two for each voice.”1 Of course, the issue isn’t quite this clear-cut, but the general sense is that there were often at most only three per part, and in certain passages, only one. Whatever the exact number may be at any given point, it’s fairly certain that a choir of sixty or eighty was not only not available to Bach, but probably not desire by him, either.
And this is only the very tip of the performance practice iceberg. One could discuss ad nauseam issues of baroque tuning and temperament, ornamentation, and tempo, to name but a few.
Folan doesn’t let it get this fussy, though. He clearly understands both the difficulties of executing a polished performance on period instruments as well as the advantage of using them to create more authentic sonorities, but it never sounds, as some modern recordings do, more like a doctoral thesis than a piece of music. It is evident, though, that the conductor and musicians spent time working out details of gesture and articulation, adding a necessary element of depth and interest to the interpretation. The smaller gestures are well thought out but not overly picky, and never at the expense of the larger, overarching ideas.
The solo movements are the highlight of the recording. Each of the soloists navigates the long florid passages with style and textural understanding. The counterpoint is crystal clear in these movements, and no gestural detail is omitted. Particularly noteworthy is Miranda Loud’s (alto) aria in the F Major Mass BWV 233; it comes across with a pristine transparency that speaks simply and directly. Outstanding.
Unfortunately, the choral movements are not nearly as fulfilling. Perhaps as a result of the recording process (since everything else is well balanced), the choral sound is biased in favor of the sopranos, and the counterpoint, which should be quite clear with such able singers, is instead rather muddled. This is unfortunate, since of the great advantages of using a small(er) vocal ensemble is the greater clarity of counterpoint. Also, the unity of timbre between the sections of the choral ensemble is not what a purist of choral sound would consider ideal. I, however, thought it added some life and humanity to the recording: Folan allows the beauty and uniqueness of each voice to come through.
Pacing is a strong attribute of the recording, and the shape of each work and each movement is audible in his interpretation: everything has direction. He favors subtle dynamic and temporal shading over exaggerating the larger structure of each movement and each work, and while this is certainly a valid artistic choice, it may play better to a live audience. Repeated hearings of both discs left me wanting him to let go of the delicacy and superb control from time to time. However, it is this very gracefulness which makes the recording unique, and Folan can certainly hold his own in the increasingly brutal arena of Bach scholarship.
Let this recording serve as a reminder to us that, after all, this is music that is meant to be played, sung, and heard, and it would do us well to play it, sing it, and hear it more than we talk about doing it. Publick Musick seems to understand this notion, and I, for one, would relish the opportunity to hear them in a live context; I have no doubt they would perform a stunning concert.
1Parrott, Andrew, The Essential Bach Choir, (Woodbridge: London, 2000), 167.