Raphaël Pichon / Pygmalion

Bach: Missae Breves, BWV 234 & 235

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In the marvelous packaging of this French release one can read an in-depth analysis of the rather grim painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder reproduced on the cover, complete with fascinating detours into such topics as the sexual significance of the mussels in the painting. The intended connection is a certain endlessness of invention common to both creators. There isn't a word, however, about the choral-orchestral ensemble Pygmalion, oddly enough named especially in a French context (and they are apparently French). Whoever they are, they're superb. Bach's four Missa Brevis settings, as the booklet points out, have historically suffered in terms of prestige because they mostly consist of "parody" movements or recycled vocal movements fitted out with new texts, in this case those of the Kyrie and Gloria of the mass. Most of the sources are sections of cantatas. For the listener, however, this means very little beyond a tendency toward long instrumental introductions to many of the movements. The Pygmalion choir delivers a superior example of the warm, sensuous French approach to Bach; the instrumentalists achieve perfect ensemble with their Baroque bows and strings. Best of all are the soloists, heard in the inner sections of the subdivided Gloria. All have distinctive voices perfectly proportioned to the size of the music, and that of alto Magid El-Bushra is worth sampling just for its unusual, almost boy-soprano grain (hear the Domine fili movement of the Missa Brevis in G minor, BWV 235, track 5). The sound reveals very small details of the playing and conveys real presence of the musicians without placing the listener unnaturally close. The only complaint is that the program is rather short; the two masses could have been bookended with short pieces instead of just introduced with another unusual Bach reworking, this one of a motet by Kuhnau. In all, a recording of choice for some of Bach's lesser known choral music.

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