Johann Sebastian Bach – Tombeau de Sa Majesté la Reine de Pologne
Katharine Fuge, soprano; Carlos Mena, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Stephan MacLeod, bass
Francis Jacob, organ (Gottfried Silbermann, 1737, Friedenskirche, Ponitz)
Philippe Pierlot, conductor
It was Bach himself who coined the title Tombeau de Sa Majesté la Reine de Pologne for the cantata Lass, Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl, BWV 198, that, together with the Mass in A major, BWV 234, and some works for organ, forms the programme of the present recording.
Tombeau is a French word meaning “tomb”, used to define a musical composition in fashion in the Baroque period and until the XVIII century, destined to commemorate the death of an important person, both real and fictitious. Its origins are to be found in French literature, where the term “tombeau” was used to describe short poems or collections of poems written with the same purpose that it will later have in music. Tombeaux were written for the death of King François I, of Queen Marguerite of Navarre and of the distinguished poet Ronsard. In the middle of the next century tombeaux were composed for lute before spreading to other instrumental repertories. After centuries of oblivion, the tombeau came into fashion again in the XX century thanks to the interest of French composers who wanted to establish a strong musical identity for French music. The prototype of these modern tombeaux is Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin.
Bach’s works were composed for the divine service in memory of Princess Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, wife of the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland August II, deceased in 1727. She, differently from her husband, was not forced to convert to Catholicism after the election to the throne of Poland and kept the Lutheran faith. Therefore, the programme of the service reflects her religious orientation, with a Mass consisting of only Kyrie and Gloria (divided in six movements) and with the text of the cantata penned by a leading poet in the German literary reform movement, Johann Christoph Gottsched. The organ divides the Mass from the cantata and ends the recording with the Praeludium and Fuga BWV 544.
The recording opens with the Mass in A major, a rather odd composition for a mournful occasion. The music of the Mass is light and serene, without any idea of sorrow – of course, Bach borrowed the material from earlier works, but this is not sufficient to explain the result (the Gloria sounds even joyous) and you must wait for the cantata to find a more sombre atmosphere. But there is another feature of this recording that is much more questionable. Conductor Philippe Pierlot adopts the practice of “one voice per part” (known also with its acronym, OVPP) proposed for Bach’s vocal music by conductor Joshua Rifkin in the 1980s and later followed by many of his colleagues. This substitutes the possible sumptuousness of a chorus with the more personal interpretation of a single performer which you may like and accept or not. For my part, I wonder if it is this choice that affects the result of the Mass but, on the other hand, it does not prevent me to appreciate the fine soloists. Soprano Katharine Fuge’s voice is a little too shrill for my tastes, but her singing is nonetheless charming. Alto Carlos Mena has a more beautiful voice, extremely clear and pure, and possesses elegance and grace. Tenor Jan Kobow is not always accurate but he is appreciable too, while bass Stephan MacLeod has an expressive and warm voice to which is a pleasure to listen to. The two organ “intermezzi” are played by the accomplished Francis Jacob. Conductor Pierlot, for his part, does not lack sensitivity and intelligence and the Mass and the cantata are rich in exquisite moments of meditation (the best example is the Qui tollis) and taste and for this reason I think that Tombeau de Sa Majesté la Reine de Pologne is a deserving recording despite my perplexity on some of its assumptions.