The 50 greatest Bach recordings – part 5

Gramophone Fri 30th September 2016

Concluding our survey of the greatest Bach recordings, from the Mass in B minor to the Motets

Bach

All of the reviews below were originally published in Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine. To find out more about subscribing, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

Mass in B minor

Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / Sir John Eliot Gardiner

(SDG)

The degree to which conductors are more or less synonymous with particular works is a largely subjective matter, though few would argue that the Mass in B minor captures with special pertinence the flavour of John Eliot Gardiner’s distinctive contribution to music-making over 50 years of professional life. While he has only recorded the work once before, in 1985, performances of the work have peppered his career in all four corners of the globe. That recording was something of a yardstick at a time when the pioneering compact disc coincided with the second birth of the ‘early music movement’ in tsunami mode: Gardiner let rip, in short, with a towering performance of blazing choruses and oratorian solos, firmly planting his feet in the DG space that Karl Richter had vacated with his early death four years earlier.

If that performance now seems uncontained in a bristling vigour of varying durability, the intervening 30 years have transformed Gardiner’s B minor with his consistently impressive Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists from something less culturally reactive and adrenalin-driven towards a more contained, pictorial and inhabited ideal, though no less energised. If there was anything Gardiner learnt from the monumental traversal of the cantatas during that great millennium year, it was to take longer-breathed interpretative positions with Bach and to know when to let the singers, especially, and the music do the work.

From the outset here, Gardiner’s meticulous grasp of the detail and architecture in tandem is almost terrifyingly auspicious. The Kyrie has never felt more naturally contrasting in both that respect and in the etched placement (some might find it a touch too articulated) of the fugal entries; it’s a ‘melos’ – an unbroken evolution of line – which becomes especially evident from the tautly conceived ‘Et in unum’ and the most luscious ‘Et incarnatus’, each underpinned by skilful dynamic contouring.

Indeed, the idea of the Mass as Bach’s ‘summa’ anthology (a work that may never even have been conceived as a single piece) has often inhibited that elusive golden ‘arc’ where the culminating ‘Dona nobis’ feels magnetised to all before it. How can it be uncovered without pressing too hard on the tempi or under-curating those reflections of discrete stillness? If Brüggen’s first reading with its purity of abstraction comes close in its controversially instrument-heavy recording and, more recently, Jonathan Cohen’s elegant and generous account asks further questions – albeit in the difficult acoustic of Tetbury Church – we have a further vision here with Gardiner’s extraordinary, single-minded, quasi-mathematical proof.

It starts with peerless choral singing, the trumpet-led movements bolted into an unerring tactus and purring through the gears; the ‘Et exspecto’ with its luminous lead-in is quite miraculous, as is the shining portal of the Sanctus. Such is Gardiner’s dramatic placement that the predominance of D major never palls. Less consistent are the solo movements. Gardiner’s policy of showcasing young vocal talent inevitably leads to occasional gaucheness and some hints of tiredness, but the price is small: there is much that is winning, and the ‘Laudamus te’ (Hannah Morrison) is one of several examples of fresh tenderness.

Out of this youthful paradigm emerges an especially corporate endeavour, one that challenges pre-conceived ideas on vocal and instrumental ‘role-play’, and celebrates Bach’s endlessly sophisticated relationship between players and singers: perspectives where our modern ears are forced to re‑evaluate expectations within our conventional understanding. This is borne out in many ways, none more than the dialogues of the ‘Quoniam’, where the bass, horn and bassoons fulfil many purposes in a changing canvas.

Gardiner’s admiration for this work is palpable in every bar, perhaps over-curated for some; and if so the softer-hues of Cohen may be preferred. But in the grip of its conceits and its virtuoso executancy, captured in the strikingly immediate recorded sound of LSO St Luke’s, this High Mass joins a distinguished discography at high table. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (December 2015)

 

Mass in B minor

Dunedin Consort and Players / John Butt

(Linn)

There are few who strive sincerely to juxtapose the bedfellows of academic rigour and inspired musicianship. Given his recent Handelian activity at the helm of the Dunedin Consort and Players, some might have forgotten that John Butt is a Bach research specialist and author of the Cambridge Handbook on the Mass in B minor. In the booklet he explains his thoughts about historically informed performance practice (one voice per part, following the evidence outlined in the writings of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott), and discusses his choice to make the first recording of Rifkin’s recent edition (which reconstructs Bach’s score c1749, without later accretions). Butt’s interpretation owes firm allegiance to the “OVPP” creed that will not please everyone (even if detractors have not yet produced a single scrap of proof to refute it), but the Dunedin Consort and Players are never perfunctory or merely dogmatic. This performance demands to be heard.

Butt has considered every musical connection, context, texture and form. Not only do the individual movements feel spot-on in articulation and affekt but the free-flowing pacing from one section to the next makes it easy for the listener to be pulled along. Each section of the Roman Ordinary is envisaged as continuous music, so there are no pregnant pauses between solo and choral movements. The first chords of the “Kyrie” are sung boldly by the 10 singers (five “principals” and another five “ripienists”), and the solemn fugue is performed with gentle ardency; every gesture, detail, suspension and arching line is judged and executed with transparency, flexibility and rhetorical potency.

Thomas Hobbs and Matthew Brook sing the principal lower-voice contrapuntal passages with sensitive blend and superb intonation: they also declaim their solo movements with confidence and eloquence. The higher-voiced principals are marginally less successful: the combination of Susan Hamilton and Cecilia Osmond in the duet “Christe eleison” occasionally threatens fragility but perhaps more authoritative and smoother-toned soprano soloists would have been less adaptable in the choruses. Butt’s flowing tempo for “Agnus Dei” prevents Margot Oitzinger from conveying the breathtaking timelessness some might hanker after but catharsis is tangible in “Benedictus” (performed movingly by Hobbs and flautist Katy Bircher). The galant character adopted by Butt’s elegant harpsichord continuo, Patrick Beaugiraud’s poignant oboe and tasteful strings during “Qui sedes” proceeds without pause into “Quoniam”; Anneke Scott’s sparky horn playing and Matthew Brook’s conversational authority conspire to take no prisoners, and the momentum carries through into a knock-out “Cum Sancto Spiritu”.

Once upon a time the bravery of minimal forces tackling this repertoire was ridiculed by sniffy sceptics. Butt and the Dunedins might not change any entrenched minds; but the climax of “Gratias agimus tibi” is as bold, resonant and glorious as anything one would expect (and not always get) from larger forces. The opening of the “Gloria” bursts forth with radiant splendour but also has a dance-like lilt, and with Bach’s intricate writing emerges as a compelling dialogue.

The Dunedin Consort’s singing conveys the ebb, flow and shading of Bach’s choruses with ease and naturalness. The sonorities of full homophonic chords concluding the grandest choruses are thrilling, whereas the densely polyphonic choral passages always possess clarity and logic thanks to the disciplined interplay of the singers. The five principals combine to rapturous effect in “Et incarnatus est”, and Butt’s handling of the strings and flutes during “Crucifixus” is both patient and emotionally charged.

Many excellent recordings of this monumental work cater for different tastes and priorities. Some have more consistent line-ups of soloists, equally impressive choirs (of varying sizes) and comparably strong artistic direction. Although an excellent one-voice-per-part version is nothing new, Butt’s insightful direction and scholarship, integrated with the Dunedin’s extremely accomplished instrumental playing and consort singing, amount to an enthralling and revelatory collective interpretation of the Mass in B minor – perhaps the most probing since Andrew Parrott’s explosive 1985 version (Virgin, 8/86). David Vickers (August 2010)

 

Magnificat

Ricercar Consort / Philippe Pierlot

(Mirare)

Presented as a grand work with a single-voice chorus, this reading of the Magnificat is as vitally conceived and multi-dimensional as I can recall. So often the blend of a madrigal-sized choir detracts from a necessary corporate impact but such is the keen characterisation of the text and the willingness to “come and go” in the texture that the Ricercar Consort convey, in the exultant framing movements and “Omnes generationes”, a rare combination of visceral rhythmic verve and vocal energy.

The solo movements are also bursting with personality, soprano Anna Zander delivering a robustly fluent “Et exultavit” and her counterpart, Maria Keohane, a sensually captivating “Quia respexit”, whose oboe d’amore obbligato dovetails her lines with imploring beauty. If the alto, Carlos Mena, is the least vocally poised, then his “Esurientes” is still exceptionally judged and his duetting with tenor Hans-Jörg Mammel in “Et misericordia” sensitively projected. As throughout, all the singing is complemented by delectable instrumental accompaniments. “Suscepit Israel” is the highlight, however: a bittersweet Carissimi-like trio (perhaps more Scarlatti Stabat mater in supplication?) of mesmerising fragility.

The G minor Mass represents a clever juxtaposition of conceits with the Magnificat, as Bach revisits choice cantata movements (from BWV72, 102 and 187) and parodies them so successfully – whatever past curmudgeons say – that this lesser-known example from the four so-called “Lutheran Masses” reminds us what they can communicate so specially with such a finely blended and integrated ensemble as the Ricercar Ensemble. Francis Jacob – whose Bach recital (Zig-Zag, 5/01) remains a favourite – provides considered accounts of two significant solo organ works. Less abandon than Koopman, perhaps, but this is supremely refined playing and articulates the ambitions of an exceptionally distinguished project. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (March 2010)

 

St Matthew Passion

Sols; Vienna Boys’ Choir; Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Concentus Musikus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt 

(Warner Classics)

Harnoncourt has waited over 30 years to return with his Concentus Musicus Wien to the ‘Great Passion’, which, but for his live Concertgebouw recording (Teldec, 10/86 – nla), he last recorded in 1970 when he had completed only a handful of cantatas in Teldec’s defining series. This is another major recording event – as was the pioneering last one – shining like a beacon in a fairly uniform era of recorded vocal Bach. Of recent ‘period’ performances which have been lastingly memorable and/or profoundly distinctive, I would pick out Masaaki Suzuki’s deeply felt, if over-manicured, account of 1998 and Jos van Veldhoven with the Netherlands Bach Society, which is strikingly natural and fluid in delivery. Yet there is always plenty of room in the catalogue for a vision which seeks to define new levels of human understanding for Bach’s most breathtaking accomplishment, and in so doing ensures that the shape and quality of the performance is instantly conjurable in the mind’s ear.

Harnoncourt’s re-visitation presents a unique statement, one which cannot fail to make an impression. Recorded in the sumptuous acoustic of the Jesuitenkirche in Vienna, one can detect the flavour of southern European oratorio, ebulliently theatrical, immediate and free-breathing, and without the austerity of North German rhetoric. What is recognisably perceived as ‘spiritual’ in the carefully coiffured renderings of Suzuki and Herreweghe has no place here. Harnoncourt’s religiosity is not imposed but stands rather in a lifetime of musical distillation. This is instantly obvious in the opening chorus, where bridal imagery (in the music’s secular, balletic lift) is juxtaposed with the physical imagery of what is at stake (in the broad, enduring bow strokes). Whilst Suzuki’s visceral chorale is more spine-tingling, the refinement here of ‘Sehet, Wohin?’ amidst inexorable, paradoxically unquestioning direction, is masterful.

Pacing Part 1 is no easy task, and many a tank has been emptied before reaching what the great Bach scholar Friederich Smend called ‘the central message of the work’ (encompasssing Nos 46-49). Harnoncourt neither dallies unduly with the chorales nor charges through them; they skilfully counterbalance the remarkably incandescent narrative of Christoph Pregardien’s Evangelist. The tenor shows a supreme attention to detail (even if his singing is sometimes effortful), and his dialogue with Matthias Goerne’s vital Christus is especially compelling. At such moments, a large liturgical space gives the work a dramatic energy which is matched in the sharply etched arias, each carefully withdrawn from the marketplace of the action to stand on its own merits. Harnoncourt gives ‘Blute nur’ a touch of characteristic melodrama, but none can doubt how Dorothea Roschmann and the orchestra, between them, project its expressive core.

The well-drilled, medium-sized Arnold Schoenberg Choir’s strikingly cultivated crowd scenes make a strong contrast with the relatively brazen chorus in Harnoncourt’s 1970 version. ‘Lasst ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!’ is surprisingly but affectingly understated, yet one might wish for more incision (in No 60, for example) and dynamic contrast elsewhere without the slick physicality of the Monteverdi Choir. Unlike the specialists of the pioneering years, Harnoncourt hand-picks his soloists from the widest possible pool. Apart from the excellent Roschmann, Christine Schafer impresses here far more than in her rather harried solo Bach disc over a year ago (DG, 1/00). More relaxed and controlled, she sings with acute coloration and stillness in ‘Aus Liebe’. With Bernarda Fink’s beguiling ‘Erbarme dich’ and Michael Schade’s resplendent ‘Geduld’, only Oliver Widmer (who sings ‘Gebt mir’) gave me less than unalloyed pleasure. The pick of the crop is Dietrich Henschel, who sings with great warmth and penetration with a ‘Mache dich’ to stand alongside (if not to rival) Fischer-Dieskau for Karl Richter. But with even these wonderful contributions, it still takes clarity of vision to graphically propel the drama yet also ponder it reverentially. Again, Harnoncourt leaves his mark with his unerring compassion at most of the critical points. ‘O Schmerz’ is dynamic in the juxtaposition of the panicking Zion and the unfazed faithful. The austerity is palpable where Christ gives up the ghost. From that point on, we must return to Richter’s 1958 recording for the benchmark. Harnoncourt projects a more resigned and objective set of emotional ‘tableaux’ compared to Richter’s long-breathed and ethereal ritual in the final cadence. Given the way Bach builds the tension at the mid-point from ‘O Mensch bewein’, there is a degree of anti-climax as Harnoncourt (or his producer) sacrifices momentum by creating large gaps between sections. Are these really intended?

Finally, one should mention Concentus Musicus, grainy and luminous in ensemble, the obbligato wind a far cry from the softer-edged and rounded tonal world of almost all other ‘period’ groups (though some occasional brittle intonation is slightly disorienting). In short, this is the most culturally alert reading in years. A truly original and illuminating experience (not least, the bonus CD-Rom of the autograph score). Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (June 2001)

 

St Matthew Passion

Sols; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner

(Archiv)

Bach's St Matthew Passion is a sacred drama on an unprecedented scale. He created it as an integral part of the Good Friday Vespers in the strict Lutheran stronghold of Leipzig where it was first performed, perhaps as early as 1727. At their most fundamental, the disparate elements comprising Bach's St Matthew Passion can be placed under distinct headings: the narrative element in which the Evangelist (tenor) and Christ (baritone) play the central role; a lyrical and contemplative element provided by the arias; a meditative and communal element provided by the chorales, the traditional hymn-tunes of Bach's time; and the choruses which comment on events taking place emphasizing their significance with immense, at times almost overwhelming, power. The interdependence of these diverse components is only fully realized in a performance which comprehends Bach's vast tableau in its entirety. John Eliot Gardiner has considered the work's structure very carefully seeing in each of its two parts a division into two scenes, creating an effect similar to that of the Stations of the Cross. I am not sure that I see it quite as dear-cut as that, but I warmly respond to the importance he attaches to theology and rhetoric, distancing himself as far as circumstances permit from perfunctory aspects of mere recording.

Gardiner's approach to the St Matthew Passion is fervent and contains a vivid sense of theatre. He has not sought an approximation to the performing conditions that Bach had at his disposal at various times. We are far from certain about what they were, but know that they must often have been less than ideal. Instead, various quite sensible compromises have been made. The Monteverdi Choir consist of mixed voices and the solo team likewise. Bach certainly had no such choice available to him and might, indeed, not have wanted it, anyway. The orchestra of period instruments, on the other hand, would have seemed, at least on the face of it, familiar to him. The forces which Bach required to perform the St Matthew Passion are greater than those he assembled for almost any other of his compositions: two choruses, two orchestras, each with their own continuo organ, and another group of treble voices to sing the cantus firmus of the opening chorus. Gardiner seems to have based the size of his choral and instrumental groups on those cited in Bach's memorandum in 1730 to the Leipzig town council, ''For a well-appointed church music''.

Apart from one or two instances where I find it difficult to fall in with Gardiner's interpretation, this performance is impressive for the integrity which he shows towards the drama and for the uniformly high level of executancy, voices and instruments alike. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with Gardiner's performances that a distinctly individual presence can be felt to a greater or lesser extent throughout. To define it would be difficult but to spot it, less so. In short, it can most readily be discerned in matters of expression and perhaps occasionally, tempo. Gardiner's dynamic range is considerably wider than that of Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec/ASV), Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi) or Peter Schreier (Philips), for example; but he shares with Harnoncourt a feeling for theatrical gesture which some listeners will enjoy more than others. Christian Gerger's famous quotation attributed to an old lady of the nobility, ''God save us.... it's just as if one were at an opera'' probably did not refer specifically to Bach's St Matthew Passion; but it did relate to similar works being performed in Saxony at around the same time, and it is important not to lose sight of dramatic, indeed often theatrical aspects of Bach's music influenced by secular custom. Gardiner breathes life into every section of the work and, unlike almost any other performance that I have known, manages to convey the optimism underlying Bach's profound testament to the Christian faith.

The solo voices comprise an impressive group. Anthony Rolfe Johnson declaims the Evangelist's role with clarity and with all the subtle inflexion of a good story teller. Furthermore, his voice sounds smoother than it has sometimes done in recent recordings and his delivery even and well-controlled. Andreas Schmidt makes a fine Jesus, eloquent, restrained and authoritative, and I have little but praise for the other members of the solo cast. I found Anne Monoyios captivating in ''Blute nur, du liebes Herz'' (No. 8 in the Barenreiter edition) and ''Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben'' (No. 49) where she is beautifully partnered by a flute and two oboes da caccia. Howard Crook, who sings the tenor aria, is admirable in ''Geduld'' (No. 35) and is complemented here by sensitive oboe playing, in fact, almost throughout the work I found myself filled with admiration for the consistently alluring instrumental textures. Nowhere perhaps, can this better be illustrated than by the tender performance of ''Erbarme dich'' (No. 39) by Michael Chance, with Elizabeth Wilcock (solo violin). Chance's impeccable delivery, a wonderfully light pizzicato string continuo and a beautifully shaped, shimmering violin solo, produce a deeply affecting result. I liked the slightly brisker than usual tempo of ''Buss und Reu'' (No. 6) admirably sung by Anne Sofie von Otter, but felt that Gardiner pushes the soprano aria, ''Ich will dir mein Herze schenken'', a little too hard. It is lyrically sung by Barbara Bonney, and she is exquisitely accompanied by two oboes d'amore, with a light-footed basso continuo; but its dance-like character (6/8) is diminished by a tempo which does not allow either for sufficient poise or punctuation.

The Monteverdi Choir respond to Gardiner's direction with all the fervour and precision to which we have grown accustomed. Entries are usually clean, and notes and intervals pitched accurately though there are one or two weak entries in the first chorus of Part 2, ''Wo ist denn dein Freund hingegan'' (No. 30). The pacing of the chorales struck me as being ideal with plenty of definition. In the great opening chorus Gardiner's own choir are joined by the naturally youthful-sounding voices—small boys and notso-small girls—of the London Oratory Junior Choir. I have long admired this choir but it is, nevertheless, in this movement of the work that I found myself at odds with Gardiner's interpretation. The gradual crescendo leading up to the first choral entry is too marked for me and seems unrelated to the rise and fall of the melody. I am not arguing for terrace dynamics but rather for finer shadings than some of the contrasts which occur here.
Notwithstanding issues such as these, Gardiner's St Matthew Passion is a considerable achievement. Singing and playing of this order deserve to win many friends and Gardiner's mature and evidently deeply-felt account of the music is one which I shall want to hear many times over. Recorded sound is clear and appropriate though occasionally I found perspectives a little odd- the viola da gamba in the bass aria, ''Komm, susses Kreuz'' (No. 57), for instance, sounded a little too backward. Full texts included. Congratulations! Nicholas Anderson (October 1989)

 

St John Passion

Sols; Dunedin Consort / John Butt

(Linn)

Bach’s St John Passion gains more from the small-ensemble approach, I think, than its big sister, the St Matthew. Its emotional intimacy and urgency are better suited to the agility and immediacy a one-to-a-part performance brings, and the result can be a deeply compelling human drama. We have had several decent ‘chamber’ St Johns in recent years – including recordings from the Ricercar Consort (7/11), Cantus Cölln and Portland Baroque (both 3/12) – but this new one from John Butt and the Dunedin Consort really struck home for me by achieving its vital results without extravagant overstatement, overt ‘holiness’ or self-conscious marking-out of the work’s architecture. Indeed, naturalness and emotional honesty are what emerge from this tight-knit and perfectly paced ensemble Passion, in which Bach’s complex succession of recitatives, arias, choruses and chorales has surely seldom sounded so convincingly of a piece.

This is not, by the way, a polite way of saying that the performance lacks expressive variety or that performing standards are modest. On the contrary, the increasingly impressive Nicholas Mulroy’s alert, lightly coloured Evangelist strikes a balance in which declamation and lyricism are equally ardent and equally touching, while Matthew Brook is a supple and authoritative Christus. The use of harpsichord and organ together in the recitatives gives their joint story-telling a reassuringly grounded quality; there is nothing ‘ethereal’ in this St John and it is better for it. Both singers also perform with great effectiveness in the arias, where they are joined by Joanne Lunn (her ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’ is a joyous and sure-footed gem) and Clare Wilkinson, whose distinctive alto, straightforward in expression and tellingly connected to her speaking voice, lends fragility to ‘Von den Stricken’. Her desolate, almost whispered ‘Die Trauernacht’ in ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ also stabs to the heart.

When these four sing together in the choruses, to be joined by four more ‘ripieno’ singers, their sound is pressing and urgent but never hectoring, so that whether representing a crowd baying for blood or a group of chastened or horror-struck sinners, they come across as a gathering of real people rather than a disembodied chorus. The fact that you can sometimes recognise a soloist’s voice within the mix only adds to this impression of reality. Chorales are shaped with care and expressive sensitivity, but also never overcooked. The Dunedin Consort’s reliance on relatively young casts such as this has always brought their performances an uplifting freshness and immediacy in their recordings of Messiah, the B minor Mass and of course the St Matthew Passion, but in this harrowing piece it allows the sense of drama and personal identification to reach a higher level.

There is, however, another unique layer to this St John, for the piece is set in the context of the Good Friday Vespers liturgy of Bach’s Leipzig. This is where John Butt’s scholarly curiosity pays off, for he clearly sees the liturgical setting not as a dilution but an intensification of the work’s message. In this presentation the Passion – the service, not the oratorio – starts with an Easter chorale, first in Bach’s organ setting (played by Butt) and then sung by a congregation (actually the University of Glasgow Chapel Choir) alternating verses with a solo Mulroy. Then a short burst from a Buxtehude Praeludium leads straight to the opening chorus, nearly nine minutes after the disc has started. A similar sequence follows Part 1, and Part 2 is prefaced by another organ chorale. Immediately after the oratorio has ended (and let’s not pretend that the usual ending, a simple chorale to follow the glowing choral farewell that is ‘Ruht wohl’, does not sometimes sit strangely) comes Ecce quomodo moritur, a gentle funeral motet by the Renaissance composer Jacobus Handl Gallus (sung rather well by the University Choir again under James Grossmith). The reconstruction then ends with a few liturgical nuts and bolts and a final chorale for the congregation.

None of this extra material interrupts the Passion music itself – which, for the record, is a composite version representing what Bach’s uncompleted 1739 revision might have been like – and it can be programmed out if desired. But while you may not always want to sit through nine verses of chorale before getting down to business (or indeed listen to the half-time sermon, taken from a 1720 collection by Erdmann Neumeister, which is downloadable from the Linn website!), the effect of the violin swirls, pounding lower strings and intertwining oboe suspensions of that great opening chorus interrupting Buxtehude’s somewhat Gothic organ prelude certainly deserves more than one hearing. Butt makes a nice point in his booklet-note about how Bach’s Passion performances would have brought together in one project local singers of all abilities, from the soloists to the ‘motet choir’ to members of the congregation; and if his aim here has been to position this in the listener’s imagination and suggest the element of inclusive community that any Passion performance ought to have, well, it works for me. Lindsay Kemp (March 2013)

 

St John Passion

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment & Polyphony / Stephen Layton

(Hyperion)

Stephen Layton’s outstanding new St John is about as state-of-the-art a Bach Passion recording as you’ll hear. For all its referencing various traditions, the overall signposting is pitched in the ‘middle of the road’ (and I mean that simply as one likely to satisfy as broad church as any available recording) and yet it appears remarkably fresh-sounding. Take as read the urgency, clarity, balance and declamatory unanimity of the chorus; Lindsay Kemp described the equivalent in Butt’s version where the effect of ‘a [single] voice within the mix only adds to this impression of reality’. Layton’s reality is about cultivating the focus of each sentiment with supreme corporate executancy.

Where Nicholas Mulroy’s Evangelist offers us intense reportage and touchingly personal asides, Ian Bostridge is the master story-teller who surveys all about him, impeccably delivering every nuance of every word. Some may find it too consciously etched, yet in the context of Layton’s carefully weighted reading it is both deeply subtle and consistently finessed.

Alongside the top-class and pliable choral singing of Polyphony comes the roll call of exceptional soloists – Nicholas Mulroy among them. Indeed, his ‘Ach mein Sinn’ conveys as rarely before the blend of inner mournfulness and savage panic which Bach inspires with this terse chaconne-inspired movement. More worldly still is Carolyn Sampson’s delectable ‘Ich folge’, where seasoned discipleship rather than bright-eyed innocence prevails.

The noble Christ of Neal Davies and the deeply felt singing of Roderick Williams complement the kaleidoscope of vocal expression here with their capacity for reflective commentary (‘Mein teurer’ is über-elegant), as does Iesytn Davies in a treasurable ‘Es ist vollbracht’. Such is Layton’s overall grip and understanding of the generic dramatic properties of the St John – especially in controlling tension and release – that we have here a perfect balance for the greater spontaneity of John Butt’s touchingly inhabited and personal journey. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (May 2013)

 

Christmas Oratorio

Sols; Concentus Musicus Wien & Arnold Schoenberg Choir / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(DHM)

History has not judged kindly the revisiting of major Bach choral works by eminent conductors. Here is the exception. Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the Christmas Oratorio 35 years ago (and there was a live Unitel video in 1981) but this is a musician whose third reading of the St Matthew Passion in 2000 plumbed depths of understanding and characterisation of a quite different order from his previous accounts. Likewise, this significant and richly endowed contribution to the catalogue, whose defining rationale is the exploration of the Oratorio’s joyous and elegant poetic fervour, asks similarly penetrating questions. These are different challenges to the Passions in that Bach’s careful assembling of material for six “parts” or cantatas provides no obviously sustained “action” but, rather, tableaux from the majesty of Christ’s birth and the annunciation of the shepherds to the coming of the Three Wise Men as Epiphany approaches. Binding the themes and harnessing the material into an integrated whole for a single sitting (not necessarily inimical to Bach’s planning, despite being spread over the six Feast Days of Christmas, 1734-35) takes more than just a few well judged tempi and a generic Yuletide esprit.

Harnoncourt’s recording, taken from live performances in the Musikverein last Christmas, succeeds in this regard with uncanny freshness and generosity. Without a hint of world-weariness, each movement builds on the experience of what has been heard before (a device encouraged by Bach in his emollient and atmospheric instrumentation, and the decisive connections between each cantata). Bachians who know Harnoncourt’s Passion recordings will recognise the distinctive southern European classical tradition which has been brought to bear on his recent Bach performances. Witness the soft-grained radiance and ease, whether Mass or opera-inspired, which eschews an inward-looking and parochial outlook. Indeed, Harnoncourt is unique in his decisively pictorial and luminous landscape (in the more perennial oratorio tradition), alongside a highly developed ear for charting the work with kaleidoscopic, if occasionally maverick character. The springy choruses are bright but warm, spacious and unhurried, and packed with cathartic and lyrical dialogues between instruments and voices. The arias are also consistently probing, with fine performances from Christine Schäfer (“Nur ein Wink” is irresistible) and Bernarda Fink, whose “Schlafe” lives up to expectations (though one perhaps questions whether the faster speeds of the ritornelli reveal some patching).

Werner Güra’s narration takes a little time to warm up but by Part 2 he is in full swing with both unequivocal delivery and an impressive bravura in the unwieldy “Frohe Hirten”. Gerald Finley sings with open-hearted zeal and, despite occasional flatness, teams up touchingly with Schäfer in “Herr, dein Mitleid”. There is the odd rough edge and, inevitably, there are moments which will not be to everyone’s taste. But the unforced sweep of grandeur, complementing supple pastoral mosaics, marks out Harnoncourt’s Christmas Oratorio as a valuable and penetrating seasonal vision. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (December 2007)

 

Easter Oratorio

Retrospect Ensemble /  Matthew Halls

(Linn)

Bach created the Easter Oratorio for Easter Sunday 1725, although some of the music was shrewdly parodied from a secular cantata composed some months previously for the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels. The Retrospect Ensemble’s orchestral playing and choral singing is of the highest quality, not surprising given that the personnel list features many alumni of the King’s Consort and other such expert Baroque ensembles. Matthew Halls neatly juxtaposes bustling vitality and an unforced conversational quality in the first part of the Sinfonia, with the three natural trumpets sounding particularly shapely and relaxed. The chorus is impressively disciplined and radiant in the opening chorus, during which rapid duet passages are delivered impeccably by James Gilchrist and Peter Harvey. Rachel Brown’s flawless flute is an eloquent counterpart to Carolyn Sampson’s enchanting gentleness in the aria “Seele, deine Spezereien”, and Halls controls its pizzicato bass-line with benevolent finesse. Gilchrist almost whispers the yearningly beautiful tenor part of “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” and the aria is all the more special because of Halls’s expressive handling of the delicate pastoral accompaniment of recorders and muted strings; I’ve heard many lovely performances of this aria but do not recall hearing the text communicated with such heart-rending consolation as this.

Halls partners BWV249 with Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (written for Ascension Day 1735). The pairing is a sensible idea shared with previous discs from Leonhardt, Rilling and Suzuki but that need not dissuade anyone from savouring these outstanding performances. “Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben” (Bach’s model for the Agnus Dei of the B minor Mass) has wondrous unison playing from the first violins and sweet eloquence from Iestyn Davies; the accompaniment of flutes, oboe and upper strings for Sampson’s singing in “Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke” is also interpreted perfectly. The excellent declamation, impeccable shaping of contrapuntal lines and flawless tuning of the Retrospect choir comes to the fore in the festive opening and closing choruses; the notably clean transparency between all four parts is achieved partly by an entirely male alto section but also by Halls’s astute ability to convey each strand of vocal and instrumental detail. David Vickers (May 2011)

 

Motets

Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists / John Eliot Gardiner

(SDG)

Underpinning so much of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s approach to Bach is identifying the provenance and essence of dramatic character, ‘mutant opera’ (as Gardiner calls it) found in genres – like the motet – which are not enacted but depend on perceptive rhetorical judgement within a fabric of rolling continuity. Bach’s motets may pay homage to forebears in scale, tone and technique but each one, especially revealed in this vibrant and questing new set, presses for fresh meaning with all the virtuoso means Bach could muster.

The motets have appeared as pillars of the Monteverdi Choir’s existence over five decades, punctuated by a notable recording for Erato in the early 1980s and most recently within selected programmes during the millennial Cantata Pilgrimage. For Gardiner, these works represent an endlessly fascinating tapestry of discovery which will doubtless continue to evolve, a body enhanced by the addition of Ich lasse dich nicht – a short motet once thought to have been by Bach’s great elder cousin, Johann Christoph, but now considered the work of the Young Turk.

Common to the Monteverdi Choir’s performances over the years are their inimitable textual projection, clarity of line, rhythmic rigour and an overriding sense of expectancy and flair, just occasionally slipping a little too eagerly into exaggerated gesture. Gardiner asks for more pinpoint delicacy, quicksilver contrast and lightness than ever and illuminatingly inwardda camera dialoguing between voices. For all the pages of sprung bravura and purpose, especially in Lobet den Herrn and Singet dem Herrn, there are as many periods of elongated and poignant restraint.

There is no more compelling example than the soft, controlled climate of the final contemplative strains of Fürchte dich nicht, where we have an extraordinary representation of the precious mystery of belonging to Christ. The soprano motif on ‘und dein Blut, mir zugut’ (‘thy life and thy blood’) is uttered with such sustained and ritualised other-worldliness (track 15, 5'38") that the risk of disembodiment is only allayed by the Monteverdi Choir’s captivating certainty of line as the devoted soul drifts heavenwards.

One of the most striking features in this new collection, as I mentioned previously, is how attentive Gardiner is to the individuality of each of the motets. This might seem a time-honoured ambition and yet, for all the admirable qualities of, say, the RIAS Kammerchor under René Jacobs or the more recent reading from Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent, neither of these brings as ambitious a kaleidoscopic challenge to the listener in identifying renewed character and meaning as Gardiner aspires to. Indeed, Herreweghe recently went as far as to say that ‘a groundbreaking reading is not necessary’.

Gardiner would disagree. How lucidly Der Geist hilft (that short but compact work written for the funeral of Ernesti, the old Rector of St Thomas’s, in 1729) sets out to reflect the infirmities of man gradually imbued with the intercessions of the Holy Spirit. Here we have something more perspicacious than merely good pacing: the Monteverdi singers narrate this play of uncertainty and the growing anticipation of understanding God’s will with such corporate and dynamic purpose that, even when the two choirs converge in an affirming four-part double fugue, we never feel quite out of the woods. The tantalising prospect of salvation is only truly satisfied at the final cadence of a luminously directed chorale.

Some of these interpretative risks may not suit those who prefer a less articulated, more abstract, soft-edged and generally expansive landscape. Singet dem Herrn is typically exuberant in its outer ‘concerti’ but the unique double-choir juxtaposition of chorale and free contrapuntal ‘rhapsody’ could perhaps have yielded more genuine contemplative warmth. Indeed, Gardiner rarely delivers a comfortable ride and yet what brilliant visions emerge, most strikingly in the central work, the five-part Jesu meine Freude, riding – literally – the storm of the love of the flesh, Satan, the old dragon and death.

Throughout this masterpiece, terrifying, quasi-‘turba’ (crowd) scenes are viscerally offset against an ethereal quest for redemption. ‘Es ist nun nichts Verdammliches’ (‘There is now no condemnation’) has surely never enjoyed such a mesmerising volley of declamation and rich illusion over a short space as Gardiner summons, while ‘Trotz dem alten Drachen’ (‘Despite the old dragon’) spits out its irascible consonances only to be disarmingly defied by the elevated purity of ‘in gar sichrer Ruh’ (‘in confident tranquillity’) – all this in contrasting tableaux of ever-surprising emotional impact. If the listener is often left gasping, this is caused not only by vocal singularity of purpose but by the discreet and graphic responsiveness of the instrumental continuo players, among whom the bassoon here (and in Komm, Jesu, komm) contributes with knowing effect.

As you would imagine, surprises abound – some of which take a little getting used to. Gardiner challenges orthodoxy in how these a cappella holy grails are fundamentally signposted and he does so, almost always, with persuasive passion and genuine zeal. High-wire artist Philippe Petit is a fitting cover image to this important landmark in highly recommended, high-stakes performances. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (August 2012)

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