JS Bach: the 2020 Editor's Choice recordings

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

All of these outstanding albums were named Editor's Choice or Recording of the Month in the 2020 issues of Gramophone

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JS BACH ‘Opus Bach – Organ Works, Vol 1’

Peter Kofler org


The first five-disc set of Peter Kofler’s projected complete Bach organ works series claims to make use of an innovative recording technology with which ‘the space of the church interior is authentically reproduced not only in its horizontal dimensions, but also in its vertical acoustics, its spatial height’. Usually sceptical of such extravagant claims, I have to say this really is a truly remarkable sound. Not well acquainted with the acoustic interior of the Jesuit church of St Michael in Munich, I cannot say how real the sound is, but it certainly envelops the playing with a wonderfully atmospheric aural backdrop, which in most cases enhances the music.

In most cases; but not all. A very brisk opening movement of the Sonata BWV529 is obscured by the acoustic wash, while the very opening of the D minor Concerto after Vivaldi (BWV596) gets quite lost in the swirling clouds of atmosphere. But the sheer sonic splendour of the A major Prelude and Fugue (BWV536) is riveting, the antiphonal effects in the last partita of O Gott, du frommer Gott (BWV767) are startlingly vivid, as are the solo/tutti contrasts in the C major Concerto (BWV594), and while there may be some reservations about Peter Kofler’s interpretative approach to the ubiquitous BWV565 Toccata and Fugue, there is no arguing about the spectacularly vivid sound.

On the whole, Kofler’s performances find an ideal balance between stylistic integrity and interpretative individuality, and there is little here which is going to cause offence to even the most hardened Bach specialist. At the same time, enhanced by that glorious recorded sound, Kofler’s playing has a real sense of communication, portraying these works with conviction and enthusiasm supported by a splendidly robust and fluent technique.

The booklet essay draws attention to Helmut Walcha’s groundbreaking recordings of Bach (on Archiv) and suggests that much has changed in the world of Bach organ music interpretation over the intervening 60 years. That is true; but while Kofler’s own musical pedigree (born and studied in Bolzano and Munich before being appointed organist of the church in which these recordings were made) might not immediately suggest a connection with Walcha, in the sheer musicality of the playing and the instinctive understanding of registration, his approach is not a million miles away either. Rather, his playing is more in the nature of reinvigorating a long and hallowed tradition of Bach-playing than in reinventing it.

Any complete Bach organ music survey should grab attention with the big preludes, toccatas and fugues, and demonstrate great technical virtuosity in the flexibility of the trio sonatas. This new release is certainly way up with the front-runners in those areas; a quick sample of both the E minor and E flat Preludes and Fugues (BWV548 and 552) provides ample evidence. But it is in the chorale-based works that the wheat is so often separated from the chaff. Like Marie-Claire Alain (on Erato), who could elevate even the humblest chorale prelude through imaginative registration, Kofler uses the full resources of this glorious 75-stop 2011 Rieger intelligently and sensitively. It would have been interesting to have his registrations included in the booklet, but suffice it to say he seems to have found just the right sound for each chorale prelude and treats each one as a delightful gem in its own right. Perhaps Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV660) seems a touch turgid, and the Canonic Variations (BWV769) do not quite come alive, but listening to Wachet auf (BWV645) so vividly shot through with the spirit of dance is an exhilarating experience, while Kofler’s bubbly, life-enhancing performance of Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (BWV717) is pure joy.

There is a certain thematic basis to each disc. The first replicates mostly the programme of Mendelssohn’s famous Bach recital given in Leipzig in 1840; the second has an Advent/Christmas theme; while the remaining three discs revisit programmes Kofler devised for live performances elsewhere. Beyond that, each presents as logical a cross-section of Bach’s organ output as anyone could want, and opens up great possibilities in displaying the rich resources of this splendid instrument.

All in all, from the evidence of these first five discs, this is going to be a highly recommendable recorded survey of Bach’s complete organ works. The playing is very fine indeed, the organ as close to the ideal as it is possible for a modern organ to be, and the recorded sound genuinely awe-inspiring. Marc Rochester

JS BACH St John Passion

Collegium Vocale Gent / Philippe Herreweghe


Over the years Philippe Herreweghe has moved freely between the first and second of Bach’s St John Passion scores, composed for Leipzig Easters in 1724 and 1725. The main differences lie in Bach’s jettisoning a number of arias in the second version and, most controversially, replacing the iconic opening movement with the chorale fantasia ‘O Mensch, bewein’, which the composer later redeployed to close Part 1 of the St Matthew.

How the choice of version affects the unfolding of the drama in Bach’s most unvarnished oratorio is hard to gauge, though on the basis of Herreweghe’s three recorded accounts – 1987, 2001 and this one – it’s the first and most recent (both employing the original musical text) which seem the most convincing in the collective investment of the narrative. The start here is indeed ominously impressive, all of Collegium Vocale’s collective experience yielding a palate of resonating imagery, rooted in portentous inevitability and prescient shards of light. Even in the most graphic turba (crowd) scenes, Herreweghe resists obvious projection for something which the listener can ‘imagine’ rather than just ‘feel’.

If the aesthetic of this work seems especially suited to Herreweghe’s madrigalian sensibilities, it becomes clear that there is no magic bullet to the distinctiveness and success of this performance. The command of integrated elements lies partly in its buoyant and unhurried pacing, but also in the mix of glowingly etched chorales (what textural refinement!), arias presented as handsomely discrete ‘scenas’, gloriously varied turbae interpolations and illuminating storytelling by Maximilian Schmitt’s Evangelist. The deft release of emotional adrenalin is evident in the arrival of ‘Ach mein Sinn’, after Peter’s denial at the end of Part 1. It is quite overwhelming, especially in the heartfelt hands of Robin Tritschler.

Contributing to the discerning unity of vision and character of this performance is how the instruments sit embedded at the heart of the vocal sound. The presence of instrumental character provides a foil for the kind of vocal charisma which, if too prominent in this work, can wrong-foot a particular conceit. For instance, the blind discipleship of ‘Ich folge’, sung here winningly by Dorothee Mields, is given the kind of devotional innocence of a young prayer group, with the flute’s closely argued and irradiating roulades, supported by a gently encouraging lute.

Peter Kooij sounds almost as evergreen as he did in 1987, and Damien Guillon’s ‘Es ist vollbracht’ is simply exquisite. In an embarras de richesses of solo meditations, Mields’s account of ‘Zerfliesse’ is a lament of supreme delicacy, hovering above gurgling reeds of their own mourning – a small selection of the wonders here. This is indeed one of the most thoughtful, affecting and powerful St John Passions in recent years. It reveals the mature mastery of Herreweghe at his most perspicacious and consistent, with Collegium Vocale Gent paving the way with gold. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

JS BACH St John Passion

Sols; Bach Collegium Japan / Masaaki Suzuki


When Bach Collegium Japan performed the St John Passion in London early on in their spring 2020 European tour – celebrating BCJ’s 30th anniversary – the Barbican was already peppered with empty seats as the virus took hold. As Masaaki Suzuki recalled, by the time they had arrived in Cologne for the fourth and what was to be the final concert (live-streamed from an empty hall), a new urgency had rendered this a very dramatic recording. The Barbican concert was memorable for the wholeness of Suzuki’s vision, the unalloyed narrative of James Gilchrist’s ever-probing Evangelist – which gradually appeared to turn from interested reporter into the sincerest of followers – and a spectacularly unified and engaged portrayal by singers and instrumentalists alike.

If something of a harnessed ritual was lost in the intervening days between London and Cologne, here we have a reading that feels as if, deep in the psyche of the performers, they know this is all happening close to the wire. Gilchrist is again on masterly form, risking pinpoint precision for graphic description in a way that makes the experience feel ‘live’ in every respect. The electric crowd scenes are throughout born of a luminous imagery set up by the opening chorus, whose wailing oboes are underpinned by redoubtable bass lines (Suzuki adopts the contrabassoon option from the 1725 version) and brilliant continuo realisation, leaving the listener dripping with expectation in the dust and grime of seasoned pilgrimage. While Herreweghe’s recent account is a superb contemplation, elegantly shaped and refined in its internal balance, Suzuki takes us as co-travellers in a search of faith, not necessarily assuming us all as believers.

This means that the exchanges between Christ, Pilate and the Evangelist feel especially projected, and super-theatrically timed, to leave no one in any doubt of the implications as the stakes rise. Urgent but never pushed, Suzuki really ramps things up in the section when Pilate is trying to appease the baying crowd and persuade Christ to help himself; Yusuke Watanabe’s Pilate is exceptionally characterised as a central pivot in proceedings, a tragic cameo of a man who can only make a bad decision, until he fades irretrievably bruised into history.

The solo contributions are mainly front-rank. Zachary Wilder fares less well in ‘Mein Jesu, ach!’ than in his coruscating ‘Ach, mein Sinn’, but Damien Guillon’s sensitively etched singing continues where he left off in the St Matthew recording (below) in a heart-stopping ‘Es ist vollbracht’. Hana Blažíková’s pellucid voice has fast become one of the most engaging in modern Bach performance, as ‘Zerfliesse’ reveals, and Christian Immler exudes his geniality with consistent authority, notably in an assuaging ‘Mein teurer’.

For all the constraints that Covid-19 has inflicted on BCJ’s 30th-anniversary year, this extraordinarily vital, human and emotional rendering joins the recent St Matthew in another effulgent release of exceptional expressive candour and range. It eclipses Suzuki’s initial recording from 1998, and with the award-winning St Matthew gives us a pair of Passions at the high table of modern Bach discography. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

JS BACH St Matthew Passion

Sols; Bach Collegium Japan / Masaaki Suzuki


To embark on a second recording of the St Matthew Passion 20 or so years after an admired reading with many of the same musicians from Bach Collegium Japan might, one would imagine, have been governed by a specific set of motivations. On the evidence of this powerful, superbly framed and exceptionally judged account, Masaaki Suzuki may instead have reached a point where, over decades of intensely dedicated Bach performance, a revisiting simply became a necessary rite of passage – as it has for many before him.

Those who have traced Suzuki’s Bach direction of the last few years, alongside a burgeoning series of enterprising organ volumes, will have noticed a subtle but interesting shift in the realms of emotional risk and dramatic thrust. This is not to say that his performances of Bach’s choral works have ever been anything but an exploration of the inner meaning of how music, imagery and text converge in clearly projected ideals. But from the outset here, the music feels embedded in a broader and freer set of expressive ambitions than ever.

Suzuki’s vibrantly conceived vision extends to open-shouldered and passionately projected choral contributions, the lived-in storytelling of the burnished Evangelist of Benjamin Bruns (Peter’s denial is like a dagger to the heart), the switches between human frailty and febrile physicality of Christian Immler’s Jesus and Suzuki’s winning attribute of giving the music air and momentum at the same time. As a result, the ritual of each tableau and its reflective suite of arias is given genuinely memorable character. The opening growls with the same prescient foreboding and authority of the very best accounts of the past 70 years, whether Karl Richter’s first or Harnoncourt’s final reading.

The lingua franca of this recording is Suzuki’s incessantly perceptive blend of directly projected imagery and inward devotion, underpinned by theatrical fervour in the narrative; one never doubts Bach or Suzuki’s belief in its importance for mankind. The musicians convey it with infectious zeal in the white-hot conviction of tenor Makoto Sakurada’s open-throated Daughter of Zion sequence (from No 19, ‘O Schmerz!’); illuminated by light and shade in the instrumental accompaniment, soloist and chorus combine in an essay of unbearably imminent suffering. On the other end of the spectrum, the peroration offers a luminous solace – and what collective beauty Bach Collegium Japan bring to the heart-stopping ‘Mein Jesu, gute Nacht’ – to the redemption that will follow. No danger here of the final chorus ending in a morose slough of despond.

The quality of soloists in any recording of the St Matthew will significantly define its sustainable fortunes. Apart from a couple of underwhelming movements (‘Können Tränen’ is not vocally settled), the vast majority of arias represent the highest quality of Bach-singing. Damien Guillon is a commanding presence, with a quality of sound that carries both line and text with purpose and panache (listen to the opening of Part 2 as an exceptional example). Aki Matsui, a young and communicative singer, may not quite have the radiance and experience of Carolyn Sampson, but then few in this medium have. The latter’s wonderful ‘Aus Liebe’ reveals both a ravishing suspension of belief and pungent discipleship.

The high points are numerous: ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’, as luminously persuasive as you’ll hear (though Fritz Lehmann’s 1949 version takes some beating), Damien Guillon’s visceral ‘Erbarme dich’ – which grows in stature – and a ‘Mache dich’ from Christian Immler of grounded humanity. Yet there are dimensions of engagement between singers and instrumentalists that instil a sense of spontaneity in the variety and richness of timbre which I hadn’t heard to this extent in Bach Collegium Japan. The bass lines drive the music forwards, the crowd scenes declaim with quicksilver interpolations to the Evangelist’s cries and tempos are allowed to push and pull at key moments. Generic early music politesse is relegated to the shadows.

This reappraisal of the St Matthew (the earlier version from 1999 does appear studied and self-conscious in comparison, for all its estimable virtues) takes us on a journey which will continually enthral, move and surprise. If Bachians have found Suzuki’s performances a touch imperturbable on occasion, this recording throws down the gauntlet on almost every level. A revelatory reading of an eminent Bach interpreter in his prime. With each SACD coming in at over 80 minutes, it is squeezed on to two discs, offering excellent value. This certainly has the effect of bringing the two parts of the Passion closer together, to the serious benefit of our ears and imaginations. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

JS BACH Guitar Works

Sean Shibe gtr


Can you ever speak in elevated, grandiose terms about a classical guitarist? You want to avoid weight, to find instead phrases of lightness and simplicity. Yet after listening to Sean Shibe’s magnificent new Bach recital, when I reach for comparisons I don’t go to other guitarists. Or even lutenists. I go to a musician like the violinist Rachel Podger, or the pianist Angela Hewitt. Because, as with Shibe, and to paraphrase Schweitzer, their Bach so clearly sounds like it must be a summation of everything that has gone before. Except of course we’re talking about their own musical knowledge and experience. Not the music of those hapless composers unlucky enough to exist solely to make a Bach possible. So, ideally, you ought to listen first to Shibe’s previous two recordings to get the most out of this one.

On the Bream-ful ‘Dreams and Fancies’ (9/17), he miraculously unifies the disparate humours of Dowland, Britten, Walton and Arnold. On ‘softLOUD’ (A/18), he invites us to an electroacoustic house party for strange bedfellows Anon, James MacMillan, Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe and David Lang. On the present recording, Shibe applies the musical and interpretative qualities that characterise its predecessors – energy, reflection, eclecticism, integration and emotional candour – to remind us that Bach might have been singular but he contained multitudes. Including those not yet born.

The flow of the E minor Suite’s Prelude is subtly arrested by expressively arpeggiated chords which throw into sharp relief a cut-glass Fugue that attunes the listener to rippling yet clearly defined semiquavers and tastefully applied ornamentation in the following dance movements. I like, too, the pointing up of the similarities between the BWV997 Partita’s Fugue and the previous Suite’s Gigue, while the intelligent use of sweetness of tone and rubato, as in the exquisite Sarabande’s third bar, is very fine. And has the Prelude, Fugue and Allegro ever sounded so contemporary in its nostalgic sweetness and, in the final movement, sheer unabashed joy?

Somewhat perversely, I’m reminded of that formidable doyenne of the harpsichord Wanda Landowska saying to cellist Pablo Casals: ‘You play Bach your way and I’ll play Bach his way.’ In reality, like Shibe, they both played Bach both ways. And with conviction. And love. William Yeoman

JS BACH Six Solo Cello Suites

Alisa Weilerstein vc


Perhaps the most illuminating way to sample this remarkable set is to home in on three consecutive movements from the sombre-hued Fifth Suite, music written in scordatura with the A string tuned down to G. The growling, bass-heavy Courante (disc 2, track 15) defies its weight and manages to dance, while also admitting an exceptionally generous roster of colours. Here, as elsewhere in the Suite, and even in spite of its baritonal gruffness, Alisa Weilerstein calls on a varied tonal palette, reaching across a considerable dynamic range and employing subtle shifts in shading, articulation and expressive vibrato. In general her tempos are broader than the norm, certainly in the succeeding Sarabande, which clocks up a very expansive 5'28" (Yo-Yo Ma’s latest recording is a ‘mere’ 3'10", Steven Isserlis 3'55" and Emmanuelle Bertrand 3'53"); but its trancelike effect held me captive, especially in the second half of the movement when, as she approaches the repeat, she reduces her tone to a ghostly whisper.

‘The intrinsic impossibility of this music is the very source of its freedom’, writes Weilerstein on the disc jacket, and no single track proves her point more appositely. The magisterial first Gavotte that follows employs a stimulating mix of colours that’s similar to the one used in the Courante and that makes it eventful to listen to, while the swirling second Gavotte arrives in tempo. Other highlights include the Sarabande from the Fourth Suite which, for all its broad pacing (5'25"), treads its triple time with ease and nobility, reminding us that the dance’s name derives from the Spanish zarabanda. Bertrand’s swifter performance (4'03") is also appealing though paradoxically it’s Weilerstein who more evokes the image of a solemn but mobile procession. The tripping Courante is teasingly played, elegant and lightly bowed too, much as the Suite’s closing Gigue dances to the lilt of Weilerstein’s phrasing. The First Suite’s Courante is more playfully emphatic, whereas the opening of the Third Suite’s Prelude lands on a bed bereft of vibrato and the lively Courante seems to approximate the sound of laughter. The Prelude to the Sixth Suite on the other hand finds Weilerstein projecting her full, burnished tone evenly across all registers.

So yet another superb digital set of the Cello Suites, one to place alongside Emmanuelle Bertrand, Alban Gerhardt, Steven Isserlis, Thomas Demenga and Yo-Yo Ma (his latest version). And Weilerstein’s special qualities? Her resolve to allow each movement of each suite to shine on its own terms. Hers is not an overview systematically imposed but more a way to facilitate the cycle’s immense expressive range piecemeal. Not that the best of her rivals don’t; but with Weilerstein you enjoy the sensation of being escorted through a Baroque dance hall by an all-encompassing commentator with a comprehensive understanding of what she plays, be it the intensity of the Fourth Suite, the balletic grandeur of the Sixth or the tragic demeanour of the Fifth. She has all options covered, and Pentatone has recorded her with impressive presence. Very strongly recommended. Rob Cowan


Tabea Zimmermann va


It was in 2009 that Tabea Zimmermann released the first two of Bach’s Solo Cello Suites alongside Reger’s three on a disc that Duncan Druce described as ‘magnificent’ (A/09). Now she’s back with the Third and Fourth Suites and an even more imaginative coupling: six of the brief but intense Signs, Games and Messages György Kurtág has written for musical friends. Often little more than a minute long, they are powerfully direct in expression while displaying the greatest compositional skill and subtlety. Mourning is a dominant theme: ‘Panaszos nóta’ imitates the sound of crying; ‘Doloroso’ is a more eloquent lament; while ‘… eine Blume fur Tabea …’, an elegy for Zimmermann’s deceased husband, sounds like an urgent but heartbreakingly distanced dialogue between the living and the dead. Two folk-flavoured pieces (one earthy, one soulful) and an audibly painful argument (‘Kromatikus feleselös’) complete this exquisite selection, which Zimmermann plays with compassion and focus – one can only guess at her emotions while playing ‘… eine Blume …’.

As for her Bach, it is a joy. I sometimes wonder if these suites work better on the viola than they do on the cello, so much do they gain in lightness and agility. Certainly in Zimmermann’s hands they are airborne, free to race and play, dance with nimble feet or graceful swings, and sing with clean, sweetly floated line. Zimmermann’s alert range of articulations and rhythmic lifts – constantly busy but never overdone – means that the music never loses its way or its sense of forward motion, and her mind is full of intelligent and happy ideas. Listen in the Third Suite to the thoughtful working-out of the final bars of the Prélude, the glorious swirling lines at the start of the Courante or the gently pointed calm of the Sarabande; or, in the Fourth, the smoothness of the Prelude’s big strides, the kindly caution of the Sarabande and the almost comical contrast between the two Bourrées, one tripping lightly, the other dragging booted feet. Add to this a gorgeous sound from her viola, captured in a superbly judged recording, and you’ve got a real beauty. Lindsay Kemp

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