Austral Harmony – a trio of two Australians and a Brit – invite listeners to experience a carefully imagined, rather enchanting soundscape of mid-18th-century Lutheran Leipzig. Two themes inform this recording: the joyfulness of the chorale texts, and the genius and influence of JS Bach. We’re treated to four settings of Jesu, meine Freude by Bach and one of his star pupils, Johann Ludwig Krebs, as well as a newly discovered Sonata for oboe and continuo by another pupil, Gottfried August Homilius. Homilius’s pupil Christian Gotthilf Tag makes a cameo appearance with a chorale prelude for oboe and organ, and Georg Friedrich Kauffmann, Bach’s competitor for the Leipzig Kapellmeister post, enjoys the last word.
Why then is the recording ‘carefully imagined’? Many of the tracks were arranged by Peter Hagen, who took his cues from period practices, substituting an oboe in the top line of the organ part in a number of works originally either for organ alone (the Bach organ trio) or with one obbligato instrument (that in the chorale preludes took the tune), which here is allocated to a trumpet. Jane Downer playing in turn two oboes and Simon Desbruslais four trumpets further enrich the soundscape.
Kauffmann was the first to suggest substituting an oboe on the top line in his organ preludes (Harmonische Seelenlust, 1733 36); Krebs specifically composed for organ and one obbligato instrument (oboe, trumpet or trombone). By involving both oboe and trumpet in works originally for two instruments, Austral Harmony have in effect created a new, niche chamber repertoire, an extremely attractive one at that. Some instruments work better together than others and the oboe occasionally overpowers the organ. Nevertheless, beautifully, joyously performed, this is a thought-provoking disc I look forward to revisiting and sharing with friends.