JS BACH; JC BACH; CPE BACH Magnificats
Three Magnificats, by the three most famous members of the Bach family, make for a delectable triptych from a 40-year span, with each strikingly promoting their distinctive musical priorities. If Johann Sebastian’s first Leipzig Christmas in 1723 impelled him to display all his high-Baroque wares in a canticle of mesmerising variety, then both his cosmopolitan sons accept the subsequent challenge with alacrity in their colourful settings – with the more substantial CPE score now beginning to enter the canon.
For their father’s perennial masterpiece, Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo snap into their festive sparklers with grand authority and lithe ebullience, sweeping effortlessly from verse to verse with considerable purpose. There’s something attractively straightforward about ‘Quia fecit’ with the characterful Thomas Bauer agreeably supported by Cohen’s present harpsichord, not least because it has a delicious effect on the languid curves of Iestyn Davies’s and Thomas Walker’s ‘Et misericordia’, which follows. One is struck throughout by the exceptional balance of the voices and instruments yet without forgoing Cohen’s animated and imaginative way with text. Indeed, when one reaches the ‘Gloria Patri’ at the close, the music seems to have evolved imperceptibly in a generous seam of exquisitely judged verses.
Arcangelo’s voyage into the sons’ Magnificats is no less well paced or astutely textured. As we move into Johann Christian’s third setting (thought to be for Milan Cathedral in 1760), the new idiom becomes decidedly operatic, riven with self-conscious conceits and reeking of galant suavity. But it goes down very nicely in around 10 minutes, especially the expectant choral interpolations in ‘Fecit potentiam’ and even the slightly perfunctory doffing of the cap to dad with a decent enough fugue to end.
Carl Philipp Emanuel’s Magnificat is a substantial homage to his father’s setting (there are some obvious quotes), especially in the successful combining of so many contrasting elements. If CPE is rather less succinct than Johann Sebastian, there’s no denying that there are some brilliant and affecting set pieces, especially when carried by Joélle Harvey’s uniformly dramatic and engaging singing – not to mention the supreme final double fugue when the choir and orchestra all but take off. It’s 40 years since King’s College Choir Cambridge under Philip Ledger recorded the work in what seemed a rather muddy and elusive idiom. Not here, where Cohen and Arcangelo bring us an illuminated Bachian constellation of three canticles colliding in captivating relief.