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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
A Bach Christmas:-

Cantata: Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63 [26:06]
Sanctus in D Major, BWV 238 [2:58]
Magnificat in E flat major, BWV 243a [34:36]
Catherine Bott (soprano I); Elizabeth Scholl (soprano II); Christopher Robson (counter-tenor); Paul Agnew and Andrew King (tenors); Michael George (bass)
New London Consort/Philip Pickett
rec. Walthamstow Assembly Hall, London, October 1995. DDD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 476 7863 [63:40]
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This CD is intelligently planned to include music that Bach directed during the liturgical celebrations of Christmas 1723, his first to Leipzig.

The interesting and useful liner-note informs us that the cantata BWV 63 was heard at the early morning service, starting at 7.00 a.m. in the church of St. Nicholas and was then repeated that afternoon at Vespers in St. Thomasís church. Actually, Bachís Christmas Day schedule may have been still more daunting. The leading Bach scholar, Christoph Woolf, suggests that the cantata was first heard, along with the Sanctus, at 7.00 a.m. Mass - though he says this service was held in St. Thomasís, with Vespers taking place at St, Nicholasís. But Woolf also indicates yet another performance of the cantata was given in between these two, at a 9.00 a.m. service at the University Church of St. Paul. Since Vespers didnít begin until 1.30 p.m. there canít have been a great deal of time for anything other than liturgical celebrations of Christmas Day in the Bach household!

The cantata was not a new piece. It comes from Bachís Weimar period and was first heard there on Christmas Day 1714. The Magnificat, however, was brand new and therefore itís an extremely important work in Bachís oeuvre since it was by far the most substantial choral piece, both in terms of length and scoring, that heíd written since arriving in Leipzig in May 1723. It may, therefore, be seen as something of a calling card or a statement of intent

Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (ĎChristians, engrave this dayí) is a magnificent cantata, with exuberantly celebratory outer movements, fitting for a major feast day. Itís richly scored and includes parts for no less than four trumpets as well as three oboes, a bassoon and the usual strings. The Magnificat is laid out even more luxuriantly, requiring three trumpets, timpani, pairs of recorders and oboes as well as strings and continuo. The vocal forces are comparably extravagant. Both major works require a chorus, which divides into two soprano parts in the Magnificat. In addition there is an SATB solo quartet in the cantata while the Magnificat calls not just for a quartet but also for a second soprano soloist.

Though this CD is accompanied, as Iíve said, by a useful liner note, in other respects the documentation is seriously deficient. The vocal soloists are listed but there is more than one tenor soloist and weíre not told who sings in which work. I believe itís Paul Agnew who sings in the Magnificat, though I stand to be corrected. Similarly, Iím unsure which of the sopranos is involved in the cantata and if Iím wrong in my guess that itís Elizabeth Scholl who sings in BWV 63 then my apologies both to her and to Catherine Bott. Needless to say, no texts or translations are provided.

The other important omission from the documentation is a list of chorus members and orchestral players. I always find this useful with music of the pre-Classical period since itís helpful to have an idea of the size of forces involved. I suspect, for example, that Philip Pickett employs only a very small band of string players. This is most certainly authentic but it may well account for the prominence of the trumpets and timpani in relation to the rest of the orchestra during the movements in which theyíre involved in both major works. Iíd also have liked to know how many choral singers are involved. Again I suspect the numbers are quite small but they make a strong showing. In particular I was pleased to hear a positive and firm, but not over-prominent bass line in the chorus, something that was rather lacking in a performance of Bachís Christmas Oratorio that I reviewed recently. However, I must say that, while the choir is very good the Monteverdi Choir provides even more bite and brio in their 1998 studio recording for DG Archiv.

In this present performance the jubilant opening chorus comes across with plenty of punch and joie de vivre. The solo work that follows is pretty good too. Christopher Robsonís vocal timbre may not be to all tastes but he invests his recitative with meaning and later on heís equal to the demands of the florid writing in the duet for the counter-tenor and tenor soloists, as is his tenor colleague: Andrew King? The other aria is also a duet, this time for soprano and bass. Once again the soloists combine effectively and pleasingly. The cantata ends not with a chorale but with another resplendent, trumpet-led chorus. This cantata must have been a splendid wake-up call to the early morning Leipzig congregation that Christmas morning and I enjoyed the reading it receives here.

The Magnificat is heard here in its original version in E flat major. Subsequently Bach revised the work, transposing it into D major, making some changes to the orchestral scoring and some more minor alterations to some of the solo parts. The most significant change that he made, however, was to excise the four so-called Christmas interpolations that heíd included in the original version. These are short vocal items, each a setting of a text appropriate to the Christmas season. This was an old Lutheran custom but, as we read in the notes, the practice was anachronistic by Bachís time and had been abolished in Leipzig in 1702. One wonders why Bach reverted to tradition. Perhaps he did so to emphasise to his new congregation that he was respectful of tradition? For myself, though itís interesting to hear these very short numbers, I always find they interrupt the text of the canticle in a distracting way. Since the other changes as between the D major and E flat major versions are less noticeable the absence of the interpolations is the main reason why I prefer the D major revision.

However, itís the original version that we have here and very enjoyable it is. The opening chorus is sprightly and festive. Elizabeth Scholl gives a confident and assured account of ĎEt exultavití and Michael George, ever reliable, is on equally good form for his aria, ĎQuia fecit mihi magna.í The tenor aria íDeposuit potentesí is a brute. The florid writing is demanding and itís hard to make real musical sense of it. However, the soloist here, who I take to be Paul Agnew, makes a fine job of it, projecting strongly but without ever sacrificing the lightness thatís vital if this aria is to leap off the page as it should. To my ears Christopher Robson is somewhat suave in the delectable ĎEsurientesí. Some may feel his sophisticated delivery is a little at odds with the pastoral simplicity of Bachís music, epitomised by the use of delectable recorders in the accompaniment. Overall the soloists give much enjoyment.

The chorus work is good too. Once again I find the Monteverdi Choir just takes the palm in terms of incisiveness and sheer vitality in their 1983 Philips recording. However, some of John Eliot Gardinerís speeds in that performance are controversially fast; Pickett offers a "safer" alternative. Pickettís singers punch out ĎOmnes generationesí strongly but not over-emphatically and the concluding ĎGloriaí chorus is suitably exciting. They also do their work in three of the four interpolations well; the fourth is a duet for soprano and bass. The orchestral support is first rate throughout.

I really havenít mentioned the conducting of Philip Pickett at all. In one sense thatís a discourteous omission. However, itís also a compliment, if a slightly backhanded one, for throughout the whole disc his choice of tempi is sane and stylish. He directs proceedings with evident relish and enthusiasm for the music. I found his accounts of these works pretty convincing.

All in all this is a most enjoyable disc and itís an attractive proposition at budget price, despite the variable standard of the documentation. The sound is good. The CD arrived too late for review in time for Christmas. However, Iím not sure that that matters too much. This disc contains some marvellous life-enhancing music and it can be enjoyed at any time of the year, not just at Christmas.

John Quinn



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