Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Easter Oratorio, BWV 249 (1725) [41:04]
Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11 [39:22]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor); James Gilchrist (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass)
Retrospect Ensemble/Matthew Halls
rec. 22-25 February 2010, St. Jude’s Church, London. DSD
German texts and English translation included
LINN CKD 373 [70:26]

I sometimes wonder if there is a composer better than Bach at conveying joyfulness in religious music. These two works, which mark two of the greatest feasts in the Christian calendar, give him plenty of opportunity for musical jubilation though there are equally fine reflective stretches in both oratorios. Though given the title ‘Oratorio’ each piece is, in effect, a substantial cantata and both include music which Bach recycled from earlier secular cantatas.

The Easter Oratorio re-uses music that Bach had written in February 1725 for a birthday cantata for the Duke of Saxony-Weissenfels. A few weeks later, on Easter Day (April 1) the music, with a new text, was first heard in its sacred version. Lavishly scored for an orchestra that includes three trumpets, timpani, flute and pairs of recorders and oboes, the oratorio opens with a superbly extrovert sinfonia, followed by an expressive instrumental adagio. It’s evident from these two movements that the performance is going to be excellent. The playing is crisp, with sharply delineated rhythms – the silvery trumpets add a marvellously festive feel. And when the choir (6/4/4/4) enters they’re just as impressive and as incisive as the instrumentalists.

The opportunity for reflection comes in two of the three arias. The soprano aria, ‘Seele, deine Spezerein’, is an extended piece, lasting nearly a quarter of the whole length of the performance (10:49). Carolyn Sampson offers a flawless account of it. Her singing is poised and exhibits gorgeous, pure tone and lovely phrasing. The performance is enhanced by the exquisite playing of her obbligato partner, flautist Rachel Brown. James Gilchrist gives a wonderful account of the sublime aria ‘Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer’. There’s just a hint that perhaps he finds the very lowest lying phrases a touch uncomfortable. However, this is insignificant when set against the way in which he floats beautifully the line in the higher reaches of his voice. Bach’s lovely, pastoral orchestration, in which the recorders are prominent, imparts a sensuous yet innocent air to the music.

The third aria, ‘Saget, saget mir geschwinde’ is taken pretty briskly by Matthew Halls. Fortunately Iestyn Davies is an agile singer who takes the tempo in his stride and neither he nor the fluent oboe d’amore player (Alexandra Bellamy?) sound in the slightest bit discomfited. Instead, at this lithe tempo the appropriate degree of urgency, suggested by the text, is fully realised. In the final chorus, where the trumpets and drums are again well to the fore, the choir takes full advantage of another opportunity to show their quality.

The Ascension Oratorio probably dates from 1735, though in this work also Bach borrowed music from earlier compositions. Once again the performance gets off to the best possible start with the celebratory opening chorus taken at a lively pace by Matthew Halls. Though the pace is quite brisk his players and singers articulate the music splendidly so that nothing sounds rushed. The extended alto aria ‘Ach bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben’, is familiar as the ‘Agnus Dei’ from the B Minor Mass. However, Alfred Dürr points out that the cantata version was not the forerunner of the aria in the Missa but, rather, that both pieces were derived independently from a wedding cantata that Bach had composed in 1725. Here, Matthew Halls takes the music at a very expansive tempo and Iestyn Davies responds with very expressive, finely controlled singing. The other aria, ‘Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke’, which is the penultimate number in the work, gives us one more opportunity to savour Carolyn Sampson’s singing and she doesn’t disappoint, offering another elevated performance. The scoring is biased towards the treble end of the spectrum, with the soprano joined by a pair of flutes and an oboe as well as strings. As Dürr puts it “the aria creates the impression of an upward gaze, with all earthly weight seemingly eradicated.” I didn’t read that until after I’d first listened to this recording but it seems to me that the description is completely appropriate to the present performance. It’s as if the watchers on earth are getting their last sight of Christ as he ascends through the clouds. Then the final exuberant chorus rounds off Bach’s celebration of this feast and it also concludes an exceptionally fine performance of the work.

I’ve discussed the choruses and arias. I ought also to say that the delivery of the recitatives is stylish.

Linn have gone to their customary lengths in presenting these performances. I listened to the disc as a conventional CD and felt that the recorded sound is superb; the engineers have done an excellent job, giving clear and crisp sound with just the right amount of resonance. The well-produced booklet contains an erudite note by Nia Lewis.

This splendid disc offers distinguished and stylish performances. It’s one of the most effervescent discs of Bach’s vocal music to have come my way in a long time and I enjoyed it enormously. More, please!

John Quinn

An effervescent disc of Bach’s vocal music, containing distinguished and stylish performances.