This CD is a conundrum. I applaud Brilliant Classics for offering
recordings of the classical repertoire at budget price. It seems
safe to assume that if someone has a burgeoning interest in
Bach and decides to purchase their Bach CD, they will probably
opt for a cheaper one. I am glad they have such an option, as
today one can find recordings on Brilliant Classics that are
competitive with the very best performances. The Shostakovich
symphony cycle played by the WDRSO conducted by Rudolf Barshai
and the Complete Orchestral works of Smetana played by the Janác(ek
PO conducted by Theodore Kuchar are two such examples. Archivmusic.com
lists 22 recordings of Bach’s Easter Oratorio, and
this is the only recording at budget price.
Sadly, this CD is not competitive. The discs listed above come
with scholarly notes and contain at least 60 minutes of music
on each CD. The Brilliant CD offers two short paragraphs of
notes, which arguably cannot be appreciated or understood by
someone without prior knowledge of Baroque dance music and Bach’s
use of parody. Furthermore, only the German text is provided.
One of the salient aspects of Bach’s vocal writing is that his
music expressed the sentiment and emotion of the words more
fully. Listeners who do not speak German fluently should not
be denied the ability to understand what is being sung. At the
very least, Brilliant could mimic Naxos and provide translations
on its website.
I don’t mean to single out this label. Today just about everyone
is saving on their production costs by providing minimal notes
and no translations. I suppose that with a simple Google search
the text is just a few clicks away. Perhaps this would not have
bothered me as much if the performance was excellent, but it
This is an anachronistic recording that reveals little, if any,
awareness of historically aware performance practice. I was
greatly surprised to discover the recording was made in 1999,
as the performance suggests several years earlier. The orchestral
sound is dominated by the strings; the bowing and articulation
create a heavy, lifeless sound. Winds are backwardly balanced,
except for solos, where they suddenly appear front and center.
The trumpets and drums are particularly disturbing: they often
sound as if they were recorded in a different acoustic.
I am all for performance of Baroque music on modern instruments,
but surely there should be an awareness of playing styles of
the period. Much of the music in the Easter Oratorio
is in triple meter, meant to be felt one beat per bar. To create
that feeling, the players must stress beat one, and then ensure
that beats two and three taper away. In this performance that
never happens; every beat is played with the same amount of
stress and weight. The oratorio contains some of Bach’s best
dance music, yet as performed here, it remains stubbornly earthbound.
The soloists also disappoint, in part because they are recorded
far too closely, thereby exposing every single vocal imperfection
with pinpoint clarity. The soprano aria, Seele, deine Spezerien
(Soul, your exotic delicacies), features sensuous imagery, vividly
expressed through one of Bach’s most gorgeous melodies. Its
beauty is only fitfully realized here; the soprano shows little
understanding of what she is singing and her pronounced vibrato
is distracting, particularly when at forte or above. The same
could be said of every soloist, all of whom have voices too
large and unwieldy for what we expect in today’s Bach. If only
the soloists came from the choir, which is well-drilled, producing
a light, alert, joyful sound that is all but absent from the
This is an unfortunate example of “you get what you pay for”.
A far better investment is the recording by Bach Collegium Japan
(BIS SA-CD 1561), or, if you prefer Bach choral works with one
singer per choral part, as advocated by Joshua Rifkin and Andrew
Parrott, track down Paul McCreesh’s recording on Archiv/DG (000872102).
Both are masterly performances that convey Bach’s full genius.
David A. McConnell