Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Easter Oratorio, BWV 249 (1725) [44:54]
Christine Brenk (soprano); Anne Greiling (alto); Frank Bossert (tenor); Thomas Pfeiffer (bass)
Trompetenensemble Pfeiffer; Motetettenchor Pforzheim
Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim/Rolf Schweizer
rec. 23-27 July 1999, Stadtkirche Pforzheim, Germany. DDD
Includes only German texts
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94350 [44:54]
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 isn’t.
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 other performers.
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
This is an unfortunate example of “you get what you pay for”.