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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
‘Actus tragicus’, Gottes Zeit ist der allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 [19:08]
Easter Oratorio, Kommt, eilet und laufet, BWV 249 [41 annah Morrison (soprano); Meg Bragle (alto); Nichola Mulroy (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir/The English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. 24-26 June 2013, Cadogan Hall, London
German texts, English and French translations included

I must admit that I’m not a great devotee of one-to-a-part performances of Bach’s sacred music. I respect the arguments behind this approach and I have a number of recordings in my collection, many of which I find very good in their own terms though, for all the skills of the performers, I don’t always find the results completely convincing. I prefer to hear ensembles of the size of The Monteverdi Choir providing contrast with the solo singers. There’s an exception to every rule, however, and I’ve always loved Joshua Rifkin’s 1985 one-to-a-part recording of BWV 106. The intimacy of this wonderful, consoling piece seems particularly suited to small forces. Tellingly, Bach confined the instrumental accompaniment to a mere handful of instruments: two recorders, two violas da gamba, a cello and organ. There’s a real air of intimacy, indeed, of privacy, to this cantata: it’s akin to chamber music.
This is Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s second recording of the cantata. His first was made for DG Archiv back in 1989 and for it he slimmed down the choir to 4/3/3/3. For this new recording he’s reduced the soprano line by one but otherwise the forces remain the same. Rifkin, of course, used his solo quartet to sing the chorus parts but Gardiner keeps his soloists separate in both of his recordings.
This is a funeral cantata, written while Bach was working in Mühlhausen and almost certainly in 1707 which means it’s the work of a man in his early twenties. As Alfred Dürr has written, the cantata ‘is a work of genius, such as even great masters seldom achieve….it could be argued that in later years Bach’s art became a great deal more mature, but it hardly grew more profound.’ I wonder if there is anything more lovely and touching in all of Bach than the exquisite little Sonatina with which the work begins. It’s a mere twenty bars long but in the space of less than three minutes Bach manages to distil such poignancy that one can only marvel. In this performance the gently soothing recorders, suggesting the Spirit, blend perfectly with each other and with the gambas: all is in perfect accord. By contrast, the gambas seem slightly heavier in Gardiner’s old recording and the slightly softer focus in which all the instruments are heard this time is preferable. Rifkin’s instruments are recorded much more closely, giving a decidedly studio-bound impression, which is less satisfactory.
The Monteverdi Choir members offer light, wonderfully clear singing in the opening chorus. Nicholas Mulroy makes a very good job of the short tenor arioso. I’d thought I might prefer the usually sweet tones of Anthony Rolfe Johnson on the old recording but in fact I don’t, good though Rolfe Johnson is. Hannah Morrison is a singer I don’t think I’ve heard before but I appreciated her light, clear soprano. In the earlier recording Nancy Argenta has a marginally fuller tone but I like both these singers equally. In 1989 Gardiner used a male alto, Michael Chance, and although Meg Bragle sings well enough on the new recording she sounds a bit plain compared to Chance’s more characterful tone. However, as if to compensate, I much prefer the bass on the new recording: Stephen Varcoe does a reliable job on the 1989 recording but Peter Harvey, one of the best Bach basses of recent years, offers much more. In particular he excels in the vox Christi arioso ‘Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein’ in which his singing is wonderfully sensitive and refined. Joshua Rifkin uses four good singers – the soprano and bass are the pick of them – but I prefer both of Gardiner’s solo quartets. His new recording of the cantata is brought to a conclusion with a light-footed and spirited account of the final chorus.
Incidentally, one small way in which the SDG disc scores over the Archiv version is that each section is separately tracked – as is the case with Rifkin also – whereas Archiv divide the whole cantata into just four tracks. This new Gardiner recording is now my favourite among these three – and others that I’ve heard but not mentioned here.
So far as I’m aware the Easter Oratorio is new to Gardiner’s discography; had there been an earlier version I’m sure I would have bought it. This large-scale cantata was first heard in Leipzig at Easter in 1725. It was a hastily-arranged parody of a secular cantata written in the same year. Subsequently, Bach revised it twice; firstly probably in 1738, and once more in the mid-1740s.
What a start Bach provides to his celebration of the Resurrection. Three ringing trumpets, resplendent here, enrich the opening Sinfonia; this music must have made the Leipzig Easter congregation sit up. Gardiner and his players really herald Easter morning in great style, but it’s not all fanfares; later in the movement there’s a nimble violin solo from Maya Homburger. After the initial celebrations there’s an Adagio section which features super oboe playing from Michael Niesseman. Then the trumpets are off again, but this time they’re joined by the chorus and what arresting singing we hear from The Monteverdi Choir. The singing is superbly vital and energetic, full of Easter joy, and I love the way they use words such as ‘laufet’ as rhythmic springboards. It’s interesting to note that we owe this marvellous chorus to the 1740s revision: prior to that it was a vocal duet.
Alfred Dürr observes that this oratorio differs from all Bach’s other sacred music in that ‘it is based on a sung plot rather than one narrated by an Evangelist.’ Thus, in the passages of recitative we usually find more that one of the soloists engaged, and sometimes all four. The soloists can be identified with New Testament characters: Mary the mother of James (soprano); Mary Magdalene (alto); Peter (tenor); and John (bass). Gardiner suggests in his notes that by the time of the oratorio’s last revision this linkage to specific characters had been ‘virtually expunged’ but Alfred Dürr retains the nomenclature in the libretto in his classic study of the cantatas and I find it rather helpful. Gardiner’s Bach performances are invariably distinguished by a compelling approach to recitative and so it is here.
The oratorio contains three notable arias and all are done well. Hannah Morrison sings the long soprano aria, ‘Seele, deine Spezerein’ very expressively and there’s a spellbinding account of the limpid flute obbligato from Rachel Beckett. Nicholas Mulroy sings ‘Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer’ most sensitively. This aria, in which the tenor is quite often taken very low in his register, is one in which death is compared to sleep. The sense of a gentle lullaby is emphasised by the use of two zephyr-like recorders in the accompaniment. Gardiner sets a bracing tempo for the best-known aria, the alto’s ‘Saget, saget mir geschwinde’. The tempo tests the agility of his singer and oboe d’amore player – both pass the test easily – and some listeners may feel the speed is a little hasty. I felt that myself at first but, in fact, it’s fully justified by the words and I quickly came to welcome the sense of urgency. At the end those trumpets are back for the final chorus. What an exuberant, rich and dancing paean of praise and thanksgiving this is in the hands of Gardiner and his musicians. Even by Gardiner’s standards this is a pretty spectacular conclusion.
Here are two very different sacred works by Bach. Both are given outstanding performances and in their completely different ways - one pensive and intimate, one much more public - these works and the performances they receive show Gardiner and his musicians at their best in Bach. The Monteverdi Choir was fifty years old in March 2014 and it’s salutary to reflect that a great number of the performers involved on this new disc will not even have been born in March 1964. Notwithstanding changes to personnel over the decades Gardiner has kept the standards of his choir and orchestras stratospherically high, as is demonstrated abundantly on this disc.
It’s not clear if the performances were recorded under studio conditions or live as is the usual practice with SDG. There’s certainly the electricity of live music-making. The recorded sound is excellent. The documentation is first rate, as we’ve come to expect from this label. The notes are by Sir John and are drawn on material from his absorbing book, Music in the Castle of Heaven. A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach.
This is an outstanding addition to Gardiner’s Bach discography.
John Quinn