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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Recreation for the Soul
Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78 [19:58]
Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150 [13:18]
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 [28:02]
Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano); Daniel Taylor (alto); James Gilchrist (tenor)
The Magdalena Consort/Peter Harvey (bass)
rec. 17-19 April 2013, The Church of St. John the Evangelist, London. DSD
German texts and English translations included.

The Magdalena Consort was founded in 2008 by Peter Harvey to give chamber performances of sacred vocal music from Monteverdi to Bach, which, in the case of Bach at least, means one-to-a-part vocal forces. This, I believe, is their first recording. The consort works regularly with a very select group of singers, all highly regarded exponents of the music of composers such as Bach, and four of them are involved in these recordings. The instrumental ensemble numbers nineteen players though not all of them appear in every work.

Indeed, the ensemble required for BWV 150 is particularly small, consisting of two violins, bassoon and a continuo of cello, violone and organ. This is possibly Bach’s earliest surviving work in the genre. It is thought to date from 1707 at the start of Bach’s time in Mühlhausen and, so far as I’m aware, it was not intended for any specific Sunday or occasion. Given the small instrumental forces involved this cantata seems ideally suited to the chamber style of performance advocated by Peter Harvey and The Magdalena Consort. Interestingly, there’s only one solo number in the cantata, a short soprano aria that is nicely sung by Elin Manahan Thomas. There’s a second number that carries the title ‘Aria’ but it turns out to be a trio for the other three voices. The remaining movements, with the exception of the opening Sinfonia, involve all four voice parts. There’s an intimacy to this present performance which is entirely appropriate and convincing. One benefit of the one-to-a-part approach is that, in the right hands it’s possible to introduce a greater degree of expression into the vocal parts than would usually be possible with a larger ensemble. That’s particularly true here in the tutti movement ‘Leite mich in deiner Wahrheit und lehre mich’ which is very well sung indeed: I particularly like the way that on several occasions in this chorus one vocal line rises up out of the texture and then falls back again. The final movement, a Ciaconna, is the one from which Brahms drew the inspiration for the passacaglia that concludes his Fourth Symphony. In this movement, despite the small forces involved the musicians generate a strong performance.

BWV 78 is a Leipzig cantata dating from 1724. It’s a cantata for the 14th Sunday after Trinity. The text is based on a chorale by one Johann Rist and in the booklet the lines of text that Bach incorporated into his cantata from Rist’s chorale are helpfully shown in bold type; that’s typical of the thoughtful approach to this release. The opening chorus is in passacaglia form and offers another example of the ability of just four voices to invest a choral movement with additional expression compared with what we’re used to hearing even from expert groups such as the Monteverdi Choir. There follows a duet for soprano and alto, ‘Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten’ (‘We hasten with feeble yet steadfast steps’). In this agile performance the inspiration has clearly been taken from the word ‘eilen’. The two voices complement each other very well. In his recitativo and aria James Gilchrist shows his habitual care for the words; he’s very expressive in the first of these movements and then lightens his voice for the aria to match the lovely flute obbligato. Like Gilchrist, Peter Harvey impressed me greatly with his many contributions to the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. Here again his pedigree as a Bach singer is readily apparent. In his aria and the preceding recitativo the firmness of tone, care for words and the imagination of his delivery – especially in the recitativo – are all admirable.

Originally composed in 1716 in Weimar, Bach expanded the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 significantly in 1723 when he adapted it for the Feast of the Visitation (July 2). In this revised form it has become one of his most celebrated cantatas, not least on account of the chorale with which both Parts I and II conclude. For those who, like me, are accustomed to hearing Bach cantatas performed by an expert small choir this work is likely to be the one on the disc for which the greatest adjustment of prejudice is required. In truth, however, there isn’t a great deal for a chorus to do in this work apart from the chorale and the opening chorus. My goodness, that opening chorus is taken at a lick. Ushered in by a bright, athletic trumpet the movement dances exuberantly and the involvement of just four singers, all highly proficient Bach artists, enables Peter Harvey to adopt a challenging speed safe in the knowledge that the vocal passagework will be completely secure. As a result the performance is light and joyful.

The solo movements are all done very well. I love the sense of wonder that James Gilchrist imparts to his recitativo, ‘Gebenedeiter Mund!’ Later Lucy Russell contributes a beguiling violin obbligato to the aria ‘Bereite dir, Jesu, noch itzo die Bahn’ while Elin Manahan Thomas’s light voice brings a touch of wholly appropriate fragility to the vocal line. The last aria is for the bass and Peter Harvey, partnered by the ringing trumpet of Robert Farley, is commanding in ‘Ich will von Jesu Wundern singen’; as well as his sheer vocal presence I admired the clarity he brings to the passagework.

Though my preference is to hear Bach cantatas performed by ensembles of the size favoured by Sir John Eliot Gardiner and Masaaki Suzuki I’m always open to listening to performances on a smaller scale when they’re as expertly done as here. These are stylish and thoughtful performances given by musicians who are thoroughly versed in Bach performances. I enjoyed these cantata performances very much indeed. My enjoyment was enhanced by the excellence of the recorded sound and the excellent quality of the documentation.

I look forward to further recordings from this fine ensemble.

John Quinn

Masterwork Index: Bach cantatas