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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata BWV 63, “Christen, štzet diesen Tag” [27:42]
Magnificat in E flat, BWV243a [34:07]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano); Ingeborg Danz (mezzo); Mark Padmore (tenor); Sebastian Noack (bass); Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. no details supplied
HARMONIA MUNDI HMA1951782 [61:49]

I first heard this disc in its original incarnation in 2005, around the time that BBC Radio 3 did their marathon "Bach Christmas". Listening to it now, it has lost none of its freshness or excitement, and again and again I was reminded of the sheer joy of discovering this music for the first time.

BWV 63 is surely the most celebratory of Bach’s Christmas cantatas, and I love the way Herreweghe embraces this, revelling in the ebullience and producing something that pulses with life. Much of the comes from the performances of the choir, so rounded, mellow and homogenous that it sounds as though this music was made for them. More, however, comes from the orchestral sound, which glitters and glows like new gold. The trumpets and drums set off the opening chorus with such sparkle that everything else seems to flow from them. The pompous swagger of the finale — which John Eliot Gardiner argues is a way of mocking Bach’s Weimar employers — is marvellously ostentatious. The chattering winds that intervene only make the whole thing sound even fresher.

The Magnificat is, if anything, finer still. Herreweghe adopts the E flat version — rather than the more common D major version — which is probably closest to Bach’s first thoughts on the work. It contains several minor alterations in the writing, but its most obvious difference is the inclusion of four interpolated choruses that are specific to the Christmas occasion. There aren’t many recordings of this version, and this one, for me, jumps straight to the top of the list, and not far from the top of the recommended list for any version of the work. Herreweghe treads skilfully the line between the devotional and celebratory elements, with plenty of bounce in the great choruses, but he never overdoes it; compare his Fecit potentiam with Gardiner’s version on Philips. There is nothing like the in-your-face brightness of the cantata. Instead, the opening chorus proceeds with stately vigour rather than all-out hyperactivity, and the calmer moments are every bit as fine: listen to the gentleness of, say, Quia respexit or Suscepit Israel. The chorus are equally excellent, and the recorded sound is clean and close, with just enough air around the sound. The whole thing has the energy and pace of a lively conversation, and I loved it.

The disc also benefits from a truly splendid set of soloists. Carolyn Sampson is an angelic presence on the soprano line, her voice catching the acoustic with a lovely bloom, in the same way that the trumpets do. Ingeborg Danz makes a very strong impression in Et misericordia, and Mark Padmore’s big moments are marvellous because they are so vigorous: hear his Deposuit potentes in the Magnificat or Ruft und fleht in the cantata. Sebastian Noack underpins the quartet very strongly, with a Quia fecit that isn’t afraid of the aria’s humorous side.

Whatever the time of year, this disc is a winner, and at this price the choice is easy. There is no libretto, but it’s easily traceable online.

Simon Thompson