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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Magnificat in D major, BWV 243 (1723/1732-35) [28:54]
George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759)
Dixit Dominus, HWV 232 (1707) [32:20]
Vox Luminis/Lionel Meunier
rec. 2017, Begijnhofkerk, Sint-Truiden, Belgium (Handel); 2017, De Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam (Bach)
Latin texts with French and English translations provided
ALPHA 370 [61:22]

This might be considered a rather odd coupling, even though Bach and Handel are often paired in one’s mind. The fact is that while Bach’s Magnificat is one of his most renowned choral works, Handel’s delightful Dixit Dominus is only his first large-scale sacred work that has more in common with his Baroque forbears, Corelli and Vivaldi, than with Bach. Indeed, my favorite version of Dixit Dominus is paired with Vivaldi’s Gloria on a BBC Music cover CD from 1999, performed superbly by the Swiss Radio Chorus of Lugano and I Barocchisti under Diego Fasolis. Unlike that recording, however, this one is performed at the lower pitch of historically informed Baroque music. Other than that, I find little to choose between them as to the quality of the vocal and orchestral performances. There are many fine recordings of Bach’s Magnificat, either in his original E-flat version with the added hymns or in this later and more standard D major one. I fear this new account comes up short in comparison to the others with which I am familiar, especially in two of the movements, Omnes generationes and Sicut locutus, both taken at tempos that can only be described as flaccid and stodgy. Elsewhere, Meunier’s speeds are closer to the norm. One wonders whatever possessed him in those movements, acknowledging that he is Baroque specialist.

Generally, the singing and playing in both works are excellent, with the quite extensive number of soloists leaving little to be desired. Nonetheless, there is another issue here that I have trouble reconciling: the recorded balance between the chorus and orchestra. Although the sound is full and very present, the orchestra, especially the organ, at times covers the singers. This is particularly apparent in the Magnificat, but also to a lesser extent in Dixit Dominus. The organ tends to boom out and create a rather plodding impression in the Bach work that may be due to the venue in which it was recorded. The recording of the Handel seems better in this respect, taken in a different church, though the strings are swamped by the organ with the main theme nearly buried in the introduction to the final Gloria Patri, which foreshadows Handel’s Concerto grosso in B-flat, Op. 6, No. 7.

Overall, this Bach Magnificat is decent enough and Handel’s Dixit Dominus is more than that. Thus, if you want the particular coupling and are willing to put up with two uncharacteristically sluggish movements in the Bach, there is quite a lot to enjoy in these accounts. If, on the other hand, the Bach is your primary interest, I would recommend either John Eliot Gardiner’s 1980s recording of the D major version (Philips) or the new one by Arcangelo (Hyperion) which I was able to sample. For the original E-flat Magnificat my favourite remains Philippe Herreweghe’s on a two-disc set with Bach Christmas cantatas (Harmonia Mundi).

Leslie Wright
Previous review: Michael Cookson


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