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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Missa in F major, BWV 233 [22:45]
Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, BWV 151 [17:11]
Magnificat in E flat major, BWV 233a [33:55]
Hannah Morrison, Angela Hicks, Charlotte Ashley (sopranos); Reginald Mobley, Eleanor Minney (altos); Hugo Hymas (tenor); Gianluca Buratto, Jake Muffett (basses)
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 14-16 December, 2016, St John’s Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London
Original texts and English, French & German translations included

In and among all his other projects, Sir John Eliot Gardiner appears to be working his way through the major choral works of J S Bach, re-recording for the Soli Deo Gloria label works that he set down many years ago, principally for DG Archiv. He’s already given us second versions of the St John Passion (review), the St Matthew Passion (review) and the B minor Mass (review). I hope that a new recording of the Christmas Oratorio may follow in due course. On this new disc he revisits the Magnificat, which he recorded for Philips way back in 1983. However, in so doing he’s added to his discography because the first recording was of the D major version of Bach’s score; this time Gardiner has opted for the E flat version with the four Christmas interpolations. His programme also includes a new recording of the Christmas cantata, Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, which was also included in Volume 15 of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series (review). The disc is completed by a work which Gardiner has never recorded before, the Missa in F major.

This Mass is one of four Lutheran Masses that Bach composed, probably between 1735 and 1744, largely by reworking movements from earlier cantatas. Each of the four comprises just a Kyrie and Gloria. In the F major Mass the Kyrie is graceful and quite modest in scale. The Gloria, however, is a different matter. In the outer movements Bach enriches the texture with a pair of exultant horns. Gardiner’s ebullient horns rasp and whoop superbly. The result is no less exciting than Paul McCreesh’s festive account as part of his 1997 Bach Epiphany Mass set (DG Archiv 457 631-2). The Monteverdi Choir’s singing is spirited and joyful. Later, Gianluca Buratto’s suave delivery of the ‘Domine Deus’ gives much pleasure, as does Hannah Morrison’s lovely sense of line in ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’. Here she’s partnered by a beguiling oboe (Rachel Chaplin, I presume). Overall, this is a highly enjoyable account of the Mass and I’m glad that Gardiner selected it.

The cantata Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt is prescribed for the Third Day of Christmas and on 27 December 2000 Gardiner performed it in New York right at the end of the famous Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. It’s dominated by the heavenly soprano aria which opens the work: here the aria plays for 10:11 of the cantata’s total duration. The aria is one of Bach’s most serene and lovely compositions; Gardiner plausibly suggests that it may well represent the Virgin singing a lullaby to the Christ child. One important change in Gardner’s recent Bach recordings is his use of members of the Monteverdi Choir to sing the solos rather than importing guest soloists who may be better known. Here, Angela Hicks is excellent, her singing gently radiant. I must confess to a slight preference for the sound made by Gillian Keith, Gardiner’s soloist in 2000; her tone is somewhat richer. On the other hand, Gardiner’s tempo is slightly more expansive in this new version and the music has even more space in which to breathe. On both performances the bewitching, zephyr-like flute obbligato is wonderfully played by Rachel Beckett. The cantata also includes a pleasing alto aria which is fluently sung by Reginald Mobley.

Bach’s setting of the Magnificat is most commonly encountered in its D major version rahr than the original E flat version of 1723. The revision dates from about 1730. In that revision Bach transposed the work down a semitone and made several minor musical emendations. He also removed the four Christmas-specific interpolated hymns – two in German, two in Latin. The original version in E flat was composed for the Christmas celebrations in Leipzig in 1723. This was Bach’s first Christmas in the city and there’s a definite sense that he wanted to show off what he could do. This Magnificat, which would have been sung at Vespers in the Nikolaikirche on Christmas Day is a virtuoso composition which requires five soloists, a five-part choir and a lavishly colourful orchestra.

In 1983 Gardiner took the opening movement at a very fast pace indeed, the music made athletic as well as dazzling. In this latest recording he’s even faster and though the choir and orchestra articulate the music expertly I do wonder if this very swift pace, which is reprised, of course, at the very end of the work, isn’t just too much of a good thing. I prefer the earlier performance. After a spirted and clear account of ‘Et exsultavit’ from Eleanor Minney (listed as an alto but presumably singing as Soprano II) we hear ‘Von Himmel hoch’, the first of the Christmas hymns. The choir is heard from a distance and the effect is magical. The other Christmas hymns are equally well done – the fourth is a duet for soprano and bass soloists – though I do feel that the third hymn, ‘Gloria in excelsis’ does rather impede the musical flow between ‘Fecit potentiam’ and the tenor aria ’Deposuit potentes’. That aria is dashingly delivered by Hugo Hymas. Earlier, ‘Fecit potentiam’, a very difficult chorus at any speed, is taken at a real lick by Gardiner, just as he did in 1983, but his Monteverdi Choir surmounts the challenge with panache. Reginald Mobley sings ‘Esurientes’ very persuasively but my memory told me that Gardiner’s way with the aria was more easeful in 1983. When I checked I found that he is indeed slightly more relaxed in his earlier recording, though only marginally so. I also found that I have a slight preference for the voice of Charles Brett, his alto in 1983. At the conclusion of the work ‘Sicut locutus est’ is suitably majestic and then Bach plays the old musical joke of setting the words ‘Sicut erat in principio’ (As it was in the beginning) to the music with which he began the work. It may be an old joke but it’s a superb punchline in Bach’s hands.

I can imagine some eyebrows being raised at one or two of Gardiner’s swift tempi in the Magnificat. However, for all that, it’s still a very fine performance and I enjoyed it very much. Indeed, I relished the entire disc, which is superbly performed from start to finish. Most of the Monteverdi Choir discs on SDG stem from live performances but I rather think that this latest one may have been made under studio conditions. Engineer Mike Hatch has recorded the music with his customary expertise, achieving clarity and excellent balance. The documentation includes a most interesting conversation between Sir John and Jonathan Freeman-Attwood. This is a most welcome addition to Gardiner’s Bach discography.

John Quinn



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