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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus tragicus), BWV106 [20:17]
Chorale Partita: O Gott, du frommer Gott – partita VIII, BWV767 [2:35]
Motet: Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV229 [9:18]
Cantata: Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV182 [29:34]
Terence Charlston (organ)
Amici Voices
rec. 2017, St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London
HYPERION CDA68275 [61:46]

Amici Voices was founded in 2012 “as an opportunity for some of the best young voices in the UK to experience first-hand the world of professional consort work”. Certainly this disc showcases eight exceptionally fine voices, one of the most lovely being soprano Bethany Partridge, whose captivating delivery of “Ja, komm, Herr Jesu” from Cantata 106 is by no means the only arresting moment on the disc, but effectively defines what this group is all about when it comes to performing Bach. The biography also tells us that Amici Voices was created especially for a performance of Bach’s St John Passion, so we should not be surprised that they seem so at ease in this cleverly-conceived programme of Bach vocal music.

Ease and comfort is very much at the heart of the programme, which explores some of Bach’s pre-Leipzig vocal music. The opener – the funeral Cantata Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit – is one of the earliest he wrote, dating from 1707 whilst he was still at Mühlhausen, and the disc closes with the cantata for Palm Sunday, Himmelskӧnig, sei willkommen, composed in 1714 at Weimar. Both have as their theme an unshakeable trust in God in the face of tragedy and doom. There is something both compelling and endearing about the delicacy and purity of tone these singers bring to these works. Intricate contrapuntal lines are traced with disarming clarity, while the passages of brisk and lively articulation are delivered with impressive precision. Supporting them is an equally-committed instrumental ensemble using period-style instruments (fully detailed in the booklet).

In these two early works the sense of Bach trying out ideas is often very apparent. The closing chorus of BWV106 with its oddly syncopated instrumental support, is delivered here with great care, as if such fragile textures could so easily fall apart were any greater weight applied to them. Similarly, the delicately dancing violin and recorder duet (played by Magdalena Loth-Hill and Ashley Solomon respectively) above a carefully stepping continuo which opens BWV182 has a feeling of real fragility, enhanced rather than obscured by slight tuning irregularities. The jaunty opening chorus reminds us that Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, not a majestic horse, while Helen Charlston’s almost suppressed delivery, with her vocal entries under the gently flowing flute obbligato barely perceptible, of the aria “Leget euch dem Heiland unter”, is the perfect musical portrayal of humility.

Between the two cantatas comes a brief moment from one of the organ Chorale Partitas, included, so the booklet tells us, to ease the change of tonality from BWV106 to that of the Motet Komm, Jesu, Komm BWV229. It certainly does that most effectively, and the opening invocations of the Motet are infused with a greater sense of sincerity as a result. Composed, as was BWV106, for a funeral (in this case that of the widow of one of Bach’s predecessors as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, which took place in 1730), the performance by Amici Voices is notable for its directness of expression and clarity of detail. Captured in a very fine recording, this is a disc which gives Bach’s vocal music a particularly fresh-faced and openly sincere quality.

Marc Rochester

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