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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Cantata No. 63, Christen, ätzet diese Tag (BWV 63) [26:12]
Magnificat in E flat (BWV 243a) [32:58]
Marie Perbost, Hana Blažíková (soprano), Eva Zaïcik (contralto), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Stephan MacLeod (bass)
La Chapelle Harmonique/Valentin Tournet
rec. 2018, La Chapelle Royale, Versailles, France
Texts and translations included

For many centuries the Magnificat or Song of Mary, one of the canticles from the Bible, was one of the main parts of the liturgy. It was sung at the end of Vespers, preceded and followed by an antiphon which linked it to the time of the year. This explains why we know so many settings of the Magnificat from the Renaissance. In Protestantism, where the Virgin Mary takes a fundamentally different place, it was connected to the Feast of the Visitation - Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth shortly after the Annunciation - and, following logically from this, Advent and Christmas.

Bach composed only one setting of this text. A performance on Christmas Day in 1723 - his first year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig - is documented, but it seems likely that he wrote it for the Feast of the Visitation at 2 July of that year. For the Christmas performance, he included four hymns which linked the work to Christmas: Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, Freut euch und jubilieret, Gloria in excelsis Deo and Virga Jesse floruit. This was in line with a tradition in Leipzig to add so-called laudes, which is rooted in an age-old practice of adding tropes to an existing text. One can see also a link here with the liturgical tradition of adding an antiphon as mentioned above. Two of these four hymns are for voices without instrumental accompaniment, which creates a marked contrast with the Magnificat itself. Some performers decide to add instruments, playing colla voce. Valentin Tournet opted for an a capella performance in Vom Himmel hoch, whereas in Freut euch three voices sing and the bass is performed instrumentally.

The Magnificat opens and closes with verses of a celebratory character. They receive exuberant performances through swift tempi and marked dynamic accents. In between are lyrical and more dramatic sections. Among the former is 'Et exultavit spiritus meus', wonderfully sung by Hana Blaziková. Marie Perbost does equally well in 'Quia respexit', making a nice differentiation between good and bad notes. 'Esurientes implevit bonis' receives a lovely performance by Eva Zaïcik. She is joined by Thomas Hobbs in 'Et misericordia', where the two voices blend perfectly. Stephan MacLeod brings the right amount of firmness to 'Quia fecit mihi magna'. 'Fecit potentiam' is one of the most dramatic sections of the Magnificat, and that comes off to full extent here. Another dramatic section is 'Deposuit potentes', a solo for tenor, accompanied by strings. It is excellently executed by Hobbs and the orchestra. We can admire the three female soloists in the trio 'Suscepit Israel'. This performance is one of the best of the E flat version of Bach's Magnificat available right now.

It is not uncommon to combine this 'Christmas version' of the Magnificat with Cantata BWV 63, Christen ätzet diesen Tag. Previously, Philippe Herreweghe and John Butt, for instance, did the same. This cantata was also performed on the first day of Christmas in 1723, although it was originally written for Christmas 1714 in Weimar. It is a jubilant piece, as the instrumental scoring indicates: three oboes, bassoon, four trumpets, timpani, strings and basso continuo. The cantata has a symmetrical construction: it opens and closes with choruses for the tutti, and in between are two duets, embraced and separated by recitatives. The opening chorus is brilliantly sung and played, again in a suitably swift tempo, with strong dynamic accents and effective messa di voce on long notes. It is followed by an accompanied recitative, which is given a truly speech-like performance by Eva Zaïcik. Her German pronunciation is very good. Unfortunately, she uses a little bit too much vibrato here. In the duet of soprano and bass, 'Gott, du hast es wohl gefüget', Marie Perbost and Stephan MacLeod sensibly response to its intimate character. It is well articulated and there is a good balance between the two voices. In the ensuing recitative, Thomas Hobbs realises the contrast between the two sections effectively. His voice blends well with that of Eva Zaïcik in the duet 'Ruft und fleht den Himmel an'. After a short accompanied recitative for bass, the cantata ends with a sparkling performance of the chorus 'Höchster, schau in Gnaden an'.

This is the first recording by La Chapelle Harmonique, founded by the young gambist Valentin Tournet. I had not heard it before, and I am quite impressed by what is on offer here. I rank this disc highly among the recordings of Bach's vocal music which have crossed my path over the last couple of years. I definitely hope to hear more from this ensemble, preferably with less common repertoire. There is still much to discover, and little-known compositions can only profit from being performed by as fine an ensemble as La Chapelle Harmonique.

Johan van Veen

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