on 27 February 2014
This disc is a triumphant vindication of one-voice-per-part performance. While it is impossible to know exactly what Bach intended, the evidence for this type of performance is persuasive and the quality of both singing and playing is very fine. The festive sounds of trumpets and timpani are at the forefront, but listen also to the quite lovely opening aria of BWV 151. It is Bach at his very best and it is hard to imagine anyone singing it better than soprano Maria Keohane.
on 27 January 2014
Here we have a convincing calling-card for OVPP performance of Bach’s “choral” works.
No-one (outside King’s Cambridge) ever thought of using a mob of voices to sing a solo aria, nor even duets or trios; so why, as soon as the music has four lines or more, do we think we need at least ten singers on each part? Bach never thought of this, and never had the time or resources to make the idea work if he had. He did the obvious thing and used his best available voice on each line, in multiple-part as well as solo music: thus he performed his Matthew Passion with eight singers, one voice per part (plus a few appendages). This was Joshua Rifkin’s conclusion in the 1980’s, now widely accepted academically (except by choral conductors) but still feeling counter-intuitive and in need of demonstration in practice.
Rifkin’s own recordings, and Andrew Parrott’s great version of the B minor Mass began the verification process, currently being followed by Sigiswald Kuijken in a Canata series: now we have a very elegant offering (recorded in November 2012) from Philippe Pierlot and his Ricercar Consort of cantatas for the Nativity season.
They did themselves pretty well at Christmas in Leipzig in the 1720’s, not least in church: a full liturgy (with cantata) for three days in succession. The aim was celebration and meditation, and that’s what Bach gives us in these three splendid works. The two for Christmas Day itself, "Christen, atzet diesen Tag" and "Unser Mund sei voll Lachens”, are drum-and-trumpet affairs. The opening chorus of "Christen, atzet" – “Christians, etch this day on your hearts” – is very brilliant, and perfectly realised here: you can hear more when there are less voices. The first movement of "Unser Mund”, a later work, is a strange (to us) adaptation by Bach of his 4th Orchestral Suite. He kept the original and added vocal parts over it, and again his conception is very well realised in this recording – in “choral” performances the voices tend to drown the band, and so miss the point that there was no great musical distinction in Bach’s mind between vocal and instrumental (or sacred and secular). After all, what we call “cantatas” he called “concertos”.
My favourite here is “Süsser trost, mein Jesus kömmt”, written for the 3rd Day: everyone in the loft was tired by now, so Bach left the brass in the pub, and used only flute and strings, in a quiet, meditative piece which starts with a dreamy soprano aria – well sung by Maria Keohane – which is nine minutes in heaven as far as I’m concerned.
Pierlot and his group have made four previous OVPP Bach recordings, including a well-received version of the Magnificat. This is well up to his previous high standards. The band mirrors Bach’s own forces at the St. Thomas, and the four singers are stylish, expressive and powerful enough, alone or together, to ride the orchestra without strain: each voice gives real pleasure in itself (Keohane especially so). The house style is warmer, more emotive than Kuijken’s series, but many will feel that an advantage. The recording is technically excellent, in an appropriately resonant acoustic.
If you like Bach (he does call for the listener to do some work) I am sure you will enjoy this disc very much.
This is a terrific disc of three of Bach's Christmas cantatas. I have enjoyed many of The Ricercar Consort's recordings in the past, and this is one of their best, I think.
The music itself is a delight, of course. Bach's joyful vocal and instrumental writing makes these works a huge pleasure, and his use of instrumental colour in particular is wonderful here. Philippe Pierlot and his ensemble do it proud. The one-to-a-part approach works extremely well and both the solo singing and choral work are excellent. The instrumental work is magnificent, with Bach's music really glittering in the sparkling trumpet parts especially - but every aspect of it is very fine and beautifully balanced. Pierlot keeps that pulse which is so vital to Bach beating throughout and brings really sensitive performances from all his musicians and singers with the quieter, more spiritual passages being genuinely affecting and the celebratory movements blazing with light and joy.
There are a lot of very good recordings of Bach cantatas, but this is something rather special, I think. It's beautifully recorded and very nicely presented, making it an all-round gem. Very warmly recommended.