Bach: Magnificat in E flat | Missa in F

Hannah Morrison, Angela Hicks, Charlotte Ashley, Reginald Mobley, Eleanor Minney, Hugo Hymas, Gianluca Buratto, Jake Muffett SSSAATBB, monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria SDG728

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ecorded in December 2016 in the spacious acoustic of St Jude’s, Hampstead Garden Suburb and released for this Christmastide, this elegantly produced CD couples some delightful music with the early version of the Magnificat, that was probably a show-piece for Bach’s first Christmas day Vespers in Leipzig in 1723.

From the start, the swirling polyphony of the opening Kyries of the Missa in F, where the ‘cantus firmus’ of Christe, du Lamm Gottes  on the corni tethers the energetic polyphony in this adaptation of an earlier Weimar Kyrie, introduces the energy and direction of this CD. The following Gloria uses material from (among other sources) Cantata 40, performed on the 2nd day of that Christmas in 1723, and BWV 151 was written for the 3rd day of Christmas in 1725, so all the pieces are appropriate for a Christmas-tide CD of Bach.

The roulades of the corni and the close imitation of the voices in the opening of the Gloria in the Missa give an almost hunt-like urgency to the chase, and Gardiner’s crisp and energetic delivery is helped by a smaller than usual choir ( from whose ranks singers step forward to sing the arias and recitatives. Star among them are the more established Hannah Morrison, Reginald Moberly and Hugo Hymas, but a welcome new voice to me was Angela Hicks who sings the long and difficult aria that opens Süßer Trost  (BWV 151). Here the balance between the singer, the strings topped with an oboe d’amore and the single traverso is captured wonderfully, the voice balancing the tender flute marvellously – yet fully capable of the sudden brightening up in the quick triplets of the central section of the aria before recovering the cradle-like calm of the da capo. Gardiner’s use of his chorus singers provides us not only with excellent and stylish performances of the arias, but with consistency of sound throughout the vocal scoring and the consequent easy blend between singers and instruments. He seems increasingly confident not just in his singers’ accomplishments – as he properly should – but in creating this newly-minted overall sound, which to me is most welcome. As a result, the cumulative effect of the (individually) quite short movements of the Magnificat has a coherence and momentum that some of his earlier recordings lack.

A dialogue between Gardiner and Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, himself a trumpeter and recording producer as well as Principal of the Royal Academy, forms the bulk of the well-produced booklet. The discussion touches on the question of the performing pitch for the E flat Magnificat, but the central question – is the E flat Magnificat one of those earlier works where the wind parts are in E flat and played at 392, so the sounding pitch holds to 415? – is only tangentially referred to, and Don Smithers’ careful arguments in 1996 arguing for the lower pitch are dismissed rather than refuted. E flat is a surprising key for trumpet parts – notated as usual in the score in C – to sound in, so what was the actual pitch at which this Magnificat was first performed? Did a set of parts for strings in E flat ever exist? In the end, you have to make informed choices about these matters, but I am not wholly convinced that the Magnificat ever actually sounded in E flat at 415. And unless and until some parts for the Magnificat performance of 1723 come to light, we will never be sure.

David Stancliffe

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One reply on “Bach: Magnificat in E flat | Missa in F”

The suggestion that the E flat Magnificat was intended to sound at 415 is rubbish, even if David S politely avoids putting it those terms. The extensive note by John Butt to the Dunedin recording makes quite clear the circumstances of the 1723 Leipzig performance, where the piece was combined with BWV63 (which you can hear alongside it on the Dunedin recording), and the much greater likelihood that the effective pitch for both was ‘tief kammerton’ c. 392, as in a number of Bach’s other early Leipzig works. The same nonsense persists, of course, in the idea that Brandenburg 2 was written to sound at 415, and the same, simple pitch explanation shows that there is no basis for inventing freak instruments for theses pieces. It’s high time that more directors got their heads around the concept of varied pitch standards. 415 was not the ‘standard’ Baroque pitch, however convenient it may seem to us today.

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