Bach Magnificats

Modern floral

[Joélle Harvey, Olivia Vermuelen, Iestyn Davies, Thomas Walker, Thomas Bauer SmScTTBar], Arcangelo, Jonathan Choen
Hyperion CDA68157
Magnificats by J. S., J. C. & C. P. E. Bach

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you like your J. S. Bach Magnificat performed by a 19-voice chorus, almost any one of whom could have sung the solo numbers in the same musical style, but with five other singers who sing in a more declamatory and operatic style singing the solo numbers, both accompanied by an excellent period band who are clearly regarded as accompanists rather than equal partners, then you may be wooed by this CD. I don’t find the JSB part very persuasive. The soloists over-sing – perhaps the result of some live takes at the Tetbury Festival where the recording was made? – and the choir seems to have volume as their chief aim. As a result the substantial band ( strings) of skilled players seem to be also-rans, in a definitely subservient role: for example, the oboes in the Suscepit Israel  are definitely more distant than the three voices. As far as the solo voices are concerned, the upper voices are too wobbly for me, and the tenor and bass too histrionic. Only Iestyn Davies seems to be in control of his instrument, and we only hear him once in the CPE Bach Magnificat that takes up more than half the disc. Thomas Walker, the tenor, has a noticeable change of gear mid range and while the higher register is attractive and clear the lower range sounds bottled up and makes for an unsettling experience for the listener.

But the JSB Magnificat  is only a third of the CD, and the other Magnificats make an interesting comparison. Both of them are in the new, pre-Classical style, and indeed both soloists and chorus seem more at home here. The choir/soloist division seems to make more sense in this music as do the more operatic voices and the sense of an independent ‘orchestra’.

I am left thinking that though it sounds a good idea to unite three Magnificats by different members of the Bach family on one CD, to do so in one recording session is a mistake. Johann Sebastian’s high Baroque demands such a different style of singing and playing from Johann Christian’s and C. P. E’s pre-Mozartian music of a generation or more later. Perhaps this confusion about where we are, and whether one style fits all is what is signalled by using a Botticelli image on the cover, an artist working more than two centuries earlier than the earliest composer represented here.

This is not a performance of the JSB Magnificat  to which I shall return, with more stylish performances by Vox Luminis and the Monteverdi Choir under Gardiner recently released. The interest here lies in the other works, well-performed in a more ‘modern’ style, even if they use exactly the same instruments – and indeed the same style of singing – for both Johann Sebastian and for the later Bachs.

David Stancliffe

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