Retrospect Ensemble - Bach Oratorios - International Record Review
01 May 2011International Records Review
Easter came at the end of last month and Ascension falls at
the start of next (June 2nd), so this is a timely slot in the year
for Linn to release this fine recording of the oratorios Bach composed for
those two respective feast days. The
third of his oratorios - the Christmas
Oratorio - is better known and a very different creature from these two,
but much of the material in these two works is familiar through its appearance
in other contexts, as Nia Lewis points out at considerable length in a very
substantial and thorough essay with this new disc.
From that essay we learn that the Easter Oratorio was Bach's first foray into the genre. He modelled it on the eighteenth-century Italian
oratorios and, as such, it is a much smaller and more intimate work than its
December counterpart. This is not to say
that it doesn't get under way with a suitably festive Sinfonia, complete with
jubilant trumpets and drums and virile woodwind, which the Retrospect Ensemble
clearly relishes getting its teeth into it with a nice mixture of enthusiasm
and buoyancy. This is highly impressive
playing, neat, well disciplined but exciting, and Matthew Halls drives it along
at a brisk pace, bringing into this music all the life-affirming joy and
optimism which is at the very heart of Easter.
Oh to have been a fly on the wall of St Thomas's in Leipzig when this
was first performed on Easter Day, April 1st, 1735; the effect must
have been dazzling. No sooner has the
final drumbeat died away than we are plunged into the pathos and remembered
sorrows of Holy Week with a plaintive oboe and richly supportive strings for the
subsequent instrumental Adagio.
The jubilation of the opening Sinfonia returns with a
gloriously energetic account of the first chorus, sung with great agility and
impressive control by the 18 voices of Retrospect Ensemble. It may be a new group, celebrating only its
second birthday this month, but the names are familiar as the backbone of many
of the other outstanding small professional choral groups which have emerged
over the past few decades. Their easy
familiarity with the idiom, their complete conviction in whatever it is Halls
asks of them, coupled with their collective and individual musical instincts,
results in some highly effective singing, allowing the music and the associated
texts to shine through.
The quartet of soloists is very much the icing on the cake (or
should that be the decoration on the egg?), with Carolyn Sampson indulging in a
deliciously endearing duet with a graceful flute in the aria ‘Seele, deine
Spezerein', not the least of the many sublime moments in this captivating
performance. Another is the gentle and
supremely poised James Gilchrist in ‘Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer', with its
recollections of the agonies of the Passion.
This track also gives a fine opportunity to sample the absolutely
splendid sound Linn has captured here, giving wonderful transparency to Bach's
somewhat dark and sombre textures.
It is in the Ascension
Oratorio that Bach was most liberal with his borrowings, the most obvious
being the aria ‘Ach, bleibe doch', sung with immense grace and purity here by
Iestyn Davies. Unlike the Easter Oratorio, the one for the
Ascension has at its core the narration from an Evangelist figure. Gilchrist performs this role with admirable
clarity of diction and fluency of delivery, and a real high point comes when he
joins forces with Peter Harvey in a disarmingly jovial duet (‘Ihr Männer von
This is a disc to savour and enjoy, not just for the sublime
music but for performances which possess an immaculate feeling for style and a
wonderfully fresh and vital delivery of both words and music.
Related LinksMatthew HallsRetrospect EnsembleJ.S. Bach: Easter and Ascension Oratorios