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Retrospect Ensemble - Bach Oratorios - International Record Review


01 May 2011
International Records Review
Marc Rochester

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 Galiläa').

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.


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