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Retrospect Ensemble - Bach Oratorios - McAlister Matheson Music


26 April 2011
McAlister Matheson Music
Anne McAlister

Full marks to Linn Records for the timely issue of this coupling of Bach's Easter and Ascension oratorios! Neither work has yet achieved the degree of popularity of the Christmas Oratorio, but this disc may help change that. A common feature of the three oratorios is that they are all parodies of earlier works by the composer. The Easter Oratorio's genesis is particularly complex, its origins lying in a congratulatory birthday cantata composed in 1725, which with a new text and additional recitatives became an Easter cantata later that year. Subsequently revived in honour of another birthday, it was only after further revision that it reached ‘oratorio' status, probably being performed on Easter Sunday, 1735. While the Christmas Oratorio is a monumental work consisting of six individual cantatas, the Easter Oratorio is on a much smaller scale, comprising an exuberant brassy opening Sinfonia and heart-tugging Adagio (with an expressive oboe solo) followed by alternating choruses, recitatives and arias. The choruses (and choral singing) are forthright and lively; the recitatives involve various permutations of soloists; but it is the arias that steal the show. Caroline Sampson's reflective soprano aria with delicious flute obbligato seems to suspend time, while Iestyn Davies' agile alto combines with admirably fluent oboe playing in a fast-moving, almost breathless duet of rejoicing. The shorter Ascension Oratorio has biblical passages delivered by a tenor Evangelist (beautifully sung by James Gilchrist) creating a narrative sequence. Original poetic verses are presented as choruses, accompanied recitative and arias, and two chorales take prominent positions as the central and final movements of the work. The opening chorus flies along joyfully; the chorales offer reflections on the story; but most interesting is the alto aria, derived from the same material as the Agnus Dei of Bach's B minor Mass. The simplicity of Iestyn Davies' delivery set against the rising and falling semitones of the strings creates a most moving effect. Throughout, the playing of the Retrospect Ensemble is top class.
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