Related Reviews
Opera News
'A new period-instrument ensemble from London brings verve, precision and spontaneity to a recording of J. S. Bach's Easter and Ascension Oratorios.'
more >>
The Consort
'This particular recording, featuring the Retrospect Ensemble, has a lot to recommend it; especially the technically refined and elegant quality of both the orchestra and the soloists. The choruses are refreshingly crisp and bright, sung in a soloistic manner that I find very appealing.'
more >>
PS Tracks
'It is simply the most musical realization of these two works I have ever encountered'.
more >>
The Absolute Sound
'The Retrospect Ensemble's Bach performances are pretty much ideal...'
more >>
OregonLive.com
'...a bright British conductor...'
more >>
Fanfare
'Heartily recommended.'
more >>
Classica
4 Stars
'...le duo meditative de la soprano et flute traversière idéalment assure par Carolyn Sampson et Rachel Brown.'
more >>
tommanoff.com
'...the conductor is an exceptional interpreter of [Purcell's] music.'
more >>
Audiophile Audition
5 Stars
Multichannel Disc of the Month: 'The fact is that there is not a weak link anywhere in this cast...'
more >>
American Record Guide
'...a nicely blended and balanced instrumental group'.
more >>
MusicWeb International
"...the Linn recording is a must."
more >>
Gramophone
'The Retrospect Ensemble's orchestral playing and choral singing is of the highest quality...'
more >>
Scotland on Sunday
5 Stars
"There is plenty of action and passion in these two, quite different, works..."
more >>
BBC Music Magazine
4 Stars
'...enjoyably relaxed and unselfconscious performances.'
more >>
Pizzicato
5 Stars
'...superbement interprétées.'
more >>
Audio Video Club of Atlanta
'...the impression is that of heavenly beauty without earthly weight...'
more >>
International Records Review
'...highly impressive playing...'
more >>
San Francisco Classical Voice
'The soloists are all excellent.'
more >>
McAlister Matheson Music
'top class'
more >>
The Observer
"Matthew Halls directs sprightly singers and accomplished players."
more >>
The Times
4 Stars
"A disc to make your heart leap."
more >>
ResMusica
Clef de ResMusica Award: 'Un premier disque d'un ensemble prometteur, enregistré qui plus est de fort belle manière par Linn Records.'
more >>
AudioVideoHD
'...dirigiendo esta brillante y fresca interpretación de dos de los tres monumentales oratorios de Bach...'
more >>
Early Music Review
'Fielding an excellent group of singers and players, and with soloists of such calibre, this is a landmark Bach recording.'
more >>
The Sunday Times
4 Stars
Classical Record of the Week: "Top-drawer Bach throughout, beautifully recorded and documented by Linn."
more >>
Le Monde
'...la plus belle musicalité...'
more >>
The Scotsman
5 Stars
"Musical highs don't come much better...Conductor Matthew Halls gleans warmth from this wonderful music."
more >>
SA-CD.net
5 Stars
"Retrospect Ensemble simply sparkles in this repertoire...Johann Sebastian himself would give this one not 5 but 10 stars as well."
more >>
Classics Today
5 Stars
'...can boast renditions of Bach's Easter and Ascension oratorios as fine as--or better than--any in the catalog.'
more >>
Musical Pointers
"The recording at St Jude's Church in Hampstead...makes the most of a perfect acoustic."
more >>

Retrospect Ensemble - J.S. Bach Easter and Ascension Oratorios - musica Dei donum


01 April 2012
musica Dei donum
Johan van Veen

 

When Jesus, after his resurrection, meets Mary Magdalene at the sepulchre she wants to hold him, but he says: "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father." The resurrection and the ascension are closely connected, as is also expressed in the oratorios Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu by Karl Wilhelm Ramler, which were set by Georg Philipp Telemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. Johann Sebastian Bach didn't compose such a work, but rather two pieces for Easter and for Ascension Day. It makes sense to combine them on one disc, and it is surprising it hasn't happened that often. According to the Bach Cantatas website only two commercial recordings of this kind exist, one with the Bach Collegium Japan and one under the direction of Gustav Leonhardt.

 

The Easter Oratorio was first performed on April 1, 1725 in Leipzig. It was a reworking of a cantata which Bach had written for the birthday of Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weißenfels in February of that year. The text had been written by Christian Friedrich Henrici, better known as Picander, and it is likely that he also adapted the text for the Easter Oratorio. Only the recitatives were entirely new. There are four roles in this piece, representing characters which appear in the resurrection story as told in the gospels: Mary, the mother of James (soprano), Mary Magdalene (alto), Peter (tenor) and John (bass). The original score doesn't mention any character, but it seems they are mentioned in the parts (which I couldn't check). Three different versions of the Easter Oratorio are known, and it is in the second that Bach calls it an oratorio.

 

This should put into perspective the fact that the second work on this disc, Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (BWV 11) is often considered a cantata, and because of that was given the number 11 in the Schmieder-catalogue. In the 17th and 18th centuries there was no clear difference between the various genres, and Carl Philipp Emanuel referred to his oratorio Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu as his Ramler cantata. The Ascension Oratorio is of a much later date, and was written in 1735. It is also partially based on older material from secular works, written in 1725 and 1732 respectively. This work includes a part for the Evangelist, telling the story of Jesus' ascension. The Easter Oratorio, on the other hand, consists rather of a series of scenes.

 

At first sight Matthew Halls seems to have recorded these two works with one voice per part: the track-list mentions the names of the soloists and the conductor, as well as the ensemble which is mainly known as an instrumental group. But that is not the case. The Retrospect Ensemble includes a choir of 18 voices, but you have to go to page 21 of the booklet to find that out.

Whatever one may think about the issue of the scoring of Bach's cantatas - with a choir or one voice per part -, there is too much distance between the solos and the tutti. The choir is singing well, but not as coherent as one would wish - partly because now and then a slight vibrato creeps in - and not transparent enough. The chorales lack differentiation in dynamics and articulation. The same is true for some instrumental parts, both in the accompaniment of arias - like the transverse flute in 'Seele, deine Spezereien' (BWV 249) - and the sinfonia which opens the Easter Oratorio.

 

The performances of the soloists are various. Carolyn Sampson is the biggest disappointment, because her contributions are spoilt by her incessant vibrato. In regard to articulation and speechlike singing she leaves something to be desired. Iestyn Davies doesn't make a good impression in the recitatives in the Easter Oratorio, where he is overpowered by Ms Sampson. In 'Saget, saget mir geschwinde' (BWV 249) his singing is marred by too much vibrato, but the closing line of the B section is beautifully sung. His aria 'Ach, bleibe doch' (BWV 11) is one of this disc's highlights. Both Iestyn Davies and the instrumentalists bring out the Affekte convincingly. The secco recitatives in the Ascension Oratorio - allocated to the Evangelist - are rhythmically too strict. I have some problems with James Gilchrist's slight vibrato now and then. He sings the aria 'Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer' from the Easter Oratorio very well, though, with fine text expression and a good articulation. Peter Harvey has only accompanied recitatives to sing; his singing is alright, but that is all there is to say.

 

All in all, I am a bit in two minds about this disc. Generally the level of singing and playing is high, and the performers show a basically good understanding of Bach's musical language. The liner-notes indicate that they seem to be aware of the important role of Affekt and rhetorics in Bach's music - and in all baroque music, for that matter. But to work it out consistently is something different. In particular in regard to dynamic differences and the observation of the hierarchy of the notes this recording doesn't come up to the mark.


Bookmark and Share


Related Links

Retrospect EnsembleRetrospect Ensemble
J.S. Bach Easter and Ascension OratoriosJ.S. Bach Easter and Ascension Oratorios