Retrospect Ensemble - Bach Oratorios - Classics Today
Artistic Quality 10/10 Sound Quality
In its "first large-scale performance" in its association with Linn Records, the Retrospect Ensemble, its company of soloists and conductor Matthew Halls, can boast renditions of Bach's Easter and Ascension oratorios as fine as--or better than--any in the catalog. With their well-chosen soloists (not a weak link among them!), expert, energetic ensemble singing, and vibrant instrumental work, enlivened by Halls' buoyant rhythmic sense and ideally-judged tempos these performances leave no moment for you to relax your attention; indeed, for me at least, even after a half-dozen hearings they retain the freshness of the first one, and part of this is owing to the recording's very appealing ambience, extraordinary clarity and balance, and natural presence.
The more poignant sections--and there are a couple of Bach's most affecting examples, exhibited in the gorgeous arias for tenor in the Easter and for alto in the Ascension--are accompanied with thoughtful care and sung as well as we could hope for, by James Gilchrist in the former and Iestyn Davies in the latter. Likewise, the opening orchestral sinfonia of the Easter Oratorio and the closing Chorale of the Ascension (with its dancing Handelian string figures) are captivating expressions of some of Bach's most joyful music, highlighted by exemplary instrumental ensemble playing. An excellent essay by Nia Lewis, discussing the issue of parody and Bach's practice relative to these oratorios, and, most fascinating, Bach's application of musical-rhetorical figures throughout the two works, is a delightful bonus. Highly recommended!