Retrospect Ensemble - Bach Oratorios - Gramophone

Bach created the Easter Oratorio for Easter Sunday 1725, although some of the music was shrewdly parodied from a secular cantata composed some months previously for the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels. The Retrospect Ensemble's orchestral playing and choral singing is of the highest quality, not surprising given that the personnel list features many alumni of the King's Consort and other such expert Baroque ensembles. Matthew Halls neatly juxtaposes bustling vitality and an unforced conversational quality in the first part of the Sinfonia, with the three natural trumpets sounding particularly shapely and relaxed. The chorus is impressively disciplined and radiant in the opening chorus, during which rapid duet passages are delivered impeccably by James Gilchrist and Peter Harvey. Rachel Brown's flawless flute is an eloquent counterpart to Carolyn Sampson's enchanting gentleness in the aria "Seele, deine Spezereien", and Halls controls its pizzicato bass-line with benevolent finesse. Gilchrist almost whispers the yearningly beautiful tenor part of "Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer" and the aria is all the more special because of Halls's expressive handling of the delicate pastoral accompaniment of recorders and muted strings; I've heard many lovely performances of this aria but do not recall hearing the text communicated with such heart-rending consolation as this.

Halls partners BWV249 with Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (written for Ascension Day 1735). The pairing is a sensible idea shared with previous discs from Leonhardt, Rilling and Suzuki but that need not dissuade anyone from savouring these outstanding performances. "Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben" (Bach's model for the Agnus Dei of the B minor Mass) has wondrous unison playing from the first violins and sweet eloquence from Iestyn Davies; the accompaniment of flutes, oboe and upper strings for Sampson's singing in "Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke" is also interpreted perfectly. The excellent declamation, impeccable shaping of contrapuntal lines and flawless tuning of the Retrospect choir comes to the fore in the festive opening and closing choruses; the notably clean transparency between all four parts is achieved partly by an entirely male alto section but also by Halls's astute ability to convey each strand of vocal and instrumental detail.

Gramophone
01 May 2011