Retrospect Ensemble - Bach Oratorios -

I have often complained about reviewers being a little too generous when rating recordings. But in this case, I'm actually glad to eat my own words, and even happier to be joining the club. Truth be told, if I could I'd give this Linn SACD not 5 but 10 stars for both sound and performance.

The problem though when reviewing such a disc is where to start - with the riveting performance or the beautifully captured recording. It's hard to decide when all factors conspire together to elevate Bach's Easter and Ascension Oratorios to the same level of recognition of their more famous cousin, the Christmas Oratorio. But starting on the musical side, what we have here is the work of a superb group, led by the brisk tempos of conductor Matthew Halls, but perfectly executed by the incredible musicians of the Retrospect Ensemble. Interestingly, according to Linn's website, the Retrospect adopts a changing configuration for each project, ranging from a small chamber ensemble to full orchestra with choir. And at least in this current formation, the articulation and precision of the instrumentalists is simply stunning, while the choir has that rare ability to suddenly come out in bursts but still remain incredibly coherent. To top it off, we get a quartet of vocal soloists of the highest caliber, including the angelically pure voices of soprano Carolyn Sampson and countertenor Iestyn Davies.

If I had had to pick a key word for this performance it would be energetic, which seems to have been contagious to all those present at the recording sessions. Specifically, the poor audio engineers must have been infected pretty badly with this energy bug, for what they have achieved here is - sorry for the audio jargon - of demonstration quality. The recording is spacious yet with a precise placement of soloists, orchestra and choir. And while there's a sense of air around the performers, there's also absolute transparency, creating that rare illusion that both performers and listeners are in the same space.

As a comparison, another release with the same selection is Bach: Easter & Ascension Oratorios - Suzuki. But I have to admit that after spending time with the Retrospect's exuberance, it's hard to settle for Suzuki's lucid yet rather polite vision. The fact is that the Retrospect Ensemble simply sparkles in this repertoire, and if I may be so bold, I think that if he could, Johann Sebastian himself would give this one not 5 but 10 stars as well.
16 March 2011