Retrospect Ensemble - J.S. Bach Easter and Ascension Oratorios -American Record Guide


Johann Sebastian Bach composed in 1734-5 three oratorios for the most important festivals of the church year. The six cantatas forming the Christmas Oratorio (S 248) are the best known and are often recorded. Less known are the two oratorios for Easter (S 249) and the ‘Agnus Dei' for the Mass in B minor. There are subtle differences between these works. Most significant is that, like the Christmas Oratorio, the recitatives in the Ascension Oratorio are all based on biblical texts, while the ones in the Easter Oratorio are newly composed poetry. Both works (like the major choruses at the beginning and end of the Christmas Oratorio) are firmly centered around D major, with prominent parts for trumpets and timpani.

This recording by the Retrospect Ensemble, directed by Matthew Halls, uses a small choir, a strong group of soloists (though I find the countertenor a bit hooty), and a nicely blended and balanced instrumental group. The same two oratorios were also paired on a recording by the Bach Collegium Japan (BIS SACD 1561), using similar forces. I have a slight preference for that earlier recording, which uses a later revision of the Easter Oratorio from 1749, in that Masaaki Suzuki gives the music a stronger dance-like lilt. A very different performance of the 1735 version of the Easter Oratorio was directed by Paul McCreesh, using only one singer per part, though with an orchestra about the same size as both the other recordings. McCreesh lacks the tight orchestral ensemble sound supplied by both Halls and Suzuki.

American Record Guide
01 July 2011