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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1759)
Magnificat in D major, BWV242 [25:42]
Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782)
Magnificat in C major, E22 [10:27]
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Magnificat in D major H772 [40:38]
Joélle Harvey (soprano); Olivia Vermeulen (mezzo-soprano); Iestyn Davies (countertenor); Thomas Walker (tenor); Thomas Bauer (bass)
Arcangelo / Jonathan Cohen
rec. 2015, St Mary the Virgin, Tetbury, UK
Latin text, English, French & German translations included
HYPERION CDA68157 [76:48]

Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen were involved in one of my Recordings of the Year for 2017, providing expert accompaniment to Iestyn Davies is an outstanding collection of cantatas by J S Bach (review). Their latest disc features music by not one but three members of the Bach family. What a good idea it is to programme together these three settings of the Magnificat

Here we have the celebrated setting of the Canticle by Johann Sebastian; a setting by his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, which dates from 1749; and a setting made in 1760 by Johann Sebastian’s youngest son – and CPE Bach’s half-brother - Johann Christian, “the London Bach”.

I was glad to have the chance to hear another recording of the Magnificat by CPE Bach; back in 2014 I enjoyed a Harmonia Mundi disc on which the RIAS Kammerchor and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin were conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann (review) . There is one important difference between the two recordings, however. Bach wrote the Magnificat in 1749 but he revised it in 1779 and that’s the version that Rademann offers – as, largely, does Jonathan Cohen. Richard Wigmore, the annotator for Hyperion, gives rather more detail about the 1779 revision than can be found in the Harmonia Mundi notes. In the revision Bach added trumpet and timpani parts and he also gave the horns more to do. He also re-wrote the fourth movement, ‘Et misericordia eius’. He carried out quite radical surgery on that movement, not least in that the passages for solo soprano and alto were jettisoned. Jonathan Cohen has opted to use the 1779 revised score for this recording but he has included the original, longer setting of ‘Et misericordia eius’. That decision may be anachronistic but I’m glad he took it; the original version is more rewarding, I feel, especially when the solo parts are sung as well as they are here by Joélle Harvey and Olivia Vermeulen. I don’t believe I’ve heard either of these singers before but I enjoyed what I heard from both of them in all three works.

I liked the Rademann performance when I heard it, but returning to it now and comparing it with the Cohen I find that on most counts I prefer the newcomer. For one thing, Cohen’s chorus, recorded a little more closely, achieves greater impact than Rademann’s otherwise excellent choir. In the exuberant choral movement that opens the work Rademann paces the music more briskly than Cohen. Cohen’s slightly steadier pace doesn’t detract in any way from the joyful nature of the music and I prefer his approach; Rademann sounds just a bit rushed. There’s a lovely soprano aria, ‘Quia respexit’ and I greatly enjoyed Joélle Harvey’s expressive account of it though Elizabeth Watts is just as pleasing for Rademann. There’s a dashing tenor aria (‘Deposuit potentes’) in JS Bach’s Magnificat. The tenor aria in CPE Bach’s setting, ‘Quia fecit mihi magna’ is, if anything, more dashing still. Thomas Walker makes a very good job of it. The bass aria, ‘Fecit potentiam’ is a blustery piece of writing but there’s no need to make it as blustery as Thomas Bauer does here. To my ears he overdoes it significantly, not least in the way he delivers the word “dispersit” like a pantomime villain. Markus Eiche’s more restrained approach for Rademann is infinitely to be preferred. But Cohen has a trump card in the shape of Iestyn Davies to sing the aria ‘Suscepit Israel’. He gives an exquisite performance and though there are several reasons to prefer the Cohen recording to the very good Rademann version Davies’ rendition of this aria tops the list.

Johann Christian Bach’s setting of the Canticle dates from 1760 and Richard Wigmore speculates that it was composed for a service of Vespers in Milan Cathedral where Johann Christian was appointed organist in that year. It’s a compact setting and while I’m glad to have heard it I didn’t find that it gripped my attention to the extent that the other two settings on this disc did. There are five short movements. The first is an energetic piece of writing for chorus with pleasing contributions from the soprano soloist. Later, in the third movement each of the other three soloists (ATB) has a brief solo passage with interjections form the choir. The penultimate movement, the ‘Gloria Patri’ is surprisingly restrained and then the work ends with the statutory fugue.

On this disc of Bach Magnificats, however, all must bend the knee before Johann Sebastian. Here Jonathan Cohen offers us the Magnificat in its more frequently heard D major revision, which dates from around 1730. It’s been quite interesting to hear this so soon after Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s recent recording of the original 1723 version in E flat (review). I haven’t made detailed comparisons between the two recordings since the two scores are not strictly comparable. However, I did listen with interest to the respective accounts of the opening chorus. I said in my review of the Gardiner that I thought he took this movement too briskly and comparison with the Cohen confirms that view. Cohen is just that bit steadier – he takes 2:57 compared with Gardiner’s 2:27. On paper that doesn’t seem like a significant difference but I find that Cohen gives the music just the right amount of time and space in which to breathe yet he loses nothing in terms of brightness and festivity. By comparison Gardiner seems too breathless. The playing of Arcangelo is spirited and Cohen’s choir is excellent.

Both female soloists make a good showing; the warmth of Joélle Harvey’s soprano is particularly welcome in ‘Quia respexit’. I find Thomas Bauer’s approach to his aria preferable to his contribution to the CPE Bach work. I admired the athleticism that the choir brings to ‘Fecit potentiam’ and, indeed, their singing throughout this work is very fine, not least in the ‘Gloria Patri’ which is properly majestic here. Thomas Walker despatches the flamboyant ‘Deposuit potentes’ with admirable clarity and ringing conviction while Iestyn Davies’ delivery of ‘Esurientes’ is all that one could desire.

I enjoyed this disc very much. Cohen uses a choir of 19 singers (8, 4, 4, 3 – I presume the sopranos divide 4 and 4 in the J S Bach work). There are quite a few names among them who are familiar as musicians who sing with several of the crack chamber choirs around. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the choir makes a strong contribution and they’re recorded with no little presence. The playing of Arcangelo is stylish and expert throughout.

I was most interested to see that the recording was made in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Tetbury. This is a spacious church built in the Gothic style in the 1770s after the demolition of the church that had served the town since medieval times. Inside, the high ceiling and the use of very slim columns are important factors in the excellent acoustics of the building. It’s a fine and sympathetic place to sing, as I discovered when I had the pleasure of singing there on quite a number of occasions some years ago. Though there’s now a thriving annual music festival based in the church I’ve not previously come across any commercial recordings made there. This excellent recording, engineered by David Hinitt and produced by Arian Peacock, shows the church to be a fine recording venue and I hope Hyperion will use it again. As usual with Hyperion, the booklet notes, authored here by Richard Wigmore, are first rate.

John Quinn

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