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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Easter Oratorio (BWV 249)

Ilse Eerens, sopranoa; Michael Chance, altob; Markus Schäfer, tenorc; David Wilson-Johnson, bassd; Pieter-Jan Belder, organe
Cappella Amsterdamf; Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century
Dir: Frans Brüggen

rec: April 2011, Amsterdam, Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ; Utrecht, Vredenburg Leidsche Rijn
Glossa - GCD 92115 (© 2012) (58'53")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list
Score BWV 249

Concerto for organ and orchestra (after BWV 35 & 156)e; Oster-Oratorium (BWV 249)abcdf

In comparison to his Passions Bach's Easter Oratorio doesn't get that much attention. This has probably to do with the fact that Passiontide lasts 40 days, whereas Easter takes just a couple of days and doesn't give much opportunity for concerts and for Easter music to be performed. You also won't hear often Bach lovers stating that this piece belongs to their favourite compositions from Bach's pen. As a result the number of recordings is relatively limited.

The programme of this disc may cause some surprise: what has the organ concerto to do with the Easter Oratorio? Nothing, as far as the content is concerned. However, in both cases we have to do with pieces which fall into the category of arrangements which are called parody. The difference between them is that the Concerto does not exist, in contrast to the Easter Oratorio. With this I mean that the Concerto is a modern reconstruction of what could have been a composition by Bach. It is assumed that the sinfonias which appear in some of Bach's cantatas - often for organ and instruments - may have originally conceived as movements from solo concertos. The cantata Geist und Seele wird verwirret (BWV 35) consists of two parts which both begin with a sinfonia for organ and orchestra. These could both have been written as the outer movements of a keyboard concerto. It is suggested that the first aria could have been an arrangement of the slow movement of such a concerto. In this recording the performers follow the option suggested by Joshua Rifkin that the central movement could originally have been the sinfonia from the cantata Ich stehe mit einem Fuß im Grabe (BWV 156), there scored for oboe and strings. The result is a nice addition to the repertoire of music for organ and orchestra, but we shouldn't forget that in the end this is all speculation. It cannot be proven that a concerto as it is played here has ever existed.

Bach often revised and adapted his music for different occasions, often in another scoring. In the case of vocal compositions he often changed the text, for instance from secular to sacred. Whereas in some cases there was a distance in time between the original and the adaptation, the two different versions of the Easter Oratorio may have been composed almost simultaneously. At first Bach composed a congratulatory cantata, Entfliehet, verschwindet, entweichet, ihr Sorgen (BWV 249a) for the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxony-Weißenfels on 23 February 1725. A little more than a month later, on 1 April, the same music was performed with a different text as Easter Oratorio, although the term oratorio was used only in the 1730s, after a revision of the score. The short period of time between the two versions seems to suggest that Bach could have had two different purposes in mind right from the start.

Frans Brüggen and his Orchestra of the 18th Century have built up a reputation which is largely built on performances of the symphonic repertoire of the classical composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and orchestral suites from operas by Rameau. Only now and then they turn to Bach, playing in particular his orchestral overtures and some large-scale vocal works. Whereas I have always greatly admired their performances of their core repertoire I have not been impressed by their forays into the oeuvre of Bach. One of the reasons is that the orchestra is too large for most of Bach's music. The recording of his Mass in B minor ( is a telling example. Brüggen's performance of the St John Passion also failed to convince me, and his interpretation of the Easter Oratorio is no exception.

Again, the orchestra, with 22 strings (6/6/4/4/2), is too large, and so is the choir. Even if one believes that Bach performed his vocal music with a choir rather than with one voice per part a vocal ensemble of 27 singers is too large. Another minus of Brüggen's Bach performances is that he is often not very critical about his choice of singers. In this case Michael Chance is the weak spot. I have never been a great admirer of his, but technically he has seen better days. In particular in the recitatives his singing is shaky and unstable. His voice also doesn't blend very well with the other soloists. Ilse Eerens has a nice voice, but she has little to say in the aria 'Seele, deine Spezereien'. A more differentiated performance had made it more interesting, especially as the tempo is rather low. I don't think I have often heard this aria taking more than 12 minutes. The flute part is played by Michael Schmidt-Casdorf, and is more compelling than the vocal part. Markus Schäfer sings 'Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer' beautifully, but the sharp edges of his voice are probably not to everyone's taste. In comparison Michael Chance does reasonably well in his aria 'Saget, saget mir geschwinde' but can't compete with the best performances, for instance Kai Wessel in Philippe Herreweghe's recording. The choruses lack vividness and agility, and the dynamically the performances are too flat.

The same goes for the organ concerto. Pieter-Jan Belder plays well, but the two fast movements are too slow, and the balance between the small chamber organ and the orchestra is unsatisfying. Here the acoustic also has a negative effect. A smaller space, a smaller ensemble and probably an organ with a little more power would do wonders.

On balance I can't find many reasons to recommend this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Cappella Amsterdam
Orchestra of the 18th Century

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