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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Magnificat (BWV 243)

[I] "Magnificat - Christmas Cantata 63"
Dunedin Consort
Dir: John Butt
rec: July 27 - 31, 2014, Edinburgh, Greyfriars Kirk
Linn Records - CKD 469 (© 2015) (78'21")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
[N.B. The booklet available at the Linn Records website includes a Spanish translation of the liner-notes]
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Giovanni GABRIELI (c1554/57-1612): Hodie Christus natus est a 8 (C 8)a; Johann Sebastian BACH: Gott, durch deine Güte (BWV 600)b; Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (BWV 63)c; Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (BWV 606)d; anon: [congregational hymn] Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich here; Johann Sebastian BACH: Fuga sopra il Magnificat (BWV 733)f; Magnificat in E flat (BWV 243a)g; Puer natus in Bethlehem (BWV 603)h; anon: [congregational hymn] Puer natus in Bethlehemi

Julia Doylea, d [rip], g [solo], Claire Evansg [rip], Joanne Lunna, dg [solo], Emily Mitchellg [rip], soprano; Katie Schofielda, dg [rip], Clare Wilkinsona, dg [solo], contralto; Malcolm Bennetta, dg [rip], Nicholas Mulroya, dg [solo], tenor; Dominic Barberia, dg [rip], Matthew Brooka, dg [solo], bass
Pamela Thorby, recorder; Frances Norbury, recorder, oboe; Alex Bellamy, Leo Duarte, oboe; Peter Whelan, bassoon; Paul Sharp, Simon Munday, Michael Harrison, Brendan Musk, trumpet; Cecilia Bernardini, Sarah Bevan Baker, Huw Daniel, Sijie Chen, violin; Alfonso Leal del Ojo, viola; Sarah McMahon, cello; Bill Hunt, violone; John Buttbf, Stephen Farracdeghi

[II] "Magnificat BWV 243"
Johanna Winkel, Johannette Zomer, soprano; James Laing, alto; Zachary Wilder, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass-baritone
Arion Orchestre Baroque
Dir: Alexander Weimann
rec: Dec 2015, Mirabel, Québec, Église Saint-Augustin
ATMA - ACD2 2727 (© 2016) (49'47")
Liner-notes: E/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & liner-notes
Score JS Bach
Score Kuhnau

Johann Sebastian BACH: Magnificat in D (BWV 243); Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722): Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern

For many centuries the Magnificat or Song of Mary, one of the canticles from the Bible, was one of the main parts of the liturgy. It was sung at the end of Vespers, preceded and followed by an antiphon which linked it to the time of the year. In Protestantism, where the Virgin Mary takes a fundamentally different place, it was connected to the Feast of the Visitation - Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth shortly after the Annunciation - and, following logically from this, Advent and Christmas. This explains why we know so many settings of the Magnificat from the Renaissance: Nicolas Gombert, to mention just one example, wrote a series of eight settings in the different church modes. In comparison the number of Magnificat settings from the pen of Lutheran composers in Germany is rather small.

Bach composed only one setting of this text. A performance at Christmas Day in 1723 - his first year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig - is documented, but it seems likely that he wrote it for the Feast of the Visitation at 2 July of that year. For the performance at Christmas he included four hymns which linked the work to Christmas. This was in line with a tradition in Leipzig to add so-called laudes, which is rooted in an age-old practice of adding tropes to an existing text. One can see also a link here with the liturgical tradition of adding an antiphon as mentioned above.

Two recordings are to be reviewed here. Last year Linn Records released the interpretation of the Dunedin Consort, directed by John Butt which was too late to be scrutinized. This year ATMA brought a recording on the market, directed by Alexander Weimann, which arrived just in time to be reviewed. It offers the possibility to compare these two recordings.

They have several things in common but there are also significant differences. To start with one of the latter: whereas Weimann has recorded the Magnificat separately, Butt attempts to more or less reconstruct the service at Christmas Day 1723. This has also consequences for the line-up in his recording. I return to that later.

First another difference. Whereas Butt opted for the version in E flat, Weimann recorded the version in D major. The latter is a reworking for a performance at the Feast of the Visitation on 2 July 1733. One may wonder why Bach thought this to be necessary. In his liner-notes Butt gives an interesting explanation, starting with mentioning that the key of E flat is highly unusual in compositions with trumpet parts. "[There] is some evidence from the surviving parts of Cantata BWV 63 that in 1723 it was performed at the lower 'Tief-Kammerton', which Bach had been accustomed to at the Cöthen court (and which it has in common with several other pieces of the early Leipzig years). This was the fashionable French court pitch, somewhere in the region of A=392 (and thus roughly a whole tone below modern concert pitch of A=440, and a semitone below what is often incorrectly assumed to be the 'standard' Baroque pitch of A=415, the 'Kammerton' that soon became Bach's norm for Leipzig). It might be, then, that Bach composed the Magnificat in E flat (very soon after leaving Cöthen) in order to combine strings and woodwind playing at A=392 with trumpets playing in their 'home' key of D at A=415. If this was indeed the case, the two versions of the Magnificat would have been at the same sounding pitch, the latter version designed for a time when the Tief-Kammerton instruments were no longer available, or when Bach was fully reconciled to using the higher Kammerton pitch standard." This is the pitch Butt has adopted for his recording. Obviously the hymns which Bach inserted into the E flat version for Christmas 1723 were not part of the performance in D major of 1733. Therefore it is rather odd that Weimann decided to transpose them to be included in his recording. This results in a version which is basically unhistorical.

Butt and Weimann have in common that they take their starting point in what is a growing tendency of performing Bach's sacred works with one voice per part. Only in some cases there is evidence that Bach added extra voices as ripienists who doubled the soloists in the tutti sections. But where Weimann only uses the five solo voices needed in the Magnificat, Butt adds ripienists as he believes there are reasons to assume that Bach performed music at Christmas time with additional voices. He deals with this issue more at length in his liner-notes to his recording of the Christmas Oratorio. In the booklet to this disc he confines himself to stating that "the performing parts for Cantata BWV 63 are among those that show evidence" of the practice of adding ripienists, but this is not further specified. Another argument in favour of this practice is connected to Butt's attempt to reconstruct the service at Christmas Day 1723. The service opens with Hodie Christus natus est, a motet for eight voices in two choirs by Giovanni Gabrieli. This is less odd than it may seem: it was included in the collection Florilegium portense which was published in two volumes in 1618 and 1621 by Erhard Bodenschatz. It included motets which could be sung in schools but also in the liturgy of Lutheran churches. Despite its being printed about a century before Bach was active in Leipzig it was still very much part of the regular services on Sundays and feastdays. It is telling that Bach purchased several copies as late as 1729. However, Butt may consider this piece the "most obvious" for Christmas Day, there is no evidence that this motet was actually sung. And the fact that this motet is for eight voices is one of his reasons to assume that Bach may have performed Cantata BWV 63 but also the Magnificat with additional singers. Obviously the fact that in the Magnificat with its five parts ten singers are needed undermines his assumption more than a little, especially considering that some singers in the motet may have been playing in the orchestra later during the service.

Although any attempt to reconstruct a service at some point in time has to be largely speculative it is very worthwhile to present music as part of a liturgical context. Music like the Cantata 63 or the Magnificat were not written for performance in a concert hall but for the liturgy. The motets, the organ pieces and congregational hymns help to understand the context for which Bach composed his sacred music. Unfortunately not every part of the liturgy could be included at this disc; the remaining pieces can be downloaded free of charge from the Linn Records website. This is a service which cannot be appreciated enough. In the congregational hymns which are included here the organist sometimes improvises between the lines. I am not sure whether this practice has been documented; however, at least some of Bach's organ chorales seem to point in that direction. The organ played here - also in the solo pieces - is not specified; the booklet only mentions 'Peter Collins, 1990'. I would like to know to what extent it is comparable with the organs Bach may have used or known. These hymns are sung by a little under 60 singers.

The performances under Butt's direction are generally pretty good. Christen, ätzet diesen Tag opens with a chorus in which trumpets take a major role; these are brilliantly played here. The dynamic accents in the vocal and instrumental parts are very nice. The duet 'Gott, du hast es wohl gefüget' is beautifully sung by Joanne Lunn and Matthew Brook but the tempo is too slow which tends to make it a bit tedious. Clare Wilkinson and Nicholas Mulroy deliver a fine performance of the other duet, 'Ruft und fleht den Himmel an'. The dissonants at the end of the B section of the closing chorus, 'Höchster, schau in Gnaden an', come off very well. In the tutti the voices don't blend perfectly, mainly due to a slight vibrato in some of the voices, probably mostly the ripienists.

That is also the case in the Magnificat, for instance in the opening chorus. The trumpets again make quite an impression here, and the various obbligato parts are excellently performed. The soprano parts are divided between Julia Doyle and Joanne Lunn; they are a perfect match and have to be reckoned among the finest singers of baroque repertoire from Britain. Their solos here are the best parts of this performance of the Magnificat. The arias here also are sometimes a little slowish, but the only section which I find really too slow is the second 'Et exsultavit'.

Overall the tempi in Weimann's recording are more satisfying. However, 'Deposuit potentes' is too fast and as a result it is a bit superficial; the tempo also prevents Zachary Wilder to create dynamic accents in his part. I have heard him before and had a more positive impression; I don't like the fast vibrato in his voice here. The same goes for James Laing; it spoils the aria 'Esurientes implevit bonis'. Matthew Brook is good, even though I don't particularly like his voice - which, of course, is purely a matter of taste. The sopranos are just as good, although they are not completely free of vibrato either. This is something which damages the tutti sections.

Like John Butt Alexander Weimann recorded a cantata for Christmas Day, but from the pen of Johann Kuhnau, Bach's predecessor as Thomaskantor. Kuhnau has the reputation that he was rather conservative and an opponent of cantatas inspired by Italian opera. That doesn't do him justice as Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern proves. It opens with a chorale for five voices and instruments, an arrangement of the famous chorale (Philipp Nicolai, 1597). Then we get a recitative followed by a chorus in which the strings are joined by two horns; the text is a dictum, a literal quotation from the Bible, here the prophet Isaiah: "For unto us a child is born". Next comes a series of arias and recitatives for tenor and the cantata closes with a chorale, introduced by a short duet for two sopranos which is an arrangement of the opening section of the chorale's sixth stanza, Zwingt die Saiten in Cythara. It is rather curious that the liner-notes state that the instrumental scoring is for two flutes, two horns, strings and bc. The two 'flute' parts are in fact for violins. Here the two arias are allocated to the two sopranos. There is really no reason for such an adaptation, and the listener should at least be informed about the changes in the scoring. The original scoring is observed by Robert King (Hyperion, 1998) whose interpretation is much better; the tenor solos are sung by Charles Daniels who is vastly superior to Zachary Wilder. The latter also makes a pronunciation error in his second recitative ('Schatzung' instead of 'Schätzung'). The recitatives are too strict in time.

All in all I am not impressed by this disc, despite some nice moments. Butt's recording of the Magnificat is the best of these two, but obviously there are many others to choose from, although most of them have a choral scoring of the tutti. A notable exception is the Ricercar Consort (Mirare, 2009) which is probably the most serious rival of Butt, but that is a recording of the version in D, without the Christmas hymns.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Zachary Wilder
Johanna Winkel
Johannette Zomer
Arion Orchestre Baroque
Dunedin Consort

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