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J.S. BACH, J.C. BACH, C.P.E. BACH: Magnificats

CD Button Harvey, Vermeulen; Davies, Walker, Bauer; Arcangelo, Cohen. Texts and translations. Hyperion CDA68157

Recordings Bach Magnificat lg 618
Critics Choice Button 1015 

J. S. BACH'S FAMILIAR Magnificat gets a fresh take from Arcangelo, not only from the historical perspective of hearing it alongside Bach’s sons’ settings but particularly from the vibrant performance by the British period ensemble, led by Jonathan Cohen. Also playing continuo harpsichord, Cohen has a knack for encouraging a robust, committed vocal sound from soloists and chorus, and his unfussy approach is astonishingly expressive.

In the father’s 1723 setting, the bending and bowing gestures of the soprano solo “Quia respexit,” depicting the “humilitatem” of the text, have never sounded so natural, nor the hopeful, rising “Ecce, ecce” so firmly assertive. The slashing lines of the tenor’s “Deposuit” sound vigorous rather than frantic, and “Esurientes,” in which two flutes garland the easygoing alto line, is delightfully matter-of-fact. The undulating contours of the three-voice “Suscepit Israel” are enhanced by the plangent oboe, and the choral work is superb, particularly in the forthright concluding “Sicut locutus est.”

The styles of the sons reflect their different career paths: Johann Christian trained and worked in Italy before settling in London, and Carl Philipp Emanuel—the more sophisticated—held important positions in Berlin and Hamburg. In both later works, one hears the transition to a more straightforward, tuneful, harmonically balanced style, yet both conclude with fugues, nodding dutifully at the learned style of counterpoint, which was the family trademark.

In J. C. Bach’s sunny 1760 setting, we hear a composer not so much responding to specific text images as crafting pretty melodies and accompaniment textures, which is what the newer galant style intended. Here, the same melody serves for a variety of text phrases, illustrating the meaning only generically. The gentle, pretty “Gloria Patri” sounds more pastoral than celebratory and could serve any text. 

C. P. E.’s work, written in 1749 and revised thirty years later, is on another level, at which even standard figures are used with power and invention. After the easy harmonic movement of the opening, the composer grants “Quia respexit,” now a lengthy aria, to the soprano, as had Johann Sebastian, and boldly quotes from his father’s setting—even using the same key—while developing the themes skillfully and attractively. Joélle Harvey handles this and the other soprano solos with lovely, lilting sound, and she has a nice way of reducing her ample vibrato to suit pungent moments. 

The power of “Quia fecit mihi magna” is illustrated not only in bold melodic gestures and sharp, offbeat rhythms but in rippling triplets, well handled and lightly ornamented by tenor Thomas Walker. With gently pulsing eighth notes in the orchestra, “Et Misericordia eius” pits the solo soprano and alto in alluringly hypnotic phrases against the choral ensemble. Bold and surprising harmonies, along with thrilling high-lying lines from the tenors, make this movement one of the disc’s highlights. 

Baritone Thomas E. Bauer attacks “Fecit potentiam” with gusto, hissing the line “dispersit suberbos” as the Lord “scatters the proud” and tracing with verve the composer’s startling destruction of the vocal line. “Deposuit” is another nod to the father’s work, as the tenor enters boldly on a high A, with a rapidly descending scale, but the mezzo-soprano joins him for a magnificent, rolling duet, full of thrashing gestures and overpowering triplets as god “puts down the mighty from their seat.” Here Walker’s robust sound and excellent high notes provide excitement, balanced by Olivia Vermeulen’s dark, powerful mezzo.

Another substantial, well-developed and interesting piece is the gentle minuet setting of “Suscepit Israel,” in which countertenor Iestyn Davies’s clear, sophisticated singing is surrounded by the warmth of flutes and violins. The massive final fugue, perhaps a tad too long, brings the piece and the disc to a rousing conclusion.  —Judith Malafronte 



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