MUSICTEACHERS.CO.UK VOLUME 2 ISSUE 10, APRIL 2001  
Online Journal

JS BACH: OSTER-ORATORIUM (BWV 249), MAGNIFICAT (BWV 243)
Julia Gooding, Kimberly McCord – soprano
Robin Blaze – countertenor
Paul Agnew – tenor
Neal Davies – bass
Gabrieli Consort and Players
Paul McCreesh – conductor
Archiv Produktion 469 531-2
£££

TPT 65'16

Only two other works by Bach, written for Christmas and Ascension tide, bear the title Oratorio and although the Christmas example is a collection of six cantatas, written for the major feasts of the festival, both its contents and the Ascension Oratorio share the same cantata format. The Easter Oratorio, on the other hand, is unusual in that it uses neither biblical nor chorale-based texts and consists solely of choruses and arias. It originated as a secular cantata Entfliehet, verschwindet, entweichet, ihr Sorgen (BWV 249a) based on a pastoral theme, which was presented to the duke of Saxe-Weissenfels as a birthday present in 1725. Its revision as a sacred text only a few weeks later attests to Bach's need to continually adapt existing works for other purposes – the characters of the secular text became replaced with Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and the disciples Peter and John. Framed by trumpeters in its outer movements, euphorically referring to the Resurrection, the text and music of the main body are surprisingly contemplative in their affekt and, despite being a parody of the earlier version, the work shows no signs of its original intent.

The Magnificat needs little introduction; a regular part of the Lutheran Vespers, it was sung in the vernacular by the congregation, although on principal feasts a more elaborate setting in Latin was usually provided. Two versions have survived, in E-flat major (BWV 243a) and the earlier one in D major (recorded here), which was composed over several weeks in 1723. It is a through-composed work – a sequence of short movements, each of which portrays a verse of the text, they are an able demonstration of Bach's characteristic versatility of form and musical material.

There can be few who doubt McCreesh's intention in the field of historical performance and although recently his releases of Handel's Solomon and Theodora have received excellent reviews world over, one cannot help but feel that with Bach he somehow misses the mark altogether. Overall, there is little that is questionable in the Easter Oratorio, but the performance is rather bland. Gooding fares particularly poorly: she has a remarkable wobble – I think in artistic terms I should refer to is as vibrato but that implies a modicum of control that seems to be lacking altogether. Davies doesn't fare much better – in fact, he flounders around in both solos and choruses and it is only through Agnew and Blaze that we find the sort of clarity and consistency one would like to associate with Bach.

Particularly questionable is McCreesh's approach to speed: with the exception of the (in this case over-) slow, central movement of the Easter Oratorio 'Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer', which recalls the 'bad old days' of Karl Münchinger's accounts of Bach, many of his tempi are upbeat and, in the Magnificat, almost at the point of being ludicrous. Take, for instance, the bizarre 'Deposuit potentes': with a crotchet speed of around 126, even performers of Agnew's vocal agility are going to suffer – he manages to hang on by a hairbreadth. If this were restricted to the odd movement alone, one might be prepared to forgive and forget, but, no doubt egged on by his belief in Andrew Parrott's feeble arguments for a one-to-a-part approach, McCreesh provides a pretty vulgar display in which musicianship and sensitivity are laid waste in favour of so-called virtuosity. The result? Well, some pretty flimsy accounts by most of the soloists, intonation problems and poor rhythmic control from singers and band alike. Blaze strives to overcome this serious obstacle in 'Esurientes implevit bonis' with a particularly admirable account, and even McCreesh seems to have brought down the speeds for 'Suscepit Israel'. But what follows seals the recording's fate as quirky and eccentric. Breaking even Eliot Gardiner's speed record (Philips 411 458-2, 1983), McCreesh pushes the boat out in a vain attempt to capture the essence of the Baroque; instead it becomes a freak show, an ugly performance that lacks the dignity demanded by not only the words, but the tradition in which the piece was originally conceived and written.


John Woodford  


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