BACH Magnificat in E-flat and other movements. Various/Rilling (Hanssler) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sacred Vocal Works
Magnificat in E flat, BWV 243a
with individual movements from other earlier works:
Symbolum Nicenum, BWV 232 Nr 13 & 15
O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe, BWV 34a
Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69a
Herr Gott, Beherrscher aller Dinge, BWV 120a
Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe, BWV 197a
Sibylla Rubens · Ruth Sandhoff · Christiane Oelze sopranos
Ingeborg Danz · Anke Vondung
Markus Ullmann · Christoph Prégardien
Andreas Schmidt · Klaus Häger · Michael Volle
Gchinger Kantorei Bach-Collegium Stuttgart

directed by Helmuth Rilling

Includes German texts with translations in French, English and Spanish.

HÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.140
2 discs [33.30, 42.49 ] mid-price

by Benjamin Chee

In Bach’s obituary, mentioned is made of his “many oratorios, masses (and) Magnificats“. However, today only two of the last-mentioned survive – and are, in fact, almost the same work, the major difference being that the first is in E-flat, and the second and more widely performed, in the more customary key of D.

The work takes it name from the first word of Mary’s hymn of praise when she visited her cousin to report of her own visit from an angel, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (‘My soul glorifies the Lord’), as recorded in the gospel of Luke. Because of its significance and widespread use in both Catholic and Lutheran worship services, this text was widely set to music.

Bach’s only surviving setting comprises twelve sections; the early version of this setting includes an additional four “insertion movements” designed to be, and thusly performed here, interspersed in between them. All the sections are short – all but one in performance last shorter than three minutes apiece. This version of the Magnificat was first performed at Christmas 1723.

Dispensing with an opening Sinfonia, the chorus immediately enters with the eponymous lines of the Magnificat, sounding weighty and robust, although not quite as inspirational. The dusky-hued soprano timbre of Ruth Sandoff has a mezzo voca quality to it, shaping the legato lines of the Et exsultavit with polished ease. Sibylla Rubens, as silvery-toned as ever, spoils her rendition of the Quia respexit with harshly-crunched consonants – which is a pity because she gets top marks in all other departments.

In this multi-part setting, Bach eschews any overt gender identification by also giving the arias to the bass and tenor. Klaus Häger gets his turn first in the Quia fecit mihi magna, singing with a personable voice and is nicely supported by the cello, double bass and organ accompaniment, even if the instruments have a tendency to lapse into a Teutonic heavyhandedness at times.

Marcus Ullman receives his tenor solo much later on, singing the Deposuit potentes with earnest melodrama and perhaps undue urgency – a performing path paved more with good intentions than achievement, it could be said. Nonetheless, full marks here for effort and he does get more exposure in the second disc, too.

Alto Ingeborg Danz also gets her spotlight following Ullman with Esurientes implevit bonis. With interesting accompaniment (two flauto dolce i.e. recorder, one cello and organ), she makes a strong showing for herself.

There is an instance of overly-sensitive miking picking up on the breathing noises in Et misericordia – an alto-tenor duet. Although both soloists sculpt the contours of the music expertly, the problem here lies less with their technique than the engineering of the captured sound. The acoustic tends towards reverberance, with balance in favour of the basses.

The other duet, Virga Jesse floruit for soprano-tenor, is less impressive. Suscepit Israel, which immediately follows, is for the three female soloists: their voices blend beautifully and they certainly produce an impressive sound, but some spots of over-rehearsal can be detected. If the music were any longer than the two minutes clocked here, the banality of delivery could have very well anaesthesized the mind.

The Gächinger Kantorei, as usual, outdo themselves. In the first insertion movement, they even have a turn at a capella vocalization. Except for the slight occasional lapse – in the opening of the second insertion movement Freut euch und jubiliert, there is an audible collective intake of breath followed by a somewhat untidy entry – they wield Bach’s four-part music as devoted and well-drilled exponents qua ars.

In the crossover from the solo Quia respexit to the choral entry of Omnes generationes, they sound very dramatic indeed, almost requiem-like with ample blood-and-thunder. By comparison, the closing choruses are more sedate. There is some good ensemble intercalation in the closing Gloria Patri et filio, but with the instruments locked in combat with the chorus for volume in the fortissimos, it sounds a shade overdone. The descant fanfare on brass at the end of Fecit potentiam could have had more velvet and less iron.

The second disc in this set is a collection of miscellany of fragmentary movements from the early forms of the Mass in B Minor. For argument’s sake, I suppose they do count as “Sacred Vocal Works” but except for those who wish to really explore Bach’s choral music in such detail, it’s hard to see who else might want these. Ah, but for the sake of completeness for the Bachakademie…

The choral singing is as ripe as ever: the Symbolum Nicenum strikes a less-profound note with just two standalone movements. Each of the soloists’ contribution, except for two arias and two duets, is minimal – but I should hasten to add, well-sung. The instrumental accompaniment is equally lively.

Christiane Oelze, whom some may remember from Sir John Elliot Gardiner’s Leonore in the role of Marzelline, makes only one contribution – the duet Et in unum Dominum of the Symbolum, but she makes the most of her two minutes (shared with Ingeborg Danz, at that) and together they are absolutely delightful, with each voice singing in ravishing harmony with the other.

The composite Siehe, also wird gesegnet from BWV34a alternates between tenor aria and alto recitative. The embryonic nature of this particular work is rather apparent, but both Christoph Preégarden and Anke Vondung express their feelings rather tellingly and make the best vocal contribution amongst all the items offered.

In her two recitatives, Sibylla Rubens again has a tendency to snarl on her consonants with exagerrated diction, which is not a good thing. On the other hand, Andreas Schmidt makes his only performance in this series in Ich lasse dich nicht, with a tenor-like bass, expressively warm – all the more emphasized by the unusual combination of oboe d’amore, bassoon, double bass and organ – and sets the stage perfectly for the chorus to come on and finish off the collection.

An interesting release, then, even if the content is totally under par for a double CD: at seventy-seven minutes, it could have been put on one disc (upon which it would have become an obscenely generous offering). The performances are certainly good – but good enough to justify paying double ?

The bottom line here: unless you really want the Magnificat in E flat and fragments of the Mass and other cantata movements, and don’t mind paying double for what should be a single disc (or at least getting two for the price of one), this is an album elepantus.

BENJAMIN CHEE thinks that Latin puns are a good way of saying unpleasant things with good humour.

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796: 5.11.2000 Benjamin Chee

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