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Issue 99
This article was last updated on
16 March, 2001

More Stuff:

To Bach Is To Be Human
A Tribute to the Master


  • Brandenburg Concerti
  • The Orchestral Suites
  • The Harpsichord Concerti
  • Solo Harpsichord Concerti (Levin/Hänssler)
  • Violin & Oboe Concerti
  • Oboe Concerti

  • Cello Suites (Wispelwey)
  • Cello Suites (Yo-Yo Ma)
  • Partitas & Sonatas for Solo Violin (Mela)
  • Partitas & Sonatas for Solo Violin (Podger)
  • Violin Sonatas (Complete) Podger/Pinnock (Channel).

  • Bach Transcribed for Piano (Lauriala)
  • Harpsichord Music by the Young Bach (Hill)
  • Anna Magdelena Notebook 1725. Behringer (Hänssler)
  • Klavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Payne (Hänssler).
  • The Six Partitas (Leonhardt)
  • The Goldberg Variations
  • The Six Partitas (Leonhardt)
  • The Art of Fugue (ALSQ)

  • The Sacred Masterworks (Decca)
  • Sacred Music in Latin (Hänssler)
  • The Motets
  • The Magnificat
  • Mass in B minor
  • St. Matthew Passion
  • St. Matthew Passion (Gardiner/DG)

    For even more Bach reviews, check out the Inkvault!

  • Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

    Sacred Masterworks

    Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248
    Easter Oratorio
    , BWV 249
    Magnificat in D
    , BWV 243
    Mass in B minor
    , BWV 232
    St John Passion
    , BWV 245

    St Matthew Passion, BWV 244

    Elly Ameling, Hanneke van Bork, Yvonne Minton sopranos. Helen Watts Contralto .
    Peter Pears.Werner Krenn
    Tenor. Tom Krause Bass

    Lübecker Kantorei (Chorusmaster: Hans-Jürgen Wille)
    Wiener Akademiechor (Chorusmaster: Xaver Meyer)

    Dieter Ellenbeck Evangelist . Walter Berry Jesus . Julia Hamari Contralto .. Hermann Prey Bass . Manfred Ackermann Petrus . Allan Ahrans Pontius Pilatus . Marianne Koehnlein-Goebel Magd . Wolfgang Isenhardt Diener
    Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben (Chorusmaster: Gerhard Wilhelm)

    Peter Pears Evangelist . Hermann Prey Jesus . Elly Ameling Soprano, Erste Magd, Pilati Weib . Marga Höffgen Contralto, Zweite Magd . Fritz Wunderlich Tenor . Tom Krause Bass . Heinz Blankenburg Petrus, Hohepriester, Pontius Pilatus . August Messthaler Judas
    Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben (Chorusmaster: Gerhard Wilhelm)

    Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra · directed by Karl Münchinger

    DECCA Capbox 455 783-2
    11 CDs [11h 24:40] budget-price

    Also available separately: Christmas Oratorio on Decca Double (455 410-2);
    Mass in B minor on Decca Double (440 609-2).

    by Benjamin Chee

    BACHBach's Sacred Masterworks
    This superlative collection of Johann Sebastian Bach's choral masterpieces takes us back to the recording heyday of the sixties and seventies, reissuing Münchinger's efforts in recording all the major liturgical choral works (excluding the cantatas). All these works date from Bach's Leipzig period, where he also composed most of the religious cantatas, the Goldberg Variations, the second book of the Well-Tempered Clavier and Art of the Fugue.

    Münchinger's recording cycle was accomplished over a decade between 1964 and 1974, with all but one of the works recorded in the Scholss Ludwigsburg. The exception, the B minor Mass, was recorded in the Sofiensaal in Vienna. The technique of choral interpretation of Bach's music has evolved considerably since then, there is still a lot which Münchinger's readings have to say. Modern listeners may take some time getting used to (or reacquainted with, as the case may be) the old-schooled Bach of the sixties and seventies.

    Christmas Oratorio

    The set begins with the Christmas Oratorio, a high-spirited drums-and-trumpet fanfare that launches the festive opening chorus, "Jauchzet, frohlocket !" ('Rejoice, exult !') and sets the proper celebratory mood for the rest of the work. Helen Watts' alto solo in "Schlafe, mein Liebster" ('Sleep, my Dearest') is very tenderly sung, but the other soloists are no less telling in their contributions. Peter Pears, as the Evangelist, narrates the story of the Nativity with some flair, amply supported by the Lübeck choir.

    There is also very good playing from the Stuttgart orchestra, especially the woodwinds and trumpets which Bach uses to musically accentuate and embroider the choral storytelling. The remastered sound is first-class and does not unequivocally betray the age of the recording (September 1966). Münchinger's reading is an excellent specimen of baroque musical scholarship as might be found in the immediate pre-authentic era.

    The oratorio is presented on two CDs, inconveniently breaking in the middle of the Third Day of Christmas, although this is, in any case, unavoidable. This work is also available separately as a Decca Double (455 410-2).

    Easter Oratorio

    The companion work to the Christmas Oratorio, telling the story of the discovery of Christ's resurrection at the garden tomb, starts off with a dramatic sinfonia with the swagger of an operatic overture. This later develops into an exposition of amiable character, without the Sturm und Drang that would characterize the later large-scale works, and Münchinger directs accordingly, as such.

    He does not refrain from letting the exuberance flow when it needs to, such as the infectiously joyous "Kommt, eilet und laufet" ('Come, make haste and run') where the disciples Peter and John exhort each other, on Easter morning, towards the cave where the Saviour is buried. Neither does Münchinger unduly avoid the pathos of the meditative arias, Peter's "Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer" ('Easy shall my death pangs be') and Mary Magdalene's "Saget, saget mir geschwinde" ('Tell me, tell me quickly'), imparting to the pieces a noble sentimentality.

    With the substitution of Werner Krenn for Peter Pears in the tenor's role, the same team of soloists from the Christmas Oratorio return with splendid teamwork, and the Stuttgart musicians are equally on top of things. The sound is a tad artificially bright in some spots, no doubt a consequence of digital remastering, but otherwise this is a well-served and reliable account.

    Magnificat in D
    The version included in this set is the later and better-known one in D major; Bach had originally produced a setting of the Magnificat in E-flat major, but later transposed it half a semitone down in his revision of the work. The recording of this work was made in May 1968, at the same time as the Easter Oratorio, and in its time was considered one of the best performances of this work.

    Listening to the eponymous opening chorus Magnificat, it is not difficult to see why. Münchinger shapes and molds the choral contours of the liturgical exclamations meticulously, and the Vienna Academy Choir responds with equal aplomb. Indeed, the Fecit potentiam explodes with incontestable fervour, topped off by a resplendent descant trumpet, and the Gloria of the finale is full of spirit and excitement.

    There is a hint of untidiness in the Et exultavit and Suscepit Israel, "helped" in no small measure by the crystal clarity of detail with which the recording engineers have captured the sound - including the breathing and sibilants of the singers. The Stuttgart orchestra provides admirable accompaniment, especially in the woodwind countermelodies of the Quia respexit and Esurientes. This is a glowing, intense rendition of the Virgin Mary's acclamatory canticle, and unarguably the most telling interpretation of the entire choral set.

    Mass in B minor
    It is always interesting to see how a conductor approaches the performance of the B minor Mass. It was, after all, never performed in Bach's lifetime, written as a work of academic theory, much like Art of the Fugue, epitomizing a lifetime of composition and not intended as a performance item. This is not, indeed, a work to be approached lightly.

    Münchinger's ability, therefore, is to infuse this magnus opus with a living, sense of extrovert spirituality, delving into the depths of this great music. The Kyrie eleison begins with judiciously solemn tones, building up to a climatic Gloria. The big choral numbers erupt with untrammeled excitement, and the contemplative sections are given the appropriate quietus. The monumental six-part Sanctus and Ossana is instilled with a veritable sense of worship. The five soloists all carry their parts elegantly, as does the supporting chorus and orchestra.

    As with the other works in the set, the quality of recording (which dates from May 1970) and digital remastering is first-class, with the choir and instruments all captured faithfully. This disc has also been reissued separately as a Decca Double (440 609-2).

    Passion is not just a radio station

    The Passion, in liturgical usage, relates to the sufferings and death of Jesus Christ; specifically, the events after the Last Supper leading up to the Crucifixion. The practice of reciting the story of the Passion goes as far back in antiquity as the 4th century. By the 8th century, it was performed in plainsong, and by the 12th century, as a three-part chorus: a tenor as Narrator, a bass as Christ and an alto as the Crowd.

    Because of classical music's roots in religion, it was inevitable that Renaissance composers would take up the task of writing their own settings of the Passion. Among some of the early efforts were those of Obrecht, Lassus, Victoria and Byrd. Bach made use of a combination of Scriptural text, narrative paraphrases, chorales and arias which gave the work a dramatic quality. This became the forerunner of the dramatic oratorio which was later popularized by Handel and Haydn in the late Baroque period. Even as recently as the last century, modern composers such as Penderecki and Pärt have continued to compose their own settings of the Passion.

    St John Passion
    The St John Passion was the last of the set to be recorded, over two sessions in July and October 1974. With a remarkable level of consistency alongside all the other works in his cycle, Münchinger delivers an interpretation - if somewhat quaint by modern standards - with some dramatic impact and emotional verve.

    The remastered sound does justice to the well-balanced choir-instrumental pairing, full of body and rich in timbre, even though the choral soloists are placed forward of the continuo and the choir is not always well focused in the massed vocal numbers. The orchestra plays every note with purpose and the choir supports amply with confident singing.

    The soloists are outstandingly teamed, bringing to the work a very clear sense of spiritual conviction, especially in the narrative dialogues, always essential in such a liturgical work such as this. Elly Ameling (soprano) is as sweet-toned as ever in the arias, and Dieter Ellenbeck (tenor) makes a sole outstanding contribution in this entire choral series as the Evangelist, with his ardent delivery of phrase and rhythm. There is a warmth and humanity in this performance that fully conveys the drama and pathos of the Passion.

    St Matthew Passion
    Of the accounts according to the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), only Bach's setting of Matthew and John have survived. The account of the Passion according to Luke is now thought to be spurious, and Bach's setting of Mark has regrettably been lost (although it was reconstructed by Hellmann, Sutkowski and Maciejewski in 1983).

    This work, the biggest item of the set spread across three discs, was also the first of the cycle to be recorded, in July 1964. For some reason, the opening chorus sounds uncharacteristically dry in timbre and backwardly placed, while the solo voices and instruments have been unnaturally brought forward, even if the overall sound is comparatively as vivid as the other works in this series.

    Still, Münchinger's interpretation is difficult to fault, notwithstanding this is a specimen of the pre-authentic school of performance. The scale and volatility of the storytelling is undeniable, and copiously sustained across the breadth of the entire work.

    The orchestra and choir are responsive to his direction, and the soloists are as always well teamed. The lamentation aria following Peter's denial could be a shade more melancholy; Marga Höffgen (contralto, Second Woman) adopts a slightly more operatic manner than is desired here. On the other hand, Peter Pears (Evangelist) narrates the story of the Passion with great aplomb and relish, and Elly Ameling's (soprano, Pilate's Wife) tone is as exquisite here as the recording, ten years hence, of the St John Passion. Tom Krause (bass) also makes an outstanding contribution in his not insignificant part.

    As with the other budget box, paper-sleeved CD collections, this is essentially a repackaging of older recordings presented at a more economical price. Overall, Münchinger has a very good, if nondescript, command of how large-scale liturgical Bach should be performed, and manages to elicit this responsiveness from his musicians and choristers.

    BachOne consequence of this, however, and accentuated by having all the works packaged together back-to-back for easy comparison, is the similarity of his approach to all the works. Even though the cycle was recorded over a span of ten years, there is an underlying commonality - call it his style - which has the unfortunate effect of seemingly pushing everything into a middle-of-the-road interpretation. There are moments of sheer inspiration, as in the Magnificat, but one should not expect a non-stop exegesis of this spiritual music, either.

    The programme booklet runs to eighty-three pages in all, containing the libretto to most of the works; I say most, as the text of the Magnificat and the Mass have been omitted in their entirety. One wonders why. Surely, at the very least, it cannot be too much to have the complete texts reprinted for the convenience of listeners ? The actual programme notes have been abbreviated into a two-page summary - no mean feat - by Mark Aldus.

    The two items issued separately (Christmas Oratorio and B minor Mass) are individually worth a test-drive at their asking price, although their age may discourage those seeking to acquire these works piecemeal. On the other hand, until a younger set of similarly-packaged choral works appears to challenge this compilation, Münchinger's performances at this price are worth considering, especially for collectors seeking to build up repertoire quickly and inexpensively.

    BENJAMIN CHEE has walked along the Via Dolorosa and visited at the garden tomb of Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, and is a certified Jerusalem Pilgrim.

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    736: 26.1.2000 © Benjamin Chee

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