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.
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
not just a radio station
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.
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
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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
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,
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.
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
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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