Three Bach Magnificats

Three Bach Magnificats
St John’s, Smith Square, 1 October 2015

JC Bach: Magnificat a 4 in C Major W.E22
JS Bach: Magnificat in D major, BWV 243
CPE Bach: Magnificat in D major H.772 (1749)

Concert or CD programmes that contrast JS Bach with his contemporaries, including members of his own family, can be tricky affairs. It is rare that the best of other composers’ work comes near to the quality of one of JS’s everyday pieces, churned out for the following Sunday services. In their St John’s, Smith Square concert, Arcangelo managed to pull it off, albeit to the detriment of the first composer, Johann Christian (the ‘London’ Bach), who opened the evening with his 1760 Magnificat a 4 in C Major. Written during his early years in Milan (where he was cathedral organist) two years before his conversion to Catholicism, it is firmly rooted in the Italian operatic tradition with occasional hints of the forthcoming Classical style. Contributions from the four soloists are slight, the chorus being prominent as is the often bustling orchestral accompaniment. His nod towards Dad’s music came with the grand final fugal Et is saecula saeculorum.

Father Bach followed, with his well-known Magnificat in D, a 1733 reworking of an earlier E flat version written for his first Christmas in Lübeck in 1723. More than twice the length of JC Bach’s Magnificat, this is one of the most glorious of all Bach’s choral works, and was clearly intended to impress in both its incarnations. As Brian David pointed out in his programme notes, Bach’s interpretation of the text is in line with Lutheran tradition where the veneration of the Virgin Mary is less important than the veneration of God. Bach’s dramatic response to this is operatic in its drama and sensitivity, but not in is execution – unlike Johann Christian’s version, this is not Italian. The twelve movements have a considerable degree of symmetry and structure, something slightly undercut on this occasion by Jonathan Cohen’s wide variations in the gaps between the various sections.

What turned this into a more balanced group of pieces was the concluding 1749 Magnificat by Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach, written in Berlin and almost certainly intended to make a similar impression as did JS Bach with his Magnificat – although it is not clear just who he intended to impress. One theory, given the date, is a possible return to Leipzig after his father’s forthcoming demise. For a Leipzig public used to 27 years of JS Bach’s music, this would have been something of a shock. Although elements of the JSB tradition are very evident, CPE has a broader musical spectrum and a greater sense of the drama of individual sections, albeit with a similar sense of the text. JSB sends the empty away with a delightful little plonk from the continuo bass; CPE hurls the mighty from their seat as if from a great height in a flurry of descending notes, before gently filling the hungry with good things. He concludes with a glorious extended fugal Amen that his father would have been proud of.

Both JSB and CPE rely on a wide range of orchestral colours and textures, and the players of Arcangelo were well up to the task. One matter of conducting etiquette that I did notice was that, although the trumpeters were specifically acknowledged, the continuo group were not, despite having had far more notes to perform during the evening, in the case of the harpsichord/organ player, most of them improvised. So I will mention them here – Ashok Gupta, harpsichord/organ, Luise Buchberger, cello, and Judith Evans who doubled the often tricky cello line on double bass. Alexandra Bellamy, oboe, also made a significant contribution. The 19-strong choir made an impressively coherent sound in what was a big sing for them.

Of the soloists, it was inevitably going to be countertenor Iestyn Davies who shone above the others, although tenor Thomas Walker and bass Thomas E Bauer also impressed. I found the voice types of both soprano and mezzo (doubling as a soprano for a couple of numbers) surprisingly out of keeping with the general ‘authentic’ approach of the playing, choir singing and the other three soloists. That is not their fault, but the strong and persistent vibrato of the soprano and, to a lesser extent, of the mezzo, really didn’t do any favours to the music. The former also had a habit of leaning into notes and a hint of portamento, but more suitable for a much later repertoire. Iestyn Davies’s voice is not devoid of vibrato, but he can control it and the clarity of his voice, and his articulation and use of ornaments, shines through. It was a shame, as both female singers had fine tones hidden away under the wobbles – but I do wonder how singers like this get booked for repertoire like this.

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