“Music to combat grief” is John Eliot Gardiner’s apt description of Bach’s Actus Tragicus, coupled on this CD with a timely performance of the Easter Oratorio.
Gardiner’s long, in-depth experience of Bach’s music has been manifest over the past decade through the many SDG recordings emanating from his Bach Pilgrimage in 2000 with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque soloists. This, however, is a completely new recording, made in June last year.
The Actus Tragicus is comparatively early Bach, but it is thoroughly mature in the range of penetrating emotions that Gardiner and his forces fully and poignantly explore here.
If the chorus is assigned the upbeat role in the first number and in the lively counterpoint of the final one, elsewhere in the Actus Tragicus the arias and ariosos float on the air of consolation. The elegiac mood of the piece is heralded by a remarkable sinfonia at the start, softly scored for recorders, viole da gamba and organ and in its harmonies mixing sorrow with serenity. Gardiner has a judicious sense of the pulse of this music, and his singers and instrumentalists draw their colouring, phrasing and textural inflections from the music’s natural contours and expressive implications. A succinct piece, it says all it needs to say in 20 minutes or so, and this performance is a persuasive advocate of it.
The Easter Oratorio, which achieved its final form in 1746, is cast over a span of 40 minutes and, as its subject would dictate, is a musical expression of joy at the Resurrection.
The invigorating opening sinfonia, with trumpets ablaze, is of a piece with the first chorus and the concluding one in conveying the sense of jubilation. However, as this performance so sensitively delineates, soloists with discreet instrumentation voice sentiments of meditation, pain and resignation—notably in Nicholas Mulroy’s beautifully sung tenor aria “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer”—before the hope and glory of the Resurrection are realised. The multifaceted feelings and responses of both the Actus Tragicus and the Easter Oratorio find searching interpreters here, with musicianship of a consistently polished finesse.