J S Bach’s Magnificat should need no introduction. It is one of his most compact, varied, stimulating, ingenious and immediately accessible works, full of humour and clever little touches designed to impress the Leipzig congregation shortly after his appointment as Kantor. The only significant Bach to have moved away from the Lutheran Church to embrace Roman Catholicism, Johann Christian’s exuberant setting is even more concise than his father’s (in performance it lasts well under half the length) and in a blind tasting I would not mind betting that a good few people might think this to be a hitherto unknown work of Haydn—full of fine orchestral writing and irrepressible wit. By far and away the most substantial setting here is that by Carl Philipp Emanuel, who composed it in 1749, according to the booklet note, 'with a view to succeeding his ailing father as Leipzig Thomaskantor'. In the revised 1779 version performed here, there are passing references to the father’s setting, not least in the trumpet and drum infused D major opening chorus. But stylistically this weighty and at times extravagant setting is worlds away from the vivid word painting of his father or the almost operatic exuberance of his young brother.
With Bach scholarship evolving at a disconcerting rate, it seems that we need to re-assess our understanding of performance practices on an almost annual basis. Issues of tuning, instrumentation, articulation and ensemble size have long exercised the minds of those whose intention is to deliver Bach in a manner they regard as 'authentic' (even if the ears to which they deliver it remain firmly attuned to contemporary sensitivities). So, despite the plethora of excellent recordings of J S Bach’s Magnificat over the years, many of them today seem mired in an out-dated perception of 18th century north German performing practices. My personal favourite of recent recordings is that from John Butt and the outstanding Dunedin Consort on Linn (CKD469). Butt’s recording, however, is of the original E flat major version as sung in St Thomas’s Leipzig on Christmas Day 1723, and while it exudes scholarship and authority it does not wear them so much on the sleeve as to render them outmoded as soon as new ideas are raised. I am certainly not ashamed to say, however, that my all-time favourite performance on record is that directed by Daniel Barenboim with what was then called the New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus and released on an EMI ASD LP in 1970. Not burdened down by a scholarship which decreed less is best, and that gut strings and hair shirts were better than ones made of steel and nylon, these massed forces brought out so much fun and sheer joy from the work (with the mischievous organ continuo of John Birch adding more than a few belly laughs) that, taste considerations apart, it remains one of the most infectiously captivating of Bach recordings.
With this new version from Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen, we have a recording which achieves an ideal balance between scholarship and direct emotional impact. Cohen pushes it along at an absolutely cracking pace, excising a full five minutes off the length it takes Barenboim to saunter through the work and even undercutting Butt by some three. This is not just a numbers game, but a clear indication that Cohen’s approach is to underline the celebratory, festive nature of J S Bach’s Magnificat in its D major manifestation. This is a tremendously joyful romp through the work aided and abetted by his excellent team of instrumentalists and singers. Crisply articulated passagework makes light of the remarkably complex textures of the opening chorus and, in particular, Bach’s superbly onomatopoeic choral fugue 'Omnes generationem'. The solo numbers dance along with unflagging energy, Olivia Vermeulen cheerfully spitting out her consonants in a buoyant account of 'Et exultavit', nicely tempered by some smoothly flowing semiquavers. But where repose and restraint is needed, Cohen is ready and willing to hand it out. A sinuous oboe sets the scene for a deliciously ingratiating account of 'Quia respexit' from Joélle Harvey, the clarity and care of whose Latin diction cannot be faulted. Sheer delight bubbles out of Iestyn Davies and the pair of intertwining flutes (Rachel Brown and Katy Bircher) in 'Esurientes implevit bonis', and while Ashok Gupta’s delicate organ continuo has none of the sheer joie de vivre of John Birch’s, it still has a nicely cheeky feel to it.
Short, pithy and suitably exuberant, the J C Bach setting is notable for the masterly handling of the orchestra and particularly for its invigorating setting of 'Fecit potentiam' with the solo trio of Olivia Vermeulen, Thomas Walker and Thomas Bauer coming up with some impressively forthright singing. The 28 players and 19 voices listed as constituting Arcangelo sound for all the world here as if they are at least double that number, so full and robust a sound they all make in the excellent recording.
It is in the big work by C P E that this recording really offers something special. This was his first major choral work and while it teeters somewhere on the brink between the church and the opera house, Cohen and his team do not hold back from extracting every last ounce of drama and display from it in this very scintillating performance. Thomas Bauer throws caution to the wind in a scrumptiously melodramatic delivery of 'Fecit potentiam', Thomas Walker proves himself the master of the flamboyant vocal gesture in 'Quia fecit mihi magna', while Joélle Harvey is a model of fluid pathos in 'Quia respexit'. Iestyn Davies’s impeccably poised 'Suscepit Israel' reveals just what a gift for the lyrical line C P E Bach had.