Robert Levine
Classics Today
April 2018

Yes, three settings of the Magnificat by three Bachs. Not that there’s anything wrong with Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), but he’s on a playing field here that is decidedly uneven: he cannot rival either his father or older brother CPE in creativity. His is a brief work, with a perky beginning that surprises with a solo from the soprano, a middle movement with the alto, tenor, and bass singing undramatic vocal lines punctuated by the chorus, and a final 'Gloria' that is lackluster, especially for a 'Gloria'. Even the addition of trumpets doesn’t make one sit up—there’s something of Italian chamber music about the whole affair.

CPE’s is a very different story. Composed in 1738 and revised in 1779 to include trumpets and drums, this Magnificat is a great work. (Cohen and his group play the revised version but insert the earlier 'Et misericordia', a gorgeous piece for soprano and mezzo soloists and chorus.) The exciting, rushing strings of the opening give way to a lovely minor-key 'Quia respexit' for soprano solo; the 'Quia fecit' for tenor is filled with wild coloratura and has a martial aura to it; the sadness-tinged 'Et misericordia' follows; the baritone offers the 'Fecit potentiam', a rollicking, military solo that can stand alongside JS’s choral setting of the same text, punctuated by brass and timpani. The 'Deposuit' is a duet for tenor and mezzo that oddly echoes JS’s setting of the first word. The 'Suscepit' is a glorious solo for countertenor with flutes; the choral 'Gloria Patri' is a glorious, ceremonial two minutes, and the final 'Sicut erat' is a much-welcomed fugal lesson in busy counterpoint.

The JS Bach version, his most popular choral work, is perfection itself, a 25-minute ramble through solos, choruses, piety, and drama—differing sonorities and textures, changes in mood, and a tight construction in which no movement is too long or too short. The three 'grand' movements—beginning, middle, and end—with timpani and brass are pillowed by arias for all four soloists, a duet, and a trio. No combination is passed over, each has its own character. The 'Misericordia' is heartbreaking, the choral work at 'Omnes generationes' and 'Fecit potentiam' is inspiring.

The performances of all three are exemplary; the only performance of the JS Bach that I consider better is under Phillipe Herreweghe. Here the soloists are brilliant throughout—appealing voices, dead-center pitch, superb Baroque style, crisp diction. Best are soprano Joélle Harvey and countertenor Iestyn Davies, but the aggressive, colorful baritone of Thomas Bauer is not to be overlooked. The mezzo can be a bit plummy. Jonathan Cohen leads Arcangelo, a fine 29-person instrumental ensemble, and a chorus of 19. A well-filled CD of three not-so-similar treatments by the Bach family. Very highly recommended.

Classics Today