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27.6.07

Bach as Early Music

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Bach, Motetten, Hilliard Ensemble
(released May 22, 2007)


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N. Harnoncourt, Bachchor Stockholm
J. S. Bach is one of the relatively few Baroque composers whose music is performed and recorded regularly, which means that historically informed performance (HIP) groups do not corner the market. The Hilliard Ensemble has released a new recording of some of the most beautiful compositions for choir ever created, Bach's unaccompanied motets, BWV 225-231 (replacing their 1980s recording with the Hannover Knabenchor, now out of print). The group's style of singing is idiosyncratic enough that unless this disk were truly extraordinary, it would not merit a strong recommendation. That is, alas, not the case. Still, I listened to it with considerable interest and, after a first hearing with cold ears, have grown to enjoy parts of it immensely. When they made this disc back in 2003, the Hilliards augmented their normal roster, of four men, to eight voices, including two women.

As the liner notes observe, this reflects the formerly contested and now generally accepted argument that Bach intended his choral works to be performed by a small ensemble of voices, perhaps only one on a part. If you have ever sung one of the Bach motets, the thought of being the only voice covering one part in that often fiendishly complicated texture is daunting. There are moments in these performances where that possible weakness sticks out, and others where the voices double (if Bach reduces the texture to four parts, for example) less than perfectly in tune. The sound (captured in the acoustically glorious Austrian monastery of St. Gerold, like many of the Hilliard's recordings) seems a little over-engineered, with voices artificially pushed into the background at times. Still, the moments I have come to love are ones in which the reduced number of voices clarifies those thickets of Bach sound. This happens most in Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, as well as the other motets in which Bach takes on the double-choir format and turns it on its head. So, if you have an obsession with these fascinating and endlessly beautiful pieces, you should find a way to listen to this recording for some new thoughts about them.

ECM New Series 1875

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Bach, Orchestral Suites, English Concert, Trevor Pinnock
(re-released May 8, 2007)
Fans of the HIP movement can also take a trip down memory lane, thanks to the re-release of this 1979 recording of Bach's orchestral suites. Recorded in two sessions, in London and Munich in 1978-79, Trevor Pinnock led the English Concert on original instruments in a historic performance. Back in those days of earlier recordings, played generally by large symphony orchestras, these tracks were a revelation. After almost thirty years, the sound is still fresh, although there are occasional infelicities on the older instruments, especially the winds and trumpets. The reduced number of instruments allows Pinnock's harpsichord and those wonderful breathy recorders to twinkle through the texture, and the tempi are often brisk but do not feel rushed, with the possible exception of the ouverture of the third suite, BWV 1068. Some movements even feel slightly deliberate, like some of the dances in the second suite. The awareness of Baroque dance forms comes through in the dance pieces, making the Gavotte and Forlane of BWV 1066 much different from its stately Menuett, for example. With Harry Bicket set to take up the position of Artistic Director of the English Concert in the 2007-08 season, the group's future looks bright.

Deutsche Grammophon 477 6348

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