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Dip Your Ears, No. 148 (Double the Chorales, Double the Joy)

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J.S.Bach, Orgelbüchlein
BWV 599-644

Francesco Cera (organ)
Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera
Diego Fasolis (director)

A Musical Diet of Aural Respite

The label’s PR blurb claims that this release is “an original concept: the Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644 performed alternating the organ chorale with the same chorale sung by a choir.” Perhaps not that original. Ton Koopman has done a similar thing with the Schübler Chorales (with his Amsterdam Baroque Choir, Warner) and Suzuki has turned to the Clavierübung III in that way (Bach Collegium Japan, BIS). And the Orgelbüchlein has been thus recorded by at least Kevin Bowyer (with Det Fynske Kammerkor, volume 7 of his complete Organ-Bach on Nimbus), Vincent Warnier (Ensemble Vocal Jean Sourisse, BNL), Helga Schauerte (Immortal Bach Ensemble, Syrius/BNL), and Helmut Rilling (with his first ensemble, the Stuttgart Figuralchor, on Cantate).

Then again, most of the above recordings are hard to come by and hearing the organ chorales alongside the chorales they’re based on is immensely pleasing, even enlightening—so PR-exaggerations be damned: this is a magnificent release. You’d think the organ pieces, which are developed from the choral pieces, would be placed after the choral bits—to show the development. That’s certainly how most other recordings order handle it. Not Cera & Fasolis. But over a couple dozen increasingly enthusiastic listening, bafflement has given way to delight, because this order actually helps the shorter choral interludes gain in weight and become equal partners rather than mere notable appetizers. And anything that can heighten the vocal contributions here is a bonus, because the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera under Diego Fasolis is one of the great strengths of this recording and deserves every bit of the spotlight. Solo soprano duties in 14 chorales go to the equally lovely, moving Antonella Balducci, whose calm and darkly colored voice—with burnished hints of reed and wood and total lack of narcissism and bits of boyishness—puts the ears at divine ease.

Orgelbüchlein Chorale BWV639, Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (exerpt), Francesco Cera, Antonella Balducci

Francesco Cera plays with that innate rhythm that establishes that irresistible, compelling pulse in Bach. His modern Mascioni opus 1182 organ (2008) of the ancient Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Giubiasco/Bellinzona (~1387), sounds clear and clean, strong, and confident, but not at all bombastic or overwhelming (as Bowyer’s Marcussen organ of Saint Hans/Odense has a tendency to do), neither chalky or nasal as Warnier’s very fine French Grand Organ of St.Martin in Masevaux (Alfred Kern) does, and although it has a mechanical transmission, you can’t hear the nuts and bolts as you will, invariably, from the historical instrument in Luckau (in its own right a glorious Christoph Donat-built instrument) that Schauerte plays.

Det Fynske Kammerkor (Bowyers’ band) manages some chorales with almost chorister-like clarion-naïveté. The Immortal Bach Ensemble (and assorted soloists) impress with unparalleled transparency and pronounced rhythmic delivery. But the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera here comes close, and adds the amount of heft that matches the organ and allows not having to record the voices too closely. Their contribution makes up for the only criticism I might muster (by providing very decent liner notes, Brilliant nixes another potential complaint in the bud) and that’s that the Mascioni organ sounds a little neutral compared the Luckau and Masevaux instruments. Well, that’s why I wouldn’t just want to have one recording of these works… but if I had to reduce to one, it would be Cera.