The Organ


Dorothee Blotzky-Mields, Carolyn Sampson, sopranos
Ingeborg Danz, alto, Mark Padmore, tenor
Peter Kooy, Sebastian Noack, basses

Collegium Vocale Gent conducted by Philippe Herreweghe

HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 801781.82 (2 CDs)
55'32" and 61'49"

Christmas without Bach in the equation is a hard concept to grasp for me and if there is one recording that I should alert you to then this is it. Cantatas 91, 121, 133 and 63, in that order, are followed by the Magnificat, BWV 243a in E flat complete with the Christmas interpolations on this two-disc set from Gramophone's Record Label of the Year .

Cantata 91 is ignited by a kettledrum that sends an upward ripple of scales fashioned from thirds and sixths by the Oboes followed by the Violins. The flight is taken up by two horns, from a long sustained chord upon which the opening hangs, and continues by carrying the message higher and higher up to the heavens before vocal strata counter with the words Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ.

The shorter Cantata 121 has no instrumental beginning, Christum wir sollen loben schon is unleashed vocally - no frills here, though the subterfuge in the bass keeps the fact that there is something to celebrate uppermost. Essentially, however, this work is imbued with introspective instances through the recitatives, before the Aria, John, by his joyous leaping, sung ebulliently by bass Peter Kooy, establishes the norm in seasonal musical rejoicing. The architecture of this cantata is reflected in Cantata 133, book-ended with chorales as it is, and differs only by a bouncy, joyful instrumental build-up to the choral entry, the orchestral invention sustained throughout the intertwining chorale.

Cantata 63 precedes the Magnificat on the second disc for good reason as both items were performed at St Thomas's, Leipzig on Christmas Day 1723, the former having been written in Weimar a year earlier. Its scoring and key would have shaped the Magnificat into the E flat version, with its four Christmas interpolations that are absent in Bach's later D major revisions that most of us are familiar with. These two works are given performances of uplifting splendour, each soloist tending their words with great understanding, the orchestral forces splashing the colour of the scoring with sensitivity, majesty and stylistic aplomb.

British tenor Mark Padmore has excelled in his interpretations of many Bach scores over the last couple of years both on the stage, concert platform and in the recording studio and it's good to hear him here together with British soprano Carolyn Sampson, whose own extraordinary gifts and stylistic appreciation prove that our home-grown artists are not a spent force when it comes to producing a quality of Bachian performance that even the Continental exponents are happy to rely upon.

Philippe Herreweghe's forces are on top form, finding each cantata's essence from the first note and unfolding their individual messages in revealing performances of distinguished resolution. A must!