Bach: Leipzig Christmas Cantatas; Magnificat

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 9

The reason to buy this set is for the Magnificat, the original but rarely recorded E-flat version from 1723, which certainly gets its most exciting and likely most enduring performance on disc, an agreeable combination of first-rate soloists, matchless choral singing, and unassailable playing from Philippe Herreweghe’s period-instrument band. Listeners familiar with the more commonly performed D major Magnificat–which Bach revised from the earlier work some 10 years later–will notice some significant differences, especially the presence of four “Christmas interpolations”, which are additional hymn-based movements that were part of Leipzig Christmas custom.

The first of these, Von Himmel hoch, is a strictly a cappella motet, while the last, Virga Jesse floruit, is one of Bach’s more lovely vocal duets (soprano and bass with continuo), whose rendition here by Carolyn Sampson and Sebastian Noack is deserving of more than a couple of repeats. As for the rest of the Magnificat, you’re treated to bracing but not rushed tempos, infectiously energetic and technically solid contributions from the chorus, and an intelligently paced flow from movement to movement that once again shows Herreweghe’s complete command of this repertoire. The cantata BWV 63 “Christen, ätzet diesen Tag”, recorded at the same 2002 sessions as the Magnificat, also receives an outstanding performance, recorded in an appropriately bright, richly resonant, cleanly detailed acoustic.

The set’s first disc, which includes the cantatas BWV 91, 121, and 133, is placed in a warmer, more confined environment that overall provides pleasant listening but also permits less clarity and detail and takes a bit of the edge off the performance’s excitement and energy, and the soprano soloist, while very good, will appeal primarily to those who appreciate their Bach arias in a straight-toned, Emma Kirkby-like manner (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Regardless, the three cantatas on Disc 1 carry Herreweghe’s authoritative stamp, from the perfectly managed choral flourishes to the finer detail of arias such as BWV 91’s “Die Armut, so Gott auf sich nimmt”, with its incessant skipping string figures balanced against the soprano and alto’s earnest vocal exhortations. No matter how you cut it, this is a treasurable collection, and no Bach fan should be without this Magnificat–it’s that good.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

J.S. BACH - Christmas Cantatas BWV 63, 91, 121, & 133; Magnificat BWV 243a in E-flat major

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