JS Bach: Easter Oratorio

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

WORKS: Easter Oratorio, BWV 249; Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11
PERFORMER: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), James GIlchrist (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass); Retrospect Ensemble/Matthew Halls

Bach’s Easter Oratorio possesses some unusual features, notably omitting the biblical story and therefore the traditional tenor role of Evangelist as narrator. Instead Bach set a commentary of events by means of non-biblical dialogue. By contrast, the libretto of the Ascension Oratorio contains lines of New Testament scripture sung by a narrator through recitative and interspersed with lengthier, meditative arias introduced by a joyful chorus. 
Director Matthew Halls fields a choir of 16 voices rather than the one-voice-to-a-part approach favoured by Paul McCreesh in his recording of the Easter Oratorio (DG Archiv). In this instance, I prefer the larger group of singers which enlivens the choruses with greater vigour and provides a fairer balance with Bach’s imposing ensemble. In the expressive Adagio section of the resplendent opening Sinfonia, Halls, like Gustav Leonhardt (Philips), opts for a solo oboe rather than a flute, Bach’s later choice of instrument preferred by Andrew Parrott (Virgin) and Masaaki Suzuki (BIS). Oboist Alexandra Bellamy’s phrasing and articulation illuminate the poetic content of the music, as does that of flautist Rachel Brown in her accompaniment of the extended soprano aria, tenderly sung by Carolyn Sampson. 
That contemplative tenderness is equally realised by James Gilchrist in his lyrical slumber song with recorders. Iestyn Davies brings an appropriately light-hearted note to his dance-like aria, though here and to a lesser extent in his Ascension Oratorio aria his voice has an unsettling and hard edge. Notwithstanding this small qualification these are enjoyably relaxed and unselfconscious performances. Nicholas Anderson