JS Bach: Easter Oratorio/Actus Tragicus

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LABELS: Soli Deo Gloria
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach: Easter Oratorio/Actus Tragicus
WORKS: Easter Oratorio; Actus Tragicus
PERFORMER: Hannah Morrison, Meg Bragle, Nicholas Mulroy, Peter Harvey; Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner


With the release last year of the Ascension cantatas and Oratorio, John Eliot Gardiner plugged the gap in the recorded legacy of his Millennium cantata pilgrimage. But the Bach choral adventure continues. Death and Resurrection colonise a programme artfully contrasting the exquisite chamber music inventiveness of Actus Tragicus with the full-on three trumpets refulgence of the Easter Oratorio – performed here not in its final incarnation but in the version completed in 1746.

For all the Pascal jubilation of the Oratorio, it’s the simple, unaffected solace of Actus Tragicus, however, that steals the show. With only pairs of coalescing recorders, mournful violas da gamba and continuo, Bach creates an opening Sonatina of such tender resignation that the first chorus almost sounds like a finger-wagging admonition, even though Gardiner slims his choral forces from the 23 voices of the Oratorio down to a dozen. His tempos are beautifully interrelated so that everything leads to (and from) the central pause that consigns the mystery of death to utter silence; and the textures are invested with a lightness that evokes the hushed stillness of the death chamber. It’s quite a wrench as the final guttering two-note instrumental ‘Amen’ yields to the Oratorio whose choruses showcase the Monteverdi Choir’s much-prized ebullience.

Floating on a lovely grainy accompaniment, a lullaby perhaps remembering Actus Tragicus, ‘Sanft soll mein Todeskummer’, is sung with easeful poise by Nicholas Mulroy; but ‘Seele deine Spezereien’ seems a touch over-leisurely, and some arias betray the odd moment of vocal discomfort.


Paul Riley