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Fanfare Magazine: 39:2 (11-12/2015) 
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Reviewer: Joshua Cohen

The booklet note for this CD begins with a statement by Bach’s student Johann Adolph Scheibe defining a sacred oratorio as “nothing other than a poem intended to be set to music which presents a certain sacred action or virtue in a dramatic manner.” In truth, there’s very little drama in either the Easter Oratorio or Ascension Oratorio, which are only oratorios in the most nominal sense, because they portray two successive episodes from the New Testament (the discovery by Christ’s disciples that he has risen from his tomb, and Christ’s farewell to his disciples and ascension into heaven), and because they incorporate brief passages of narration and dialogue between the arias and chorales. It would be more accurate to describe these modestly festive but prevailingly intimate works as lyric cantatas built around biblical incidents, composed along lines similar to the Christmas Oratorio, which was originally a cycle of cantatas performed at six separate services between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany. Of course, the Christmas Oratorio (which really does merit its title, especially when all six cantatas are performed together) was conceived on a much grander scale, and it tells a more dynamic, involving story. But there is still some lovely music to be found in the two works assembled here.

In any case, they make a natural pairing, and they fit comfortably together on a single CD. As it happens, the two recordings were made 10 years apart: Easter Oratorio in 2004, and Ascension Oratorio in 2014. The recorded sound is perceptibly warmer and in the latter work, with greater clarity and presence for the choral movements, but since the Easter Oratorio is mostly a series of arias, and the sound is never less than adequate, the difference in quality is not a major problem. Frieder Bernius founded the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in 1985, and the Chamber Choir back in 1968, when he was a freshman student at the Stuttgart Musikhochschule. Over the last 30 years he has performed and recorded a wide range of operatic and choral music (most notably an admired version of Gluck’s Orfeo on Sony), but in recent years has concentrated on the sacred works of Bach and his contemporaries. His performances are marked by animated but unflashy musicianship, and by a strong corporate spirit among his players and singers. The Stuttgart choristers make a mellower, more “blended” sound than we often hear in early instrument performances, the trumpets are bright but not piercing, and woodwinds are integrated into the orchestral texture rather than given special prominence. The solo singers are distinctly better in the Easter Oratorio—the only repeater being soprano Joanne Lunn, who predictably sounds a little bit fresher in 2004. Jan Kobow sings his lyrical aria (one of Bach’s loveliest) sweetly and gracefully (though not quite as gorgeously as the young Fritz Wunderlich on a radio recording 60 years ago). Also satisfying is the alto soloist, Elizabeth Jansson, whose dark, flexible voice has an attractive Nordic gleam. Her successor in the Ascension Oratorio, countertenor David Allsopp, isn’t in the same class—a husky, colorless sound that can’t carry the expressive weight of his aria. The opening chorus, however, is a joy to hear, with its unforced energy and natural swing.

Among other single-disc pairings, the worthiest alternative is the one led by Masaaki Suzuki (2006), who uses slightly smaller forces but demonstrates similar qualities of musical taste and devotion. Both versions are about equally recommendable.

There are times, however, when I long for a richer sound palette, a more generous emotional commitment—and just, well, more full-bodied singing. Perhaps someday Warner Classics (or ArkivMusic) will reissue Loren Maazel’s 1967 account of the Easter Oratorio, with its wonderful quartet of soloists: Helen Donath, Anna Reynolds, Ernst Haefliger, and Martti Talvela, all of whom demonstrate a tonal fullness and range of color and expression (entirely compatible with the necessary flexibility) that lifts their performance to an altogether higher plane of eloquence.



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