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GRAMOPHONE ( 03/ 2019)
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Reviewer: Jonathan Freeman-Attwood

Defining a characterful selection of Bach’s vocal music can often be as elusive as the musical material itself. This skilfully imagined and recorded programme instils a distinctive and quiet confidence in three radiantly chiselled landscapes. Framed by two pre-Leipzig cantatas – the first from when the young composer was burning the candle at both ends in Mühlhausen – the conceit of this disc sits very much within the idea of solace, dependence on God in the face of human frailty and the strength of corporate faith.

Resonating in the bittersweet aesthetic of Bach’s 17th-century forebears, fewer pieces benefit more from period instruments embedded in a flexible vocal ensemble than the funeral cantata, Actus tragicus. It’s a work whose familiarity can encourage a form of genial complacency, for listeners as much as performers, as a soft palate of recorders and viols can enchant rather than enquire. Not so here, where luminescent textures and an organically evolving tactus result in a patiently contemplative essay. The implications of Bach’s fragile treatment of consonance and dissonance in the opening Sonatina is not lost on Amici Voices. (The same can be said of Kurtág’s four-hand piano reading, performed with his wife, on YouTube.)

The Palm Sunday cantata, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (1714), constitutes an ingenious shift towards the maturing labyrinth of Bachian modernity – a remarkable fruit of the Weimar period. Again, the combined vocal and instrumental contributions of Amici

Voices get right inside the music. Their success is all about sustainably good judgement in knowing what really matters in communicating the essence of these exquisitely crafted cantatas. The highlight is Helen Charlston’s mesmerising delivery of ‘Leget euch’ (how glorious is the image of the disciple wearing a spotless robe to be consecrated to the King!), lovingly accompanied by the flautist Ashley Solomon.

In between the cantatas, a much later work, the motet Komm, Jesu, komm, is given a lithe and considered reading. The vocal pitching is not always spot-on – and some may find the ensemble a touch too brittle and limited in colour – but the emotional directness and coherence of the musical shaping make for an experience not unlike the gratifying reading from Trinity Baroque (Raumklang, 5/08). In sum, this is as thoughtfully executed a Bach programme as you could possibly imagine. Most of all, it rings with truth and warms the heart.

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