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Bach, Vivaldi: Magnificats - Savall

Bach, Vivaldi: Magnificats - Savall

Alia Vox  AVSA9909

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Bach: Magnificat, BWV 243, Harpsichord Concerto No. 1, BWV 1052
Vivaldi: Magnificat, RV 610; Concerto for 2 violins & 'Violoncello all'Inglese' in G minor, RV 578

Hanna Bayodi-Hirt & Johannette Zomer (sopranos)
Damien Guillon (countertenor)
David Munderloh (tenor)
Stephan MacLeod (baritone)
Manfredo Kraemer & Pablo Valetti (violins)
Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord)
Le Concert des Nations
La Capella Reial de Catalunya
Jordi Savall (director)


Bach and Vivaldi's Magnificats: could we dream of a better repertoire to illustrate the splendor of the orchestra Le Concert des Nations and of the choir La Capella Reial de Catalunya? Jordi Savall offers vivid and striking performances of these two masterpieces, recorded live at the Royal Chapel in Versailles in 2013. Each of them is introduced by a concerto by the same composer in the same tonality. The superlative performance of Pierre Hantai in the Concerto BWV 1052 is another jewel to the crown of this album. The bonus DVD (in PAL format only) features both Magnificats and the Bach concerto.

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - May 6, 2015

Alia Vox is a serious label and Jordi Savaill is a specialist in his field, highly praised by his followers. And, indeed, some excellent recordings have come our way from these sources. What about his reading of Bach’s Magnificat? It is the third recording available in Super Audio. How does it stand up to Perlman (Telarc) and van Veldhoven (Channel Classics)? A comparison.

Martin Perlman and his Boston Baroque recorded their Magnificat in 2006. It received many positive echoes, comments and reviews. Also on this site, albeit that one reviewer didn’t seem to be too happy with the sound (which is amazing, because I do not have that problem in my surround set-up).

As this one was in those days the only SACD recording, one had no other choice but to accept it at face value. For many, including me, it was not a bad choice at all. Listening to it once again for this comparison, I found it a good middle of the road performance with excellent singing and well recorded. It is the second, D-major version, which is the one now commonly used. Why mention it? Because Jos van Veldhoven (2010) had the brilliant idea to re-introduce in this second version four (external) interludes as Bach had done in the first. They are, however, not the same, but different ones chosen by van Veldhoven. Castor’s review is, as far as I’m concerned, ‘spot-on’. From both recordings this then became for me the preferred one. Beautifully recorded, too.

Since the beginning of this year there is further choice: Jordi Savaill. It is remarkable that his team of singers includes two from van Veldhoven’s cast of soloists: Johannette Zomer and Stephan MacLeod. It would seem that both were not only chosen for their artistic value, but also for their ablity to share experience. Together with the Maestro himself (and the choir master Vilamajó), they participated in master classes during the Third Academy of Professional Training for Musical Research and Performance held in Barcelona (Spain) in the summer of 2013; the result of which led to two concerts at the Chapelle Royale of Versailles (France) from which the present recording was made.

One of the objectives of the Academy is: “To give young musicians the opportunity to participate in the choir or orchestra of the prestigious musical ensembles directed by Jordi Savall, such as La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations, performing at the concert featuring the program studied during the Academy, and during the ensuing international tour”.

However laudable the approach, such ‘ad hoc’ performances do not necessarily lead to top quality music making. Of course, the presentation in the Chapelle Royale, wonderfully captured on the bonus DVD by French TV, has an instant appeal, but it would seem to me that in this particular case the eye makes up a great deal for what is missing to the ear.

Listening to the music without the beauty and inspiration of the environment, the result is quite different. At the opening ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’ one detects a certain degree of ‘untidiness’ in the interplay between orchestra and choir, as though a firm hand of a conductor is missing. Followed by ‘Et exultavit…’, where Johannette’s voice is ‘drowned’ by the orchestra and acoustics alike, does not make for an encouraging start. True, the recording, with its narrow sound stage, is not very helpful. (On the photograph a microphone is visible in front of Madame Zomer, so it should have been easy to give her a voice lift). Watching the bonus DVD, the effect is less disturbing, because the brain automatically brings solo parts into focus. The recording may, therefore, be correct for television, but that is not the same as high definition Super Audio.

Similar untidiness can be observed in ‘Omnes generationes’ and other ‘full forces’ play. Comparison with van Veldhoven is revealing: he and his complement are much more alert, articulated and precise. Notwithstanding an evident commitment by all the participants, Savall does not convey the same urgency. This applies also to ‘Facit potentiam…’ (he has made known the power of his arm) and ‘Gloria patri..’, where van Veldhoven clearly delivers more ‘bite’ and coherence. He, Savall, is much more at ease in the more intimate parts.

The young soprano, Hanna bayodi-Hirt, is a potential discovery. I searched in vain in the accompanying booklet for her credentials (www.bach-cantatas.com tells me that she is ‘active since 2002 as a Paris-based opera and concert soprano soloist, specializing in Baroque music and early music, She has worked with many European ensembles such as Les Arts Florissants, Le Concert d'Astrée’..etc.).

Alia Vox does not follow common practice to give bios of the solo artists. There is no word of any of them, nor of the orchestra, in the liner notes, in spite of its 206 (!) pages (and the many photographs taken from the DVD). For the text of Bach’s Magnificat one has to go to pages 172-174. For completeness sake it should have mentioned that the text applies to Vivaldi’s Magnificat as well, since both stem from the same chapter of the gospel according to St Luke (chapter 1, 46-56). There are another 30 pages of catalogue and the rest is taken up by ‘Art, Music and Life’, including a summary of, and important dates in the life of Vivaldi and Bach in no less than 5 different languages. The booklet does give details about the names of participants and producing teams.

Unlike Mrs. Zomer, Stephan MacLeod’s voice comes through loud & clear, counter-tenor Damien Guillon is somewhat less convincing than I remember from his participation in BIS’s Bach Cantata cycle with Suzuki (Vol. 54, as a replacement for Robin Blaze). But we must keep in mind that we have here a live recording with little opportunity to correct things. Guillon remains one of the better French counter-tenors.

You may have guessed that this new recording is not my first choice. It does not replace Jos van Veldhoven with the confirmed professionalism of the Netherlands Bach Society and the excellent vocal cast (although I would have liked a female alto, rather than the counter-tenor of William Towers, admitting that this is partly due to a personal hang-up of mine). Perlman remains a good alternative in so far as Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’, the other item on this disk, is still missing in your collection; against van Veldhoven’s Christmas cantata ‘Unser Mund Sei Voll Lachens’, which you may already have on BIS.

Apart from Vivaldi’s Magnificat (which falls outside the scope of this review, but is of a similar, be it more engaging nature), Alia Vox gives two additional items: Vivaldi’s concerto RV 578 for two violins and viola da gamba and Bach’s concerto BWV 1052 (awkwardly placed between both Magnificats) with an excellent Pierre Hantaï, but marred by over-reverberant sound in the ‘Abaye de Fondfroide’ in Narbonne, France, and, like the Vivaldi concerto, an unnatural bass heavy recording (reminding me of the ‘loudness’ control on older, Japanese amps). That may very well suit book shelf set-up’s, but it has to be tempered when using larger frequency response speakers.

Although this latest recording of Bach’s magnificat may not constitute a reference, I should nonetheless like to commend and support the educational element of Jordi Savall’s Academy and his commitment to the promotion of baroque music and the opportunity he gives to young artists to attain higher standards through practical experience. The result, as recorded on the bonus DVD, is something that makes this issue at the end of the day a most rewarding experience and should, as such, be warmly welcomed.

Copyright © 2015 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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