Bach: Ich ruf' zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ - Genz, Hilarion Alfeyev
PentaTone Classics PTC 5186593
Classical - Vocal
Bach: Ich ruf' zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639, Ich habe genug, BWV 82, Orchestral Suite in B minor, BWV 1067
Stephan Genz (baritone)
Russian National Orchestra
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (conductor)
Russia’s foremost composer Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev’s compositions are noted for their deep spirituality and commitment. With this new release, he brings the same sense of awe and wonder to the music of Bach in a series of riveting performances, including the achingly beautiful solo cantata Ich habe genug and the ever-popular Orchestral Suite No. 2. The programme also contains Alfeyev’s breath-taking arrangements of Bach’s organ masterpieces Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ and the colossal Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
Bach’s deceptively simple choral prelude, the plaintive Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 is a masterpiece of humility and restraint. In Alfeyev’s masterly arrangement, the voice of the supplicant is moved between different sections of the orchestra, underscoring the universality of the prayer. Bach’s most famous solo cantata, the haunting Ich habe genug, BWV 82, radiates a profound sense of resignation with its gentle swaying rhythms and exquisite writing for solo oboe; its central aria, Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen, is an oasis of calm and transcendence with its warmly uplifting bass solo. In a somewhat lighter vein, Bach revels in his mastery of the French style in his Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor, BWV 1067, an irresistible collection of dances – both aristocratic and popular – which closes with a mischievous Badinerie. Resplendent with orchestral colour and powerful, full-throated brass, Alfeyev’s arrangement for full orchestra of the mighty Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV 582 for organ is an enthralling conclusion to a compelling programme.
“Bach’s music is not a museum piece. Living in modern times, we have full rights to use the full scale of modern means of expression in order to translate to the listener the outstanding grandeur and timeless beauty of his music.” (Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev).
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Review by Graham Williams - July 21, 2020
A recording of four of J S Bach’s Religious and Secular works performed by the Russian National Orchestra and conducted by a composer who is not only a distinguished cleric of the Orthodox church but also a prolific author of more than a thousand publications on theology, history and musicology – what’s not to like? This is certainly an intriguing release though one that will divide opinion, mostly with regard to the style of the performances rather than the recorded sound which is superb.
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev is apparently one of the most widely performed of all living Russian composers, and in the notes accompanying this SACD he makes his approach to Bach quite unequivocal – “As a conductor, I feel deeply indebted to such interpreters of Bach’s works as Karl Richter and Herbert von Karajan. I am not at all fascinated by the modern fashion to play Bach in the so-called “authentic” style, whatever it may mean, when the orchestra is tuned one tone lower (which is unbearable for people with perfect pitch), the tempos are too fast, and the entire manner of performance is artificially oriented towards what is believed to be peculiar for Bach’s epoch.”
It should be self evident from the above that period performance zealots should read no further, but more open minded listeners, who listen with their ears not their prejudices to Bach performed in a manner that has enthralled listeners for more than a century, will surely find much to enjoy. Appreciation of the universality and profound spirituality of Bach’s music has never been dependent on search for ‘authenticity’ or fashion in contemporary interpretation, however worthwhile and enlightening these might be.
Alfeyev’s arrangement for orchestra of one of the most well known of Bach’s chorale preludes – ‘Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ’ BWV639 from Das Orgel-Büchlein – opens the programme. His transcription of this richly melodic piece, that here features solos for trumpet and oboe, is most effective. Though sumptuous, it is in no sense over-inflated and is certainly worthy to join the many Bach transcriptions made by famous conductors of the past such as Leopold Stokowski.
The five-part Cantata ‘Ich habe genug’ BWV82 is sung with considerable sensitivity by the German baritone Stephan Genz. He delivers the recitatives in a forthright and dramatic manner, while each of the three arias are performed with a smooth legato, fine diction and an almost conversational intimacy. In conjunction with the steady tempi of Alfeyev’s accompaniment we are presented with a richly expressive account of the work. It is a pity though that the liner notes do not include texts and translations.
Bach’s 2nd Orchestral Suite BWV1067 features the fine flute playing of Alya Vodovozova who is quite forwardly balanced against what sounds like a large body of strings. Alfeyev’s stately tempo for the opening Overture emphasises its ceremonial character while the fugal middle section is affirmatively buoyant. The six movements that follow are stylistically varied; for example we have a quite romantic ‘Sarabande’, while the faster sections are performed at tempi that makes them seem truly ‘danceable’. A crisply delivered ‘Badinerie’ brings this imposing performance of the Suite to a close.
The highlight of this SACD is undoubtedly Alfeyev’s stunning arrangement for full orchestra of Bach’s organ Passacaglia and Fuge BWV582. Many conductors including René Leibowitz, Eugene Ormandy, Sir Andrew Davis as well as the aforementioned Leopold Stokowski have been tempted to enhance the majesty and monumental grandeur of this magnificent piece by using the resources of the modern symphony orchestra. Respighi’s ‘Passacaglia in do minore di Giovanni Sebastiano Bach’ is perhaps the most well-known realisation of this composition, but Alfeyev’s glittering orchestration is more than a match for that of the Italian master. This transcription opens with the Passacaglia theme solemnly intoned by the rich lower brass of the RNO, to be followed by trumpets and horns. The texture lightens as the woodwind and strings enter, and as the variations unfold Alfeyev uses his huge orchestra with considerable skill to suggest the varied registrations that an organist might use. The piece’s inexorable progress builds to a final climax with thunderous timpani, tubular bells and tam-tam rolls reminiscent of the closing pages of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony or Respighi’s Pines of Rome – altogether a thrilling sound and one that provides quite a workout for one’s hi-fi system.
The fine multi-channel DSD recordings were made in 2015 by the highly regarded Polyhymnia team (Producer and editor Erdo Groot and Balance engineer Jean-Marie Geijsen) in an unspecified Moscow location and they do full justice to the performances.
Certainly this is an unusual release to find in these “Historically Informed Performance” times, but with the caveat referred to above, it is one that I have no hesitation in recommending.
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