‘Sleepers awake!’ reviewed in Gramophone

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Lindsay Kemp reviewed our CD ‘Sleepers awake!’ in Gramophone.

The latest disc from The Bach Players, based as usual on one of their London concert programmes, brings together three cantata settings based on the chorale Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme – two by Buxtehude and Bach’s familiar Cantata No 140. The opening Buxtehude, BuxWV101, is the grandest and jolliest but not the best, being somewhat repetitive in an unhurried and frankly rather irritating sort of way. BuxWV100 is better, featuring smoother and more lyrical writing, and (crucially) more variety.

The other Buxtehude cantata on the disc is the gem, however. Quemadmodum desiderat cervus is a chaconne on a two-bar theme heard 64 times, but manages over that to be subtly responsive to its text, Psalm 42, with its evocations of the hind, thirst, the water brook and visions of heavenly eternity. There is more Buxtehude on the disc in the form of one of his ensemble sonatas – always worth hearing – as well as another trio, a wispy one for piccolo violin gamba and continuo by the less well-known Philipp Heinrich Erlebach. The trouble taken to procure a piccolo violin (from the Royal Academy of Music) was evidently prompted by the presence of the Bach cantata, a somewhat sensuous work which ends the disc in surpassing style.

The Bach Players, featuring many of London’s most experienced Baroque instrumentalists, are an eminently competent outfit, perfectly equipped to reach for the right tempo, expressive outline and stylistic gesture. The one-to-a-part singers are an essentially younger group; soprano Rachel Elliott and alto Sally Bruce-Payne have a boyish tone which suits the music well, and combine firmly with tenor Samuel Boden and bass Jonathan Gunthorpe. In short, this is fine music in safe hands. My only real worry concerns the balance, in which the strings are distant compared to voices and the continuo – I can’t quite work out what the thinking is behind that.

Gramophone, January 2017

(As a matter of factual accuracy, we have to add a qualification to Lindsay Kemp’s perception of the ‘essentially younger group of singers’ – two of whom have been part of the group since it began 20 years ago, and who, now in their 40s, have seven children between them.)