Although J. S. Bach’s Magnificat has been recorded many times it seems that until now nobody has thought to pair it with settings of the same Biblical text by his two most prominent musical sons. Where Johann Sebastian’s represents a peak of Baroque choral composition, those settings by Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian broadly demonstrate the two different stylistic paths that would follow after their father’s death.
C. P. E.’s setting (1749/79) is by no means unknown, and it receives a rather more engaging and lively performance by Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo, the choir responding with more alacrity to its varied expressions of Empfindsamkeit favoured by this composer. The choral forces cultivate a solid but uplifting body of sound in the broad, homophonic chords of the first movement, which looks ahead to Haydn, and a crisper, direct attack upon the more intricate contrapuntal lines that look back to the High Baroque, not least Handel. giving way to an impressive double fugue on “Amen” as the climax. C. P. E. unsurprisingly harnesses the contrapuntal skills he learnt from his father, composed in support of his application to succeed him as Cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig (unsuccessfully as it turned out). The arias are more redolent of the opera house, however. Joélle Harvey projects with a striking combination of fervour and technical agility. Similarly, Thomas Walker exudes determined vigour and an expressive declamation of the syllables.
The relatively large choir of nineteen members make a bold sound for J. S.’s Magnificat (1723) as in the grandeur of the conclusion to ‘Fecit potentiam’, but they are not always clearly focussed: the ascending scales which open the ‘Gloria Patri’ fail to take flight, and they miss the necessary element of drama and turbulence in ‘Omnes generationes’. The greatest pleasure in this reading comes from the contributions of soloists, above all Iestyn Davies’s lithe and seamless accounts, particularly when suave and delicate. A delectable contrast is effected between the integrated texture of Harvey, Olivia Vermeulen and Davies’s singing, and the wailing reedy tone of the oboes’ longer-held notes intoned through it. Thomas Bauer’s confident interpretation of ‘Quia fecit’ also contrasts nicely with the dance-like lilt from Cohen.
Unlike the other two settings here, Johann Christian’s brief Magnificat (1760) was composed within a Roman Catholic context (to which faith he had converted) for a service at Milan Cathedral, and represents an alternately Italianate bustle and galant decorum that pre-empts early Mozart (compare his setting in the same key, K193). Choir and soloists (minus Davies) are equal to those characteristics, delivering a sturdy and dignified performance.
Listeners will find more idiomatic and consistent recordings of J. S.’s setting elsewhere, but the real discovery here is that by C. P. E. – unreservedly for those who do not already know it, and for this performance alone if they do. The later setting by his younger brother is certainly an attractive bonus. The booklet includes texts and translations.