BACH FESTIVAL RECORDING PROVIDES “PURE AUDIO”
CD Review by Kelly Dean Hansen
During Zachary Carrettin’s ten-year tenure as music director, the Boulder Bach Festival gradually moved away from a compressed series of concerts in a single festival week to a spread-out season model like those typical of symphony orchestras. In May 2022, however, the organization made a brief return to the older format in a memorable four concerts on four consecutive days at Boulder’s First Congregational Church.
With all the festival artists in the area together, Carrettin and artistic director Mina Gajić, along with board president Jane Houssiere, had an excellent opportunity to make what became the organization’s first fully commercial recording on a record label. This was done in the days following the festival at the Longmont Museum’s Stewart Auditorium. The compact disc, released in May 2023, was issued by Sono Luminus and combines two familiar and beloved concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach with two vocal works by his older relative Johann Christoph Bach. All were played during the festival concert week and recorded with the same performers.
The album is beautifully packaged, using a 2014 painting called “Sunfire” by Liane Anna Schaefer as the cover image. The real value, however, lies in the inclusion of two discs. One is a standard audio CD, but the second is the same recording on the trademarked “Pure Audio” Blu-Ray. The Blu-Ray disc allows the selection of various surround sound options from a menu, but it also self-selects whatever system the listener has connected to the player. The result is a sumptuous, immersive experience that approximates a live experience but without background noise.
The recording was done with an “Atmos” set up, in which a microphone tree is placed in the middle of the stage with musicians in the round. Producer Erica Brenner and engineer Daniel Shores achieved remarkable balance, such that the prominent lines emerge with exceeding clarity.
Opening the disc is J. S. Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for two violins, BWV 1043, with the solo parts played by Carrettin and festival artist Yu-Eun Kim. The supporting ensemble is one on a part, with Bruce Macary and Michael Lawrence Smith playing the supporting, or “ripieno” violin lines, Paul Miller on viola, Coleman Itzkoff on cello, Nicholas Recuber on bass, and Christopher Holman on continuo harpsichord.
The concerto’s parts for the solo violins intricately weave around each other, passing around the leading melodies. In the recording, the main voice played by Carrettin or Kim is clearly audible above the ensemble, particularly the “ripieno” violins, with more distinction than would be heard in an unamplified concert setting. The performance itself is radiant, with exuberant outer movements and a most intimate interpretation of the concerto’s jewel, its profound central slow movement.
The other Bach concerto is his most familiar one for harpsichord, BWV 1052 in D minor. Gajić, a superb pianist, proves herself more than adept on harpsichord with a thrilling, extraordinarily virtuosic reading of the solo part. The long first movement and finale are taxing for the soloist, while the central slow movement runs the danger of becoming taxing for the listener in a dull performance. That slow movement is built on a repeated ground bass, initially presented in unison, and it requires much from the interpreters to sustain interest. Gajić and the ensemble provide it here. The supporting ensemble is the same as the one used in the two-violin concerto, except that Carrettin and Kim now take over the “ripieno” violin roles and there is no need for a separate “continuo” harpsichordist.
The harpsichord is a difficult instrument to balance in a recording made with an ensemble. Without the dynamic gradations available on the piano, it is easily submerged. Gajić’s supporting players avoid that, so that her solo parts are more prominent than in the “ripieno” passages where the harpsichord does take part in the “continuo” group with bass lines and harmonies.
The vocal compositions by Johann Christoph Bach are probably the most familiar by the composer, few of whose works have survived. The “lamento” titled “Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte” (“O, that I had enough water”) is written for a solo voice and a unique string group. The biblical text comes from Jeremiah, Psalms, and Lamentations. It is placed between the two concertos on the recording, functioning as a sort of “palate cleanser.” An exceptionally beautiful piece of early baroque music, it is given a transcendent reading by mezzo-soprano Claire McCahan, an alumna of the University of Colorado College of Music.
The vocal lines are intricate, highly ornamented, and rhythmically complex, as are the supporting ones for string instruments. The violin part, played by Carrettin, is itself soloistic, winding itself around the voice. Below the violin, the score indicates three violas, the lowest of which was probably a viola da gamba, an instrument with the approximate range of a cello. Miller and Vijay Chalasani play viola, while Itzkoff and Joseph Howe play cello, one of them obviously on the third viola part. Recuber and Holman complete the continuo bass line, with the latter switching between harpsichord and chamber organ to provide some variety to the texture.
The disc closes with J. C. Bach’s motet “Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben” (“It is all over with my life”) a seven-verse text for four voice parts. As with the entire recording, these are each assigned to a single performer, with McCahan now joined by soprano and frequent festival guest artist Josefien Stoppelenburg, tenor Daniel Hutchings, and local baritone Adam Ewing. The seven verses are all set to identical music, but the recording is given variety by the accompaniment of Holman (the sole instrumentalist), who again switches between harpsichord and chamber organ. Stoppelenburg and Hutchings are also given verses as solos on the soprano line, with Holman providing the harmonies.
This motet is truly remarkable. Its vocal writing is mostly homophonic or chordal, but its expressive illustration of death is deeply affecting. The closing words “Welt, gute Nacht!” (“World, good night!”) are set multiple times at the end of each verse, including a soaring soprano line that always emerges like the soul toward heaven, with Stoppelenburg’s voice providing an excellent vehicle for that journey. The recording of this motet, even without the trademarked technology, is itself an example of “pure audio.”
The packaging includes a handsome booklet with program notes by violist Miller, who is also a musicologist. Full German texts and English translations by Derek Sharman are provided for the J. C. Bach pieces, and there is black and white photography from the recording sessions by Owen Zhou.