Scholars Baroque Ensemble
Bach's Vocal Works
Scholars Baroque Ensemble - Motets & St. John PassionMichael Grover wrote (February 3, 2001):
(To Aryeh Oron) I noticed on Aryeh's web page devoted to Bach's great vocal works that very little information was listed concerning the Scholars Baroque Ensemble, who record on Naxos. Here is some information on the singers:
Motets, BWV 225-230
Sopranos: Anna Crookes, Kym Amps
Counter Tenors: Angus Davidson, David Gould
Tenors: Robin Doveton, Julian Podger
Basses: Matthew Brook, David van Asch
St. John Passion, BWV 245
Sopranos: Kym Amps (aria), Janet Coxwell (aria)
Counter Tenors: Angus Davidson (arias), David Gould
Tenors: Robin Doveton (Evangelist), Julian Podger (arias)
Basses: David van Asch (Jesus), Adrian Peacock (Peter, Pilate, arias)
I will provide more in-depth reviews of both the motets and the Johannes Passion in separate emails. This note will provide a general overview.
The Scholars Baroque Ensemble (SBE) record without a director, although bass David van Asch is listed as "Artistic Coordinator" and he also writes some of the liner notes. If you couldn't tell, the SBE almost subscribes to the OVPP theory but not quite. They simply go for a small, chamber music feel, with two voices per part and the soloists stepping forward out of the choir. The instrumental accompaniment is also minimal, especially in the motets. In those works, there is only a cello and organ basso continuo in most instances with a violin used extremely sparingly for flavor. The cello and organ are mixed so far into the background that the motets almost sound a cappella at times.
There have been concerns with some other recordings about the German pronunciation. Although this is a group of Britons, there are no problems here. In fact, being fluent in German, one thing I particularly like about these recordings is the clarity of the singing. Not only are the German texts pronounced perfectly well, the small number of singers makes it possible for me to close my eyes and follow along without reading the score or the libretto. The words are perfectly understandable.
Robin Doveton and David van Asch are wonderful as the lead tenor and bass, respectively. They perform their roles in the Passion marvelously. Counter-tenor Angus Davidson is less satisfactory. Personally, I prefer female altos to male countertenors anyway, so a countertenor has to really be special to move me in the same way (see: Michael Chance in Gardiner's St. Matthew Passion.) Davidson almost seems to try too hard and comes off as straining and shrill. I generally find myself skipping his arias.
Soprano Kym Amps is pleasing in her aria but a bit overwhelming when she moves into the chorus. Occasionally she is all you hear in the motets! However, generally the choir blends quite well together.
I also own the SBE's recording of Händel's Messiah, which I highly recommend if you are tired of hearing the "Hallelujah" chorus performed by choirs of hundreds of singers.
In short, a fascinating, rewarding, and intimate group to listen to, if underwhelming occasionally due to the small numbers. I became acquainted with them simply because of being on a budget and buying Naxos, and have been pleasantly surprised. As I said, I'll try to write more detailed reviews later.
Matthew Westphal wrote (February 4, 2001):
< Michael Grover wrote: The Scholars Baroque Ensemble (SBE) record without a director, although bass David van Asch is listed as "Artistic Coordinator" and he also writes some of the liner notes. If you couldn't tell, the SBE almost subscribes to the OVPP theory but not quite. They simply go for a small, chamber music feel, with two voices per part and the soloists stepping forward out of the choir. >
Oh they do subscribe to OVPP, I think. Four of the six motets (Komm, Jesu, komm; Singet dem herrn; Der Geist hilft; Fuerchte dich nichts) are for 8 voices; do the Scholars use all 8 of their singers in Lobet dem Herrn and Jesu meine Freude? (I can't recall, but I doubt it.) In the St. John Passion, "OVPP" means, in fact, eight singers, 2VPP -- there survives one autograph ripieno part for each voice (i.e., SATB) containing the music for all the choruses in the St. John Passion. The Scholars diverge from what is shown in the autograph parts only in assigning the tenor and bass arias to singers other than those singing the Evangelist and Christus. (Bach's parts have Tenor 1 singing the Evangelist *and* the tenor arias and Bass 1 singing Christus *and* the bass arias.)
Michael Grover wrote (February 5, 2001):
(To Matthew Westphal) Thanks for the information on OVPP. Not having the score, and not being an expert, I assumed OVPP meant a grand total of four singers.
In Jesu meine Freude (BWV 227) the SBE uses five singers (2S, 1 each CT, T, B) and in Lobet den Herrn (BWV 230) they do, in fact, use all eight singers, although in one combined choir rather than divided into two choruses as in BWV 225, BWV 226, BWV 228, and BWV 229. Lobet den Herrn is my favorite out of the bunch.
Matthew Westphal wrote (February 4, 2001):
Have you heard Cantus Cölln's performance on deutsche harmonia mundi? (It's now out of print, at least in the US.) Same size forces, even better performance. Gorgeous.
Scholars Baroque EnsembleCharles Francis wrote (September 12, 2003):
Going through the numerous audio tracks available at naxos.com (well worth the registration effort, BTW), I discovered some nice OVPP performances of the Bach Motteten and Johannes Passion by the Scholars Baroque Ensemble – at a Naxos price, moreover.
Tomek wrote (September 13, 2003):
[To Charles Francis] The approach of Scholars Baroque Ensemble when it comes to Bach's music is in my view very original. They are a little bit rustic in fact, voices aren't perfectly in harmony, here and there a little stumble sneak in. But we ought to remember what Murray Perahia ones said: perfection is a dangerous pursuit. Especially as SBE play and sing with such a commitment and sheer pleasure. Their recording of Jesu meine Freude is in fact one of my favourites.
Matthew Neugebauer wrote (September 13, 2003):
[To Tomek] I haven't heard their Bach, but their recording of Händel Latin music is qutie nice, opening with an especially energetic Dixit. However, I'm not too sure how well an OVPP approach would work with Händel's later work, as they have attempted in Messiah. I'm not too sure if they could make the Hallelujah chorus sound as full as it should be (they aren't the Taverner Consort, after all!).
Jeremy Thomas wrote (September 13, 2003):
[To Matthew Neugebauer] The SBE actually use a chorus of 14 on their Messiah (Naxos label). I quite like this recording: it's not the most polished ever, but it does include some of the earlier arrangements of movements you don't often hear (e.g., the chorus "Break forth into joy"). Worth trying if only for those bits.
Recent listeningsPaul Dirmeikis wrote (February 8, 2004):
Just wanted to share some of my recent listenings and musical happiness.
I received the following CDs last week :
- Motetten by the Scholars Baroque Ensemble (Naxos)
- St John Passion by the same ensemble (Naxos)
- Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin by Rudolf Gähler (with curved bow) (Arte Nova Classics)
- Book II of the the WTC by Malcolm Hamilton (ORYX Bach Collection - Baroque-music)
I had many beautiful moments with these listenings.
Hamilton's harpsichord doesn't sound at all like other harpichords I've heard with the WTC, and even if it sometimes sounds weird, I like it very much: it doesn't have this light, clanking, impalpable and uniform sound that makes me reluctant to most harpichord recordings (don't ask me why), especially with Bach. His harpsichord has a heavy sound (the liner notes say it's a two-manual harpichord built in 1962 by Kurt Wittmayer - I recall someone writing lately on the list that the Wittmayer harpsichord shouldn't even have the right to be named as an harpsichord). It almost sounds sometimes like an organ, or a kind of luth, sometimes a pianoforte... Neverthel, all polyphonic lines are perfectly clear and legible, and Hamilton's playing is never mechanical nor boring. It doesn't dethrone my WTC top list (Friedrich Gulda and Rosalyn Tureck) but I think it's worth listening to.
I simply love the Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo by Rudolf Gähler with a curved bow. The few samples I listened to on the Internet didn't really attract me, but I don't regret my purchase after a couple a long-length listenings. Beautiful sound, beautiful chords, and also a quite earthly way of playing. I read in the archives that Brad Lehman disliked this recording and I can understand it because it's a disturbing performance. It doesn't have this kind of violinistic shooting-a-line thing I often feel in other versions. It doesn't pull you up to the stars, but it's interiorized, and opens your soul to a more spiritual earth. I have a problem with the adagio of of the C major BWV 1005 which seems a little out of tune a couple of times (around 0:53, 1:30, and 1:51), but maybe is it only because I'm not used to hear these chords played with this bow. Did someone else notice it ?
Last but not least, the Scholars Baroque Ensemble. I was surprised to read so few discussions and praises about their recordings in the list archives. I am less acquainted with the SJP than with the SMP, but I rate this recording at the top of what I've heard (Parrott, Harnoncourt I and II, Brüggen, Leusink, Cleobury). It's exactly how I love Bach's vocal works : small ensemble, OVPP, cohesion and fervour, kind of austere and intimate atmosphere, beautiful recording sound with nearly no reverberation... Thanks to this recording I am at last entering the SJP musical and spiritual realm. I wish they'll record the SMP one day. I only listened to two of the Motetten but I have the same impression.
And moreover, although it has nothing to do with their musical qualities, these four recordings are completely out of the star performer system and big labels. No photograph of the Scholars Baroque Ensemble members in the booklet, no photograph of Malcolm Hamilton, and a single little photograph of Gähler (but I guess it's more to show how looks the curved bow rather than the violinist).
I apologize not having been rude with anyone in this post. I hope I will not start a new war, as I did last week with the Oster-Oratorium flute/oboe battle.
Shelly wrote (February 8, 2004):
[To Paul Dirmeikis] Now that is the kind of message I joined this group to hear - one that really helps me learn. Thanks very much, Paul!
Barry Murray wrote (February 9, 2004):
[To Paul Dirmeikis] The Rudolf Gahler recording is the only version of the Sonatas and Partitas that I own. One day, I will try Podger, Van Dael or Huggett, but I can't yet decide which one. I like the Gahler, but wouldn't say that I love it. Perhaps I will be in a better position to decide, once I have something to compare it with.
I'm glad you're enjoying some recordings by Scholars Baroque on Naxos. I haven't heard their Bach, but they also have recordings on Naxos of Purcell's Dido & Aeneas, and the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610. I've heard samples of these, which sound pretty good.
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