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Johann Sebastian BACH. Cantata, BWV 106; Chorale Prelude, BWV 767; Motet, BWV 229; Cantata, BWV 182—Amici Voices—Hyperion CDA68275—62:00 [Distr. by PIAS] ****1/2

The eight vocalists behind this album, known as Amici Voices, formed in 2012 to perform the Bach St. John Passion. Described as young UK singers, the group here is joined by a small band of instrumentalists including Ashley Solomon on flute and Terence Charlston on organ (and I wonder if mezzo soprano Helen Charlston isn’t his daughter?). Before this album I hadn’t heard of the ensemble and I was curious what might be present on the release from Hyperion.

Hyperion has had some excellent releases and the independent classical label is known for excellent sound. (For over twenty years I use one of their albums, in particular, to test audio equipment.) And while Amici might be somewhat unknown, finding themselves in a crowded market of Bach’s sacred works by more established groups (not to mention conductors and specialists; no director is listed for this recording), they were given the royal treatment with this recording. Both instruments and voices are crystal clear and so palpable, at least to me, they felt present in the room. The choice of St. Michael’s Church in Highgate, London, was, I believe, an excellent venue for recording.

It would have been a shame if these folks weren’t up to the task, but they deliver!

Probably the most ideal piece for an ensemble like this would have been a Bach double-choir motet. So I really enjoyed their performance of Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229. Here they are accompanied by organ alone, which works well. The transparency with so few voices makes the piece sparkle. More so than in other recordings at my fingers, the stereo effect of two choirs works especially nicely. Amici adopts an “early music” sound, vibrato isn’t completely absent, but typically comes after a note has been held for some time, offering warmth to extended notes. As a group, they blend well, and compared to my recording of the Bach Motets performed on ECM New Series by the Hilliard Ensemble, I’d even say their sound as an ensemble blends better, with a warmer effect. The approach taken, with a small force, is quite dramatic compared to choruses of some size. Listening to the contrast from the René Jacobs-led RIAS chamber choir on Harmonia Mundi, the far more intimate Amici Voices rendition is ultimately more direct and satisfying. The jury is still out, with quite a dispute, about Bach’s potential performing forces. Even though I’m comparing recordings using different numbers of singers, the Amici recording is technically more precise.

Portait Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach

The last piece on the album is Cantata 182, Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen, no doubt a familiar piece to those at least somewhat conversant with Bach’s cantatas. It features solo parts for both violin and flute. The opening “sonata” is played with enough space between the phrases by both the flute and the violin to accommodate the reverberant space of a church, even one larger than the one captured on record.

The next movement gets busy quickly, between the support of the orchestral accompaniment and the busy choral writing. The flute and violin still manage to emerge from the texture, with a pleasing result. In the recording of this cantata by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, led by John Eliot Gardiner from the pilgrimage cycle, there’s perhaps more intensity to be found both in the instrumental accompaniment and the bass solo, Starkes Lieben, but I found the Amici version quite strong.

The vocal fugue in the penultimate movement, Jesu, diene Passion ist mir lauter Freude, felt rushed in the performance by the Ricercar Consort (Mirare). Amici for me might lack the intensity, especially at the entrances for me, but overall provides a more realistic performance considering the need for an audience to understand the text in the context of a church acoustic.

The first cantata presented in this release is the Actus Tragicus, BWV 106.  Overall the Amici Voices clock in slower than my other recordings by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Cantus Cölln; but in the tenor aria Ach, Herr! Lehre uns bedenken, it’s difficult to argue with the delivery in this performance. Within the acoustic of the recording by Cantus Cölln, the last movement, Glorie, Lob, Ehr und Herrlichkeit feels almost rushed. But the virtuosity of the Amici Voices might have benefitted from pushing the tempo, especially given the far more forgiving acoustic space captured in their recording.

Between all the pieces, I found a consistent quality to the attention to detail from Amici Voices. They could have been considered either bold or foolish for choosing to record well-known pieces by Bach, where there are already excellent performances captured on disc. While some tracks, as far as tempo is concerned, might be considered safe choices, overall I find little fault with this young ensemble’s ability to beautifully render Bach’s music, both as a choral ensemble, but also in consort with a number of instrumentalists. Elevating their efforts is the gorgeous sound from Hyperion’s engineers. These performances may prove to be your favorites when comparing them to what might already be in your collection.

—Sebastian Herrera

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