J.S. Bach: Religious and Secular Works (SACD review)

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Russian National Orchestra. Pentatone PTC 5186 593.

According to Wikipedia, "Hilarion Alfeyev (born Grigoriy Valerievich Alfeyev 24 July 1966) is a bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church. At present he is the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk ('metropolitan' is the rank of metropolitan bishop, or simply metropolitan, pertaining to the diocesan bishop of a metropolis), the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations, and a permanent member of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow. He is also a noted theologian, church historian and composer, and has published books on dogmatic theology, patristics, and church history as well as numerous compositions for choir and orchestra." Oh, and on the present recording, he's a conductor.

As a conductor Alfeyev is rather conservative, to say the least. As he describes it, "As a conductor, I feel deeply indebted to such interpreters of Bach's works as Karl Richter and Herbert von Karajan. I am not at all fascinated by the modern fashion to play Bach in the so-called 'authentic' style, whatever it may mean, when the orchestra is tuned one tone lower (which is unbearable for people with perfect pitch), the tempos are too fast, and the entire manner of performance is artificially oriented towards what is believed to be peculiar for Bach's epoch."

Some listeners may find Alfeyev's approach to music making refreshing for its traditionalist leanings while others may find it old-fashioned and staid. Certainly, amid today's historically informed performances and period-instrument bands, Alfeyev's interpretations are definitely different. Whether they appeal to you would be a matter of personal leanings, so perhaps the prospective buyer of Alfeyev's album might want to preview listening to it and doing as much research on it as possible.

Anyway, Alfeyev also believes that Bach is among the greatest of composers, saying he is "fascinated by the grandeur and truly symphonic scale of many of Bach's works." On the present album, he includes four Bach compositions, two of which he arranged himself for symphonic treatment.

The first selection is "Ich ruf' zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ" ("I call to Thee, Lord Jesus Christ"), a three-part chorale that Alfeyev arranged for orchestra. It sets the tone for the rest of the program, being tranquil and relaxed.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev
Next comes "Ich habe genug" ("I have enough" or "I am content"), one of almost 200 church cantatas Bach wrote. It is in five sections alternating arias and recitatives. Here, baritone singer Stephan Genz provides the vocals. Again, Alfeyev takes his leisurely, measured approach to the score. You'll find little to excite one here, but, rather, you'll find sweet, comforting textures. I'm not sure it's fair, however, to compare Alfeyev's performances with Karajan's because though Karajan would often slow down and glamorize the music he was performing, he always made it a fascinating experience. Alfeyev often sounds simply slow, without any accompanying revelations about the music. It's all very pretty but somewhat superficial and not particularly gripping or illuminating.

After that is the centerpiece of the album, the Orchestra Suite No. 2 in B minor, which is in seven movements and was a part of Bach's first attempt at writing for an orchestra. The second suite is filled with any number of felicitous, flowing melodies, so this choice seems entirely appropriate to Alfeyev's frame of mind concerning the "deeply mystical," spiritual qualities of Bach's compositions. Yet I can't say he presents it in any more an engaging manner than what we already have from dozens of other conductors, including some of my favorites in the work like Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields or Jordi Savall and Les Concerts des Nations. Whatever, under Alfeyev's direction the music is graceful, fluid, and flowing. It may not be entirely distinguished, but it is undoubtedly easy on the ear.

The program concludes with Alfeyev's orchestral arrangement of the Passacaglia and Fugue, BWV 582, an organ work Bach wrote early in his career. In this piece Alfeyev attempts to make an orchestra sound like an organ, something Stokowski was good at doing but as often found himself criticized for doing. Alfeyev says he was trying "to show the immense inner and spiritual power of Bach's music." Flutist Alya Vodovozova helps carry the number. This was my favorite piece on the program because Alfeyev seems more than successful at doing exactly what he set out to do: making an orchestra sound like an organ, yet with the added breadth and splendor the added instruments bring with them.

As always, Pentatone put the disc in a standard SACD keep case, further enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover.

Producers Job Maarse and Erdo Groot and engineer Jean-Marie Geijsen made the album for hybrid SACD, recording it in Moscow, Russia in December 2015. As usual with these things, one may listen to the disc in two-channel stereo or multichannel from an SACD player or two-channel stereo from a regular CD player. I listened to the two-channel SACD layer.

Solo instruments tend to sound a tad forward or highlighted, but the orchestral accompaniment is very natural and extremely smooth. While there isn't a lot of stage width, there is a modicum of depth, which is always welcome. There isn't much dynamic range involved, either, but, then, there isn't much need for any. Otherwise, we get a slightly warm, slightly rounded sonic picture.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa