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GRAMOPHONE (02/2015)
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Reviewer: Lindsay Kemp

‘It was primarily thanks to music that the German-speaking countries were able to recover from the ordeal of the Thirty Years War,’ says the booklet-note to this release. Quite a claim, even for a music historian, yet listening to the music of this release you can begin to believe it possible, especially in our present times. For those who suffered the traumas of that gruesome conflict, maybe the restoration to their lives of such ravishing music as this, with its Lutheran tension between torment and consolation and its anticipations of the comforts of death, could indeed have impressed on them a feeling of a return to civilised values.


One is certainly free to wish it so anyway, and these performances by the University of Toronto’s Schola Cantorum choir, conducted by Daniel Taylor and reinforced by singers and players from his professional group Theater of Early Music, make it that little bit easier. Dripping with beauty and style, they establish their seriousness of intent from the off – Buxtehude’s choral passacaglia meditating on Christ’s sacrifice – and continue it through Johann Christoph Bach’s aching strophic choral death aria, Schmelzer’s chromatically intricate instrumental piece, and two more diverse and sectional cantata-like works in a German Miserere by Kuhnau and a contemplation of death by Bruhns.


The choir shows its youth in a light and pleasing choral sound, though also some intonational insecurity and a certain measure of carefulness which can sap the performances’ energy and brightness, and produces few standout moments. Compare the earnest Es ist nun aus here with the exquisite, fervently detailed account under John Eliot Gardiner on SDG, and you’ll get an idea of what is really possible. Likewise the soloists, though competent and promising, cannot completely hide their inexperience next to the impressive contribution of guest bass Alexander Dobson. But still, this snapshot of 17th-century German sacred music, if rather short at 49 minutes, is a heartwarming and worthy one.


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