Quite why the two works on this disc get fewer outings than some of the better-known passions and cantatas is a bit of a mystery. The Actus Tragicus is an early work, admittedly, but its craftsmanship and profound sense of musical communion (in this case an outpouring of grief, possibly connected to the death of a family member or friend) singles it out as one of Bach’s most touching essays in choral music.
Scored for two recorders, a pair of violas da gamba and chamber organ, it has a gentle air of consolation captured perfectly in John Eliot Gardiner’s sympathetic reading and replicated in a near-ideal recording that brings out every detail of Bach’s youthful orchestration. Listen to the rapturous Es Ist Der Alte Bund where a solo soprano pleads over the chorus, Ja komm, Herr Jesu, komm, before breaking off heart-stoppingly, mid sentence – just one example of how Gardiner makes Bach strike home again and again.
The so-called Easter Oratorio is the other work here and for interpretation and soloists goes to the top of my list – even beating Brüggen’s very fine recent version. Gardiner excels in the celebratory opening overture and chorus (stunning trumpets and drums) but also zeros in on the extended arias with which the work abounds. Hannah Morrison is quite lovely in Seele, deine spezereien while Nicholas Mulroy is breath-taking in the rustic Sanfte soll mein todeskummer. I hesitate to say “self-recommending” about anything – but in the case of Gardiner and Bach, it most certainly is.