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Notes of an Amateur - Second Quarter 2022

06-22-2022 | By Bob Neill | Issue 121

Bach. St. John Passion. Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists. John Eliot Gardiner, Deutsche Gramophone 486 1822. 2 CDs, 1 Blue Ray DVD. 

Is John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach definitive or 'just' English? Fair question. For me, his take on Bach in the cantatas and masses is the standard. Watching the DVD and listening to the CD’s in his new recording of the St. John Passion reminds me why. This is a 'Covid recording,' done in 2021 in an empty Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford with musicians and singers at a considerable difference from one another. Thanks to modern recording techniques one would not notice this from the audio alone. What we hear is the inspired reserve characteristic of Gardiner’s view of Bach. It is hard to believe soloists could sing with such wonderful clarity at such love volume: the effect is to enhance the spiritual quality of the performance—and the subject. This is in effect the gospel of John—i.e. no resurrection. It all ends, quietly, with the crucifixion. And it strikes me here and in general that this is the more powerful version of the story. It might not have founded a church but it deepens our belief in the great spirituality of the man. Spirituality does not require magic. A wonderful release.

Beethoven, String Quartets Opus 18, 4-6. Chiaroscuro Quartet. Bis 2498.

Chemistry? Synergy? It is something of this kind that separates these four musicians  of the Chiaroscuro Quartet (founded in 2005) from the crowd, that makes us look forwardly eagerly to their succession of recordings. They have discovered they belong to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century repertoire and that does seem to suit them especially well. Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn, so far. Versatility isn't everything. It will be interesting to see how far they proceed with Beethoven. This release completes their Opus 18. Here, especially in the fourth of these three quartets, we hear Beethoven becoming Beethoven. Will they follow him beyond the Middle Quartets?

They play period instruments, though as time has gone by that is the sort of thing we notice less, isn't it. We have been converted to the relative leanness, wonderfully savory clarity, and litheness of eighteenth century instruments, especially their gut strings. This is the sound we have come to expect, crave even. 

Great violinist Russian Alina Ibragimova has always found fellow musicians who complement her great skill and exquisite touch. I hope she and her companions can stay together for another seventeen years!


Main system used for today's reviews: Resolution Audio Cantata 3.0 CD player with Black Jack AC cord, Gilbert Yeung Design NSI G solid state integrated amplifier, Jean Marie Reynaud Voce Grand loudspeakers, Crimson  interconnects and  bi-wired speaker cable. Mapleshade Samson equipment rack. All CD's purchased from Presto, a superb international retailer in the UK. www.prestomusic.com.

Bob Neill, a former equipment reviewer for Enjoy the Music and Positive Feedback, is proprietor of Amherst Audio in Western Massachusetts, which sells equipment from Audio Note (UK), Jean Marie Reynaud (France), Resolution Audio (US), and Gilbert Yeung Designs, formerly Blue Circle (Canada).