The Swingle Singers: “Bach Hits Back – A New A Cappella Tribute”, Virgin Classics VC 5 45049 2 (1994), barcode 724354504921:
Reissue (with “A Cappella Amadeus“) Virgin 5 61472 2 (1998, 2 CDs), barcode 724356147225:
Recorded May 1991 (?) at The Sound Suite
Some great stuff, typical Swingle, but overall not as convincing as some other Swingle discs – and a mystery solved (almost)
Originally posted on Amazon.com, 29 March and 2 June 2011 – important addendum 24 December 2018
I’ve sufficiently waxed lyrical about the Swingle Singers in my recent reviews to feel free to be a little less enthusiastic with this “new” Bach album of theirs. “New”, in the sense that the Swingle Singers started out, in their original, Paris-based layout around the group’s founder Ward Swingle and in 1963, with a chart-making Bach album, “Jazz Sébastien Bach” (published in the US under the title “Bach’s Greatest Hits“), followed in 1968 by a sequel, “Jazz Sébastien Bach volume 2” aka “Back to Bach“. The two were conveniently paired in the Philips/Polygram (circa 1985) CD reissue from Germany, 824 703-2, see my review. The original group disbanded in 1973 and Ward Swingle reformed a new Swingle band, now based in London. Swingle retired in 1984 but kept a position as a musical advisor and sometimes arranger, until his passing in 2015. The personnel has changed many times since 1973, of course. “New”, then, in that decades later they return to an album entirely devoted to Bach. (Addendum 2018: However, about the “newness” of this Virgin CD, see the important proviso at the end of this review.)
In the early, Paris years, the Swingles played with a Jazz drum-and-double-bass section. The new Swingles are a purely “a cappella” group. Not that they dispense with the drums and double-bass: they now sing them, and, to make sure that you are aware of it, they’ve added a note: “The Swingle Singers produce all the sounds heard on this recording. No instruments are used“. I don’t blame them: if what I hear on tracks 4, 12, 13, 18 and 20 is a vocal imitation of brushed cymbals and drum, it is so expeertly done as to be mind-boggling, so indistinguishable as it is from the original thing. Hats off.
Typically Swingle is the arresting vocal beauty, the silkness of the timbres, the virtuosic volubility and unique scatting techniques of the faster numbers (like the Badinerie from Suite No. 2, track 12, one of the Swingle’s greatest hits), and the sensuously caressing soprano voice over silky scatting accompaniments in some of the slow numbers, like the “Air on a G string” (track 19) or the hauntingly beautiful Andante from the 2nd Violin Sonata, with its “panting” accompaniment (track 9; hard to explain in words, you must hear it).
Underlying all this is the sheer pleasure of hearing instrumental music returned to its vocal origin and essence. I’ve contended in my other reviews that the fascination of the Swingle’s arrangements and realizations derives from the fact that they elevated to the status of the highest of arts what we all do inadvertently, without even thinking about it, in a very rudimentary fashion, walking on the street, washing the dishes, ironing, vacuuming – and particularly under the shower: humming (or whistling) our favorite tunes. Moreover, by so doing, the Swingles are in fact returning Bach’s or Mozart’s instrumental music to its very essence and origin, because what these and most other composers (presumably) do (or did) before committing their music to the music sheet is first to sing it for themselves, so that the instrument, even when its acoustical properties are radically different from the voice (like the plucked-string harpsichord or the struck-string piano), acts only as the imitator and emulator of the voice.
Why am I not so enthusiastic about this Bach disc then? For a number of reasons. First, what I’ve called in some other reviews the “old pal factor” is not so present here. Integral to the pleasure of the Swingle’s arrangements (and of transcriptions in general) is hearing the old warhorses in a new timbral guise; it’s like your wife showing up in a new sexy lingerie: new thrills to the old routine. But here you don’t get so many of those “greatest hits” that are deeply ingrained in the psyche of every amateur of classical music. I guess the Swingles had left very few of Bach’s greatest “hits” untapped in their albums from the 1960s, and in fact some of those they sing here were already in the earlier albums: Badinerie from Orchestral Suite No. 2 (Anyone For Mozart, Bach, Handel, Vivaldi?), Air on a G string from Orchestral Suite No. 3 (in the Jazz Sebastian Bach CD referenced above, but in a very different arrangement, more “collective”, rather than soprano solo underpinned by the rest of the voices). Oviously there are just so many hits that even the greatest composer can sustain. So really here the unquestionablly great hits tackled for the first time by the Swingles are the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (track 10) and the Chorale (not “Choral-Prelude” as Virgin wrongly calls it), 4th movement from the Cantata BWV 140 “Wachet auf”/”Sleepers Wake” (track 4), and maybe the Choral-Prelude for organ BWV 731 (here only titled “Liebster Jesu, wir sing hier” – Beloved Jesus, We Are Here, track 6) and “Blute nur” from the Matthew Passion (track 17). If you are into singing Christmas Carols, “In Dulce Jubilo” (tracks 7 and 8, the two tracks 8 of the 1990 CD) might also sound familiar, and if you are familiar with Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, then you will immediately recognize the concluding “Es ist genug” (track 21).
Virgin by the way is horrendously unhelpful, when not downright misleading in its labelling of the various pieces, giving none of the BWV numbers and sometimes even wrong titles, and annotators/singers/producers tenor Jonathan Rathbone and bass Ben Parry don’t always solve the questions (and the track listing you download from Gracenote is also often mistaken); the original 1990 CD did give those BWV numbers though, so it appears that what the Swingles sing on track 8 is the last verse of Bach’s 4-part a cappella chorale In Dulci Jubilo BWV 368, not in the original language (mixing German and Latin) but in the (sometimes criticized) translation of Pearsall (keeping the Latin phrases of the original, and substituting English to the German). But track 7 is not at all Bach’s organ Choral-Prelude on the famous medieval tune – in fact Bach wrote two, BWV 729 and 751, although the latter is apparently dubious, if the excellent Wikipedia entry is to be trusted: there the Swingles start with a simplified version of the soprano part of the 4-part Chorale… sung by the tenor (!), seguing at 0:49 into a typical and lovely Swingle arrangement of none of these two Chorale-preludes, but of the BWV 608 organ Chorale (not -prelude) on the same theme, with soprano (taking upper voice) and tenor (taking bass voice in canon) still singing the words (first verse again) and with bass dum-dumming a double-bass. If you are puzzled with the notion of a “Three Part Invention” (track 14) – you should be: Bach’s keyboard Inventions (every piano beginner has toiled on numero uno, with no sense of style nor ear for polyphony) are two-part, and the companion three-part pieces are the Sinfonias; what the Swingles sing here is Sinfonia No. 11. “Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier” (track 6) is the Choral-Prelude for organ BWV 731. The opening “Ein’ feste Burg” is not a movement from Bach’s Cantata BWV 80, but the four-part a cappella chorale BWV 302.
Track 4 is not “Sleepers awake: Chorale prelude“, but the Chorale (not prelude) “Zion hört die Wächter singen” (Zion hears the watchmen singing), 4th movement from Cantata BWV 140 “Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (and rather than “Sleepers awake”, it should be translated by “Wake Up, The Voice Calls to Us”), but it is sung here in an uncredited English tranlsation – apparently derived from the 19th Century one of Catherine Winkworth – in which the first lines are indeed “Sleepers wake the night is flying / The watchmen on the heights are crying”, so “Sleepers awake” will do after all. The ensuing “Wachet auf: Chorale” (track 5) is indeed the cantata’s concluding Chorale and 7th movement, “Gloria sei dir gesungen” – now sung in the original German. “Sheeps may safely graze” (track 11) is the Aria from the “Hunt Cantata” BWV 208, sung in the original German, “Schafe können sicher weiden” and the closing track “Es ist genug” (track 21), the concluding chorale from cantata BWV 60 “O Ewigkeit du Donnerwort” (O Eternity, Thou Word of Thunder).
Another reason of my somewhat lukewarm reception is that the Swingles have here chosen to treat the excerpts from the vocal and choral pieces – the cantatas, chorales and carol – as precisely that: vocal and choral pieces, e.g. with the words sung, rather than “instrumentalizing” them. In some cases they just sing Bach’s original 4- or 5-part chorus, as in the opening chorale “Ein’ feste Burg”, the concluding Chorale from “Wachet auf” (where they simply do without the colla voce instruments), the song “Bist du bei mir” from Anna Magdalena’s Notebook (the attribution to Bach is doubtful) or the last verse of “In Dulci Jubilo” which is again straight Bach. I feel that this misses the point entirely of what makes the art of the Swingle Singers so unique: precisely, vocalizing instrumental music, returning it, as I said, to its vocal essence and origin. Here, as beautiful as they sound, they don’t sound so unique, but just like any good a cappella ensemble. The first Choral from “Wachet auf” (track 4), and “Sheep may safely graze” (track 11) are fortunately more elaborate and “swingling” than that, but the two exceptions to that “singing” rule are “Et Resurrexit” from the Mass in B-minor (track 15) and “Blute nur” from the St Matthew Passion (track 17), both entirely “instrumentalized”, and it comes as no surprise that they are both very effective.
Daring and quite provocative to finish a disc with “es ist genug” (it is enough). In fact I wish there had been more (even with the added tracks the disc’s 53 minutes aren’t so generous), and more in the unique Swingle scatting style rather than anonymously “a cappella”. As it is, this disc probably isn’t the best introduction to the art of the Swingles. Their 1991 Mozart album is more enjoyable in that respect (A Cappella Amadeus – A Mozart Celebration – it’s been reissued as a twofer with the Bach program, see heading above), or the two Jazz Sebastian Bach recordings and miscellaneous Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and Handel from the 1960s and Paris Swingles (see links above). But don’t get me wrong: their “Bach Hits Back” is still very enjoyable.
Discographic minutiae: for years, discographer Thomas Cunniffe (jazzhistoryonline) and myself haven’t been sure whether this Virgin CD was or not an augmented reissue of the Swingle Singers’ 1990 CD “The Bach Album“, published on their own label (often hard to find), Swing CD 5. What led us to think that it may have been was that all the tracks from “The Bach Album” were reprised on the Virgin CD, that the timings were often always within seconds of each other (and the seconds’ differences could easily be ascribed to a different indexing in the blanks separating tracks); to those tracks on The Bach Album, Virgin added five more (5, 11, 12, 19, 20, see above, those in bold type). One track from what purports to be The Bach Album is on YouTube (the Andante from Violin Sonata BWV 1003), and close comparison seemed to indicate, differences of sonic perspective aside, that it was indeed the same recording as on Virgin.
What made me still doubt were a number of things: that Virgin gave May 1991 as recording date, which of course was incompatible with the 1990 copyright of the earlier album; but to this objection, Cunniffe conjectured that May 1991 may have been the date of recording of the five new tracks; the differences in timings, which in a few tracks were more substantial than just a few seconds (see Brandenburg Concerto No. 3: 2:57 on Swing vs. 2:45 on Virgin, In Dulci Jubilo 1:42 vs. 1:58, Et Resurrexit 2:42 vs. 3:17, Organ Fugue “alla gigue” 2:20 vs. 2:04, Es ist genug 1:37 vs. 1:55); another consideration, had I had access to the info at the time, would have been the fact that in The Bach Album’s booklet, a bassist and two drummers were credited, whereas the Virgin CD indicated that “The Swingle Singers produce all the sounds heard on this recording. No instruments are used“; but I learned that only when I recently bought the CD.
When I first published this review, I wrote that “I’m not going to buy that short-timed album just to find out. Even if another recording, I doubt that the interpretations, at so short a distance, are widely different (and the similar timings would seem to confirm that)”.
Well – 7 years later, I found it cheap and did buy it. And, folks, here’s breaking news: they ARE… well… errrr…. it remains a complicated affair. In sum, many – but not all – of the tracks reprised on the Virgin CD, even those that would appear to be very different not only because of the presence of real percussion and double bass, but also because of significantly differing tempos (Brandenburg Concerto, Et Resurrexit from the B-minor Mass…), turn out to be the same recordings as on Swing, but with tempo altered, amplification reduced, instruments away and sometimes replaced by vocal dee-dumming and tchhhh-tchhhitting (Organ Fugue BWV 542, middle section of “Blute nur”). See my review of the Swing CD for the details.
Should “Bach Hits Back” be considered as a fake, then? I don’t think so. In my review of the Swing CD, I develop the idea that a record is not necessarily the documentation of a performance or even an imitation of a possible performance, it’s an artefact. Especially in pop music, we don’t buy the album as an “ersatz” of a live performance, but as a sonic object in itself. “The medium is the message”, as Marshall McLuhan would say. Or “A record is a record is a record”, as Gertrude Stein didn’t say. The Bach Album itself – as many other recordings of The Swingle Singers – was obviously produced by a process of over-dubbing, and nobody would take issue with that. “Bach Hits Back” is best taken as a new variation on a common theme.
There are obviously many similarities between both albums, especially in the tracks which were already purely vocal on The Bach Album and on which the tempo wasn’t fiddled with on one or the other albums, but also significant differences: a very different sonic perspective, louder and comparatively cruder but allowing for better analytical precision of hearing on Swing, softer and silkier on Virgin; the real percussion and double bass on Swing vs. vocal imitation on Virgin. Ultimately, the Virgin CD is the one to prefer: it’s been more widely circulated and is easier to find, and it does offer 5 more tracks and 13 more minutes of music. Also, because “The Swingle Singers produce all the sounds heard on this recording. No instruments are used”, it is a more faithful representation of the style of the Swingle Singers since the late 1980s. The Swing CD is a collector’s and Swingle completist’s item, and/or for those with a soft spot for the earlier, Paris Swingle Singers, with jtheir Jazz double-bass and drum underpinning.