The Swingle Singers: Spotlight on Bach. Sonoton SCD 069 (1990), no barcode
LP Edition Sonoton SON 324 (presumably 1990):
Downloadable as “Spotlight on Bach” and “Back to Bach A Capella Baroque Classics” or “Back to Bach A Capella Baroque Masterpieces”
Warning: USO (Unidentified Singing Object)
25 February 2022
What a strange, strange, bizarre CD.
When I busied myself, in the early 2000s, with a first approach to a complete Swingle Singers chronological and critical discography (originally posted on Amazon.com as “Listmanias” – and that lasted until the day Amazon decided that making profits rather than building communities was their goal, and that the two were contradictory, and suppressed overnight all the Listmanias; turning the wrong into good, the discography is now available on my website, and much more complete than what the Amazon Listmanias ever permitted), neither I, nor Swingle Singers biographer and discographer Thomas Cunniffe on Jazzhistoryonline.com, though he had been in contact with Ward Swingle and the group’s management, were even aware of the CD’s existence – meaning that no other online discography, Wikipedia, Discogs or else, had been either. We did however spend some time and head-scratching trying to figure out the relation between the Swingle Singers’ “The Bach Album”, published in 1990 on their own label Swing CD 5, and the album released by Virgin Classics four years later, “Bach Hits Back”, with the same contents plus five additional tracks: were the shared items the same recordings (and thus the Virgin album an augmented reissue of the previous album) or were the Virgin tracks all new recordings? And it ultimately turned out that the answer to that fascinating riddle did not easily fall in the simplistic binary category of “yes” or “no”, see my review of The Bach Album for the details.
It is only now, when I returned to my Swingle Singers discography to complete Part II and Part III (devoted to the English Swingle Singers era, starting in 1974), which I had long left dormant, that I chanced upon the CD. It is now documented on Discogs.com (apparently the listing was submitted as late as February 2022, a couple of weeks before I checked…) and so is the LP edition, and the latter is even listed on the European Amazons (ASIN B003B6VTTQ). Its contents are available online as downloads, and the Swingle Singers’ discography on Wikipedia now references, however uninformatively, those dowload editions. Finally… I was lucky enough to find the CD online for sufficiently cheap.
First observation: the album was published (according to its copyright year) in 1990, the same year as The Swingle Singers’ “The Bach Album”, and it shares with it a number of pieces: the Organ Fugue BWV 542 (from Fantasia & Fugue in G minor), Andante for Violin Sonata No. 2, Allegro (1st movement) from Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, “Blute nur” from the St Matthew Passion, the 3-part Invention (Sinfonia) BWV 782, the Chorale “In dulci jubilo” BWV 368 (sung in the English translation of Pearson), the Fugue VIII BWV 877 from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, the Choral-Prelude for organ BWV 731″Liebster Jesu” (wrongly dubbed “Solo Cantata” by Sonoton), the Organ Fugue BWV 577 “alla Gigue”, the Chorale “Es ist genug” from Cantata BWV 60. On the other hand, the “Prelude 1” from The Well-Tempered Clavier (track 15) was not on The Bach Album (last time the Swingle Singers recorded the first prelude – and fugue – was in their 1968 album Jazz Sebastian Bach vol. 2, and it was the French Swingles), and six tracks from The Bach Album are missing from Sonoton: “Eine feste Burg” (Chorale BWV 302), Prelude 18 BWV 887 from Well-Tempered Clavier Book II, “Sleepers Awake” from Cantata BWV 140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, “In Dulci Jubilo” the (wordless) Organ Chorale BWV 608, “Et Resurrexit” from Mass in B-minor, and “Bist du bei mir” (Lied from Anna-Magdalena Bach’s Notebook, BWV 508).
Still, it would be tempting to consider that the Sonoton disc is in some way another (partial) edition of The Bach Album – diminished of some tracks and augmented of a few others.
Not so simple.
First, Sonoton presents some of those pieces in multiple versions: Organ Fugue BWV 542 as “bright fugue” (actually running longer than the recording on The Bach Album and sounding rather lazy and relaxed), then “faster tempo version” (and now even more dynamic than on The Bach Album), and “faster tempo without drums”. The Allegro from Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 comes in an a capella version and one with soft accompaniment of brushed drums and, possibly, double-bass (hard to tell if it’s not male voice “dee-dumming”). Likewise with the Chorale “In dulci jubilo” (and more church-like reverb on the voices in the a capella version) and the Chorale-Prelude “Liebster Jesu” (a cappella / solo soprano with organ). The Chorale “Es ist genug” is given both with the lyrics, and in a version purely hummed. By the way, for sake of precision, only the hummed version can be refered to, as Sonoton does, as “216”. No. 216 is the chorale’s harmonization for organ made by Bach, in an opus now catalogued BWV 1-438 (see scores on IMSLP and listen on YouTube), but the version with lyrics (it was also the case on The Bach Album) is the concluding chorale from the Cantata BWV 60 O Ewigkeit aus Donnerwort.
Second, when you compare each common track, it is not obvious if those on The Bach Album are in all cases really the same recordings as on Sonoton – or “exactly” the same recordings. The dreamy three-part Invention (track 14), entirely a capella, is obviously the same, though the mixings are slightly different, and likewise with the a capella “Es ist genug” (track 23), all the way to small sonic glitches in the recording pickup. Despite a slightly different mixing, “In Dulci Jubilo” (track 16) also seems to be the same, and that likeness includes (but is not limited to) the almost imperceptible double-bass and percussion that underpins the full chorus after the introductory tenor solo, at 0:39. But the version on The Bach Album has a second strophe (sung a capella), not on “Spotlight on Bach”. As mentioned above, “Spotlight….” also offers a version of the same piece, but sung a capella (track 17): despite more reverb’, it appears to be the same recording, without the rhythmic accompaniment – and it is very welcome: it “de-clogs” the vocal textures and lets you hear much better the interlacing of the voices. Incidentally, the also a capella version sung on Virgin’s “Bach Hits Back” is NOT the same recording.
I’d say “Liebster Jesu” (track 19) is the same, despite a more resonant mixing on Sonoton and an almost impercetible organ (or Hammond organ) underpinning, which unfortunately thickens the textures (the version on The Bach Album is entirely a capella). The haunting Andante from the 2nd Solo Violin Sonata BWV 1003 (track 8) would definitely appear to be also the same recording as on The Bach Album, including the soft brushed drum and double-bass accompaniment that enters from 0:40 to 1:28 and again at 2:25, but comparing minutely, I hear microscopic differences in the drum accompaniment, especially upon its return at 2:25 (more discreet on Sonoton, cymbal more stereophonically localized on Swing CD); but those differences are hardly perceptible, and vocally it is clearly the same recording. Same observation can be made with the Brandenburg Concerto (track 9): vocally the same, drum accompaniment seems different, but it takes minute listening to hear it; and here, of course, the a capella version (track 10) is different from The Bach Album. In “Blute nur” from the Matthew-Passion (track 12), vocals and, if my ears serve, double bass are the same, drums may be different; and in the reprise, after the long central tenor solo part, The Bach Album plays a slightly shortened version (the repeat section added in Sonoton is between 2:26-2:54). I mentionned the differences in tempo between Sonoton’s three versions of the Organ Fugue BWV 542 (tracks 1-3) and the one on The Bach Album, and there are also differences in instrumental accompaniment, and sonic perspective. In The Bach Album, there is (playing by ear) an accompaniment of brushed drums and double-bass; in the “slow” Fugue on Sonoton, the bass sounds like vocal dee-dumming; in the “fast” version with drums, it sounds like double-bass; likewise in the “fast” version without drums. And if you add to the picture the same Fugue on Virgin Classics’ 1994″Bach Hits Back” – there it is entirely a capella, including vocal dee-dumming the bass.
Now, those small differences, when they exist, don’t prove that they are not actually the same recordings. As a close comparison between The Bach Album and Virgin Classics’s 1994 “Bach Hits Back” established (see the review of The Bach Album for the details), despite apparent differences in tempo and instrumental accompaniment, many of the shared tracks were indeed the same recordings, but the differences came from electronic fiddling with tempo and over-dubbing of instrumental accompaniment. Case in point with the Allegro from Brandenburg 3: on the face of it, the a capella version on Sonoton and the one on Virgin’s Bach Hits Back would seem different, with the one on Virgin more hectic, to the point of precipitation (2:42 to Sonoton’s 2:55); but I had already established in my comparison of The Bach Album’s Brandenburg (with drums) with Virgin’s a capella, that they were indeed the same recordings, but with over-dubbed percussion on Swing CD and the tempo of the Virgin version electronically accelerated. So methinks, as with Virgin’s “Bach Hits Back” vs Swing CD “The Bach Album”, that those recordings are basically the same, initially “a capella” (and published as such on the Virgin CD), then overdubbed with various accompaniments, and sometimes with tempo electronically altered.
On the other hand, I’d say that the Fugue VIII from The Well-Tempered Clavier Book II (track 18) is a different recording, and not only in drums and double-bass, or tempo: vocal timbres are subtly different, but more perceptibly: consonnants are not the same, pa-pa-pa vs bam bam bam. To my ears the Fugue alla Gigue (track 21) is also a different recording from the one on The Bach Album, and not just because Sonoton’s has only an accompaniment of double-bass, to which The Bach Album adds drums; but the vocal timbres are again subtly different, and the sonic perspective, vastly so (closer and dryer sonic pickup on The Bach Album).
Other than possibly those two tracks, do all the shared-but-slightly altered ones make “Spotlight on Bach” a “fake” of “The Bach Album”, or even both “Spotlight…” and “…Album” fakes in relation to what one may consider as the “original” and “bare” a capella versions on “Bach Hits Back”? I contended, in my review of the Virgin and Swing CD albums, that it wasn’t necessarily the case. An album, especially in popular music but not only, is not the reproduction, imitation or memento of a live concert, it is an autonomous artefact. You don’t buy, say, Sargent Pepper or The White Album to be the documentation of a concert given on a London rooftop – they are sonic objects in themselves. So I think “The Bach Album” and “Bach Hits Back” are two independant sonic objects, two different Swingle Singers’ variations on Bach, so to speak.
Not so much with “Spotlight…”, because, despite perceptible or microscopic differences, the shared tracks are usually so close to those of The Bach Album that they don’t “vary” much of anything. Only do the a capella track of “In Dulci Jubilo” and the hummed version of “Es ist genug” add a little something to what The Bach Album provides, and possibly “Fugue alla Gigue”, if you want to hear it without drums…
That said, Sonoton can’t be considered just a duplicate of The Bach Album either. There is, of course, the Well-Tempered clavier prelude that is not on The Bach Album and which is a relative rarity in The Swingle Singers’ discography – The Paris Swingle Singers’ version is way more preferable though, this one is so clogged in resonance and keyboard accompaniment that it becomes very “new-agey”. The hummed (wordless) version of “Es ist genug” (track 24) has no equivalent in “The Bach Album” or “Bach Hits Back”, and is very beautiful (maybe it moves me because it reminds me of the Finale of Berg’s Violin Concerto). And add to that track 11, a “Tribute to Johann Sebastian” by an Erich Glissman – who he is, what else he has done, is not otherwise explained, and not to be found on Google. I also mentioned above the “repeat” tracks with “altered” versions, a capella, tempo or accompaniment.
But, if the “alternate versions” thing hadn’t been bizarre enough – talk about “Spotlight on Bach“! The CD also features multiple takes on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (reminds me of another label publishing a 2-CD compilation of “The Greatest Piano Concertos”… which included Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto!) and of Vivaldi’s Allegro (first movement) from The Four Season’s Autumn – not insignificant additions to The Swingle Singers’ discography, since both are otherwise unrecorded, previously or after, by the group. The first Ode to Joy track (track 4), described in the track listing as “gentle, without drums” and sung a capella with, in the second half, discreet organ doubling the soprano line, is rather nice. Track 5, a “forceful pop version with original lyrics”, is a take that Clockwork Orange’s Alex DeLarge might have enjoyed; but I survived (track 6 is the a capella recording that serves in the mixing of track 5, and track 7, the organ part). Vivaldi’s Autumn is, indeed, “bright and sparkling”, but I wish they had provided the a capella recording also: so much percussion and other keyboard sounds may becomes too much of a “good” thing.
And then, to top it off with even more outlandish, there are those final tracks, 25 to 49, presenting the previous tracks of the album in “59 second versions” (8 of them) and “29 second versions” (17). WTF????? It raises the question: what is exactly this album’s marketing target? Certainly not the “ordinary” music lover and Swingle Singers fan. I would conjecture: advertisement companies? “You need a 29-second serving of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with pop drums to sell spaghetti? You got it!”
Strange label! From Germany, no barcodes. The booklet’s last page lists some of the label’s other publications, and apparently they were specialized in transcriptions of the great Classical hits.
But, ultimately, this album is so bizarre that it is a disc for the Swingle Singers die-hard completist only. If you want to hear Bach by the Swingles (and you should), better go to Virgin Classics’ “Bach Hits Back” – because it is much more easily available than both Sonoton’s “Spotlight…” and “The Bach Album”, because it offers five additional tracks to The Bach Album and because, last but not least, it is sung entirely a capella. And don’t forget, of course, the Paris Swingle Singers Jazz Sebastian Bach vols. 1 & 2. “Spotlight…” is for the Swingle fans who couldn’t live without their Ode to Joy , Vivaldi’s Autumn and hummed “Es ist genug”… and for advertisement companies, of course.