Rediscovering the forgotten Pachelbel

Two fine ensembles unite, bringing life to a forgotten Pachelbel gem proving there’s far more to Pachelbel than his Canon

Composer: Pachelbel
Repertoire: Vespers
Artists: The King’s Singers, Charivari Agréable/Kah-Ming Ng
Rating: 5/5
Genre: Vocal
Label: Signum Classics SIGCD 198

The Music: Some news this month, fresh from the dreaming spires of Oxford. It concerns Johann Pachelbel – you know the chap, composer of that beautifully spacious yet understated Canon that rests on the ears like slices of chilled cucumber. Well, it turns out Pachelbel’s music isn’t so much cucumber as chilly pepper, as witness the latest masterpiece from the elusive genius to have surfaced from dusty obscurity: his arresting, spirited and utterly individual setting of the Vespers.Where – you may well be poetically declaring to Pachelbel’s Vespers once you’ve heard it on this CD – have you been all my life? The short answer is Oxford’s Bodleian Library. At least, that’s where the manuscripts have been since 1978, before which a cavalcade of characters including Pachelbel’s son Carl, London organist Marmaduke Overend and his pupil the composer William Boyce took charge of them. The scores lay undisturbed in Oxford until 2009, when Baroque music specialist Kah-Ming Ng discovered them, gnawed by generations of sagacious Oxford rodents but otherwise eminently decipherable. What Ng had stumbled upon was, in his own words, ‘a summation of all that is endearing about 17th-century music’. 

The Performance: Three centuries on from the Vespers’ creation, Kah-Ming Ng summoned his own Baroque ensemble Charivari Agréable and vocal group The King’s Singers to a Gloucestershire Church last June to breathe life into the Vespers for the first time since it was presented at St Sebald’s Church in Nuremberg by the composer himself. The microphones of Signum Classics were on hand to ensure Pachelbel’s reputation could at last be bolstered by a work of significant size, scope and vision. And what an utterly more manifold character Pachelbel appears in his Vespers than in the plain beauty of his Canon. First of all, Pachelbel is passionate. Wander into St Sebald’s one Sunday evening in the 1690s – as you do – and your senses would have been overawed by the most musically spectacular ecclesiastical celebration in the whole of protestant Germany. Pachelbel reached the summit of his creative powers when he returned to his hometown at the dusk of his creative life and wrote a series of Magnificats and Responses settings for the church’s Vespers services. What does the music sound like? Well, it’s invigorating, sensitive, heartfelt and gloriously melodious. This you can decipher even from Pachelbel’s opening setting of the Vespers’ Responses. When he sets the words Domine, ad adjuvandum me festina (‘O Lord hasten to help me’) his music slips onto new and agile wheels as his five singers, weaving individual lines until now, are suddenly united in anguish. But the composer doesn’t leave it there. He then asks those singers to pleadingly repeat the word festina (‘hasten’) at the apex of the musical phrase, before they collapse into frenzied imitative repetitions of the word. The effect is wonderfully effective – like a physical reaching upwards towards the deity. In this eight seconds of music alone Pachelbel sets out his stall as a composer of significant and individual talent. Ng’s musicians go on to perform four other settings of the opening Responses – none of them resting on the previous one’s laurels – and two of his finest Magnificats, which also contrast markedly in design. In the first, in C, there are more examples of Pachelbel gifting long, expressive lines to the individuals within the vocal ensemble and then suddenly thrusting them together as a choir to give emphatic weight to particular phrases. It’s in the Magnificats, too, that you get an impression of Pachelbel’s significant skill in instrumental writing suggested so beautifully by the famous Canon. His instrumental passages intricately weave the work’s melodic themes around one another with the sort of ease you expect from Bach. And when two solo voices intone the ‘Gloria’ towards the end of the first Magnificat, they seem to become instruments themselves; shape, blend and sensitivity to the meaning of the words exudes from every musician. 

The Verdict: Pachelbel could hardly wish for better 21st-century advocates than these.