American Bach Soloists’ compilation recording Tranquility is exactly what we need for surviving the coronavirus crisis. Considering the release date (mid-February 2020), it is hardly possible that it was conceived as a desert island disc for your personal pandemic quarantine. It’s an example of the kind of disc beloved of radio station programmers: lots of beautiful tunes by Johann Sebastian Bach (and a few by Arcangelo Corelli, and one by Georg Friedric Handel), from a variety of pieces in several different styles.
Your ear doesn’t get tired of the parade of adagio and andante tempos partly because ABS’s artistic director, Jeffrey Thomas, and his players and singers characterize each piece so fully, and because andante is not a slow tempo in historically informed Baroque performance. There are plenty of relaxed, walking tempos here but only a few really slow ones.
Because Thomas and his crew have delved so deeply into Bach’s cantatas, there are some delights here that are slightly less familiar than the usual excerpts, like “Wie starb die Heldin so vergnügt” (How contentedly did the heroine die, from the Trauerode) and “Schlummert ein” (Go to sleep, from Ich habe genug). Of course, it’s not meant to be an album of rarities, so we get the graciously galant “Zion hört die Wächter singen” (Zion hears the watchman singing, from BWV 140, Wachet auf) and the Sinfonia from the cantata BWV 156 (I stand with one foot in the grave) graced with a splendid oboe solo by John Abberger, all breath and long-spun lines. And naturally the whole thing ends with the “Air on the G String,” the second movement of the Orchestral Suite in D Major.
Though ABS goes back some 33 years, the performances are fresh and vivid, in the lean, naturalistic style that Thomas and his players have always preferred. There’s no saccharine here. Longtime followers of the group and early music will appreciate hearing again some of the brilliant players who have graced the ranks of ABS: mezzo-soprano Judith Malafronte singing the Trauerode excerpt, recorder players Aldo Abreu and Judith Linsenberg, cellists Elizabeth Le Guin and Tanya Tomkins, and violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock, Katherine Kyme, and Elizabeth Wallfisch, to name only a few.
This is an album to get you out of a funk, neither too mindlessly happy, nor emotionally knotty. It is, unintentionally, perfect for right now.