One of the best-kept secrets about Johann Pachelbel is his sacred music, both that he wrote it -- his omnipresent Canon in D and imposing output for the organ tends to obscure this point -- and that it is of such excellent quality as it is. Little of it has been recorded prior to British label Signum's Pachelbel: Vespers, featuring the commanding talents of the King's Singers and period instrument ensemble Charivari Agréable under the direction of Kah-Ming Ng, and the specific works on this disc have never been recorded by anyone. Most likely composed in Nuremberg for the church of St. Erfurt during Pachelbel's last years, the manuscripts containing Pachelbel's Vespers settings were deposited for safekeeping in the Bodleian Library at Oxford by one of Pachelbel's sons, Charles Theodore Pachelbel, shortly before his departure for the American colonies around 1733. These works have lain, practically untouched, until the advent of this recording.
What a remarkable discovery they are! St. Erfurt was one among only a few Lutheran churches in Germany still utilizing the old Latin texts for Vespers services in the early 1700s, and Pachelbel was an expert hand in such settings; by the time Johann Sebastian Bach began writing mass movements in earnest in the 1730s the practice was altogether extinct. The Magnificat in C major heard here -- transposed down from E flat major -- contains one of the loveliest settings of the Gloria made by anyone, with the word "Gloria" sung out in lengthy, unbroken lines of melody containing hair-raising, wide-ranging leaps. Those looking for more of the attractive instrumental texture of Pachelbel's overly familiar Canon in D will find it in several spots among the instrumental parts in these pieces. Ng, the King's Singers, and Charivari Agréable are working all in concord here, serving as stars of the show but not getting in the way of each other, and the music unfolds with summit after summit of glorious, breathtaking music. This has certainly got to be one of the top classical discs of 2010, given the high level of performance and the rarity and significance of the repertoire. Anyone who is devoted to the Baroque really should not miss this, though one is tempted to say that this disc is good enough to please just about anybody. For the sake of variety, two instrumental sonatas by composers close to Pachelbel -- Johann Krieger and Johann Kaspar Kerll -- are included and played very well by Charivari Agréable. However, Pachelbel's vesper settings are of such quality that you might hardly notice the sonatas.