Ricercar's Johann Pachelbel: Christ lag in Todesbanden, featuring the Chamber Choir of Namur, period band Les Agrémens, and organist David van Bouwel under the direction of Jean Tubéry, attempts to draw the thread twixt the late sacred vocal music of Pachelbel with the early efforts in the genre by Johann Sebastian Bach. Pachelbel's reputation is so dominated by his famous Canon in D -- a piece that for the composer was likely little more than an exercise -- that his first-rate sacred music often suffers in terms of recognition. The discovery in 2006 of a manuscript copy in Bach's hand of some music by Pachelbel points up this early connection between Bach and Pachelbel, and annotator Jérôme Lejeune reminds us that it came through Bach's own family: Pachelbel was godfather to Bach's oldest sister and his brother Johann Christoph Bach's music teacher. So the historical connection is there, but what about a stylistic connection? Is there one to be found?
Without Bach's side of the story present to speak for him, it is rather hard to deduce it just from the Pachelbel music heard here. This is the major shortcoming of the package; the programmatic concept is purported to contrast Pachelbel's music with Bach's, and yet, none of Bach's music is included. There is certainly no shortage of recordings of Bach's settings of these same cantatas and organ chorales from Pachelbel, and it is assumed the listener will either consult one of these other recordings or simply take the annotator's word for it. However, on the bright side it is quite satisfying to hear Pachelbel's sacred cantatas in such pristine and transparent performances as these. The singing is enthusiastic and spirited, and the recording is very well mixed, modulating the relation of the balance of instruments and voices in order to best illustrate what's in the score, rather than relying on the natural balance of the room to carry the day for the whole album. As this was recorded in 2006, perhaps ostensibly in observance of the 300th anniversary of Pachelbel's death only to discover that no one seemed to care, it is likely the connection to Bach was strengthened in order to provide this package with an additional angle to exploit. Ricercar's Johann Pachelbel: Christ lag in Todesbanden doesn't need it; these are very fine performances, and Pachelbel's music is strong enough on its own to warrant recommendation to those who appreciate Baroque sacred cantatas.