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Reviews

Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantatas, vol. 8
28 Sep 2005

BACH: Cantatas, Vol. 8

On Christmas 1999, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists with conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner set out on one of the most unusual musical tours ever undertaken.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantatas, vol. 8

Malin Hartelius; Katharine Fuge; William Towers; Robin Tyson; James Gilchrist; Mark Padmore; Peter Harvey; Thomas Guthrie; The Monteverdi Choir; The English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner

Monteverdi Productions SDG 104 [2CDs]

 

The group performed all 198 surviving sacred cantatas of J. S. Bach in the course of one year, traveling to a variety of churches in Europe beginning in Weimar, and culminating in three Christmastime concerts at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City. For the most part, each performance featured cantatas written by Bach for the particular liturgical feast day on which the concert was presented. All the concerts were recorded live, this set containing the programs of September 28 and October 7, 2000, the fifteenth and sixteenth Sundays after Trinity, at the churches Unser Lieben Frauen in Bremen and Santo Domingo de Bonaval in Santiago de Compostela, respectively.

Given that the group had been traveling, rehearsing, and peforming a different handful of cantatas week after week for nine months, one would think the members would have run out of steam when these concerts took place. Indeed, Sir John writes in the liner notes that “our approach was influenced by several factors: time (never enough), geography (the initial retracing of Bach’s footsteps in Thuringia and Saxony), architecture (the churches both great and small where we performed), the impact of one week’s music on the next and on the different permutations of players and singers joining and rejoining the pilgrimage, and, inevitably, the hazards of weather, travel and fatigue.” So do these performances reflect the ravages of this devilish performance schedule? Far from it, the performances are fresh, energetic, sensitive, and suffused with the spirit of Bach at its finest.

This set, one of the first two to be released—the other, recorded in London, includes three cantatas for the Feast of John the Baptist and three for the First Sunday after Trinity—contains two of my favorites (well, really, my favorite is whichever one I’m listening to at the moment), “Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz? BWV 138” and the solo cantata for soprano “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen! BWV 51.” In the heart-rending opening movement of BWV 138, Bach gives us a wonderful mixture of recitative for the middle voices—alto and tenor soloists—skilfully intermeshed with the chorale of the title (Why are you troubled, my heart) sung by the full chorus. The same forces are employed in the third movement, which follows a bass recitative and is itself followed by solo movements for tenor, bass, and alto. For the closing chorale, Bach foregoes the usual plain, chordal setting and instead gives us a full-scale “chorale-prelude”-type setting.

The mood of next cantata on the program, “Was Gott tut das ist wohlgetan II” BWV 99, contrasts greatly, reflecting the praiseful text (What God does, is well done). In BWV 51 (Rejoice unto God in all lands!), the talented soprano soloist Marlin Hartelius acquits herself extremely well, as does the trumpet soloist, Niklas Eklund. Following a recitative, we hear a beautifully sensitive rendition of the aria “Höchster, mache deine Güte ferner alle Morgen neu” (Highest One, extend Thy goodness newly each morning). Next we get another chorale-prelude setting, but with the soloist instead of a chorus singing the chorale melody. The trumpet returns for the rousing “Alleluja!” that brings the work to a close.

The final cantata on disc 1, “Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan III” BWV 100, presents all six verses of the chorale text, each in a different setting: chorale-prelude setting for full chorus and orchestra, including flute, 2 oboes 2 horns, and strings; a contrapuntal duet between alto and tenor, with continuo; a soprano aria with flute obbligato; a bass aria with string accompaniment; an alto aria with oboe obbligato; and full chorus together with the full orchestra to balance the opening chorus and frame the whole work. There is no intermediate text, therefore no recitatives.

Disc 2 contains four cantatas: “Komm, du süße Todesstunde” BWV 161; “Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende?” BWV 27; Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben?” BWV 8; and “Christus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95. Translations of these titles—“Come, Sweet Hour of Death,” “Who Knows How Near My End Is?” “Dearest God, When Will I Die?” and “Christ Who Is My Life, which continues “to die is my reward”—clearly proclaim their subject. Death, according to the Lutheran tradition of Bach’s time, is viewed as sweet, desirable, and a release from what is regarded as an unfulfilled and difficult life. Nevertheless, in most of the music to which Bach set these words is not as happy and joyful as one might expect, given those—one might say lugubrious—texts. Indeed, as John Eliot Gardiner points out in his excellent program notes, BWV 95 uses four successive funeral hymns.

If this set is indicative of what is to come, Bach cantata fans should start saving now to purchase all of them. Of course, these same listeners should already own the 17 or so volumes released so far of the complete cantatas recorded by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir. But just think, you’ll never have to buy Bach cantatas again unless, of course, another group comes out with such first-class performances as these.

Note a possible confusion: four CDs of cantatas from the Pilgrimage were issued on the Archiv label by Deutsche Grammophon, which then backed out of the project. Sir John then established his own label, Moteverdi Productions, to continue the set, picking up from where DG left off.

Michael Ochs

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