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Recordings

31 May 2006

BÖHM: Cantatas

“A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring”, quoth the great poet Alexander Pope in 1709.

Georg Böhm: Cantatas

Capella Sancti Georgi; Musica Alta Ripa; Ralf Popken

cpo 777 143-2 [CD]

$15.99  Click to buy

The curse and blessing of our Googling (rather than Golden) Age is that an enormous volume of superficial knowledge of all and sundry is available to all, cheap, quick and (almost) free. Thus your reviewer can confirm his dark imaginings about the “forerunners of Bach” (or, in German, “vorläufern von Bach”). The Germanocentric bent of American writing on music history means that all of European music (or all that is of any value) is crammed into the Procrustean bed of “Bach-forerunnerdom” or “Bachian influence” (and if Bach be not the central figure, 'tis Beethoven).

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is poor Georg Böhm (1661-1733). Were he not a Bach-forerunner (were he a Portuguese mestre de capela, let's say), he would not have already had a complete edition of his works seventy-five years ago. On the other hand, he would not suffer the ignominious fate of having the consideration of his influence on JSB come prior to the analysis of his own works in Grove, which goes on to scathingly condemn his vocal works (“derivative”).

The Capella Sancti Georgi and Musica Alta Ripa present almost half of the surviving cantatas from Böhm here, and what becomes immediately obvious to the listener that the problem for Grove is that unlike the keyboard works the same pen, where Bach found much ore to quarry for his own style, the cantatas are as un-Bachian as you might like. What that means is that the style is much more retrospective, reflecting a German 17th-century idiom that was interested in developing even older Italian models (recall that Böhm was a generation older than Bach or Telemann). No operatic succession of dry recitative and interminable aria, interrupted now and then by masterful choruses. No virtuoso obligatos for violin, oboe, flute, cello, and so forth. None of the grandeur and tedium of the Bach Kantatenwerk. These cantatas show the sort of flowing combination of different vocal soloists, supported usually by a trio-sonata texture, that recalls early seventeenth-century Venice, for example. And within this context Böhm is competent and the music charming. Any listener who knows and loves J.S. Bach's cantata “Wachet Auf” (no. 140) will find it hard to resist “Das Himmelreich ist gleich einem Könige”, which presents three verses of the “Wachet auf” chorale, with the familiar poetry of Philipp Nicolai.

Any more unfamiliar idiom is helped tremendously in performance or recording by a reading that is sensitive to the particular traits of that style, and the Capella Sancti Georgi and Musica Alta Ripa are warm and convincing here. The soloists are fluent and capable, particularly the first-rate singing of basso Markus Flaig, with a clear, resonantly manly tone, and excellent diction.

Warmly recommended. Perhaps cpo will see its way to a second disc?

Tom Moore

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