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Recordings

J. S. Bach: Cantatas, vol. 14
15 Jun 2006

BACH: Cantatas, vol. 14

This installment in the remarkable Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series presents four Christmas cantatas: “Gelobet seist du, Jesus Christ,” BWV 91; “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens,” BWV 110; “Dazu ist erschienen,” BWV 40; and “Christum wir sollen loben schon,” BWV 121, all recorded live in St. Bartholomew’s Church, New York City.

J. S. Bach: Cantatas, vol. 14

The Monteverdi Choir; Katherine Fuge, Joanne Lunn, sopranos; Tobin Tyson, William Towers, altos; James Gilchrist, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass; The English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, Director

Soli Deo Gloria SDG 113 [CD]

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Given the festal context of Christmas, it is no surprise that the music often takes a celebrative turn. The opening chorus of “Gelobet seist du” is exuberant energy superimposed on a sturdy chorale frame; the opening chorus of “Dazu ist erschienen” teems with sprightly rhythmic verve and regal horn writing (both of which are echoed in the rollicking tenor aria, “Christenkinder, freuet euch”); and the melismatic laughter of the opening chorus of “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens” is a richly spirited example of seasonal joy. Instrumentation also plays a part in underscoring the affective propensities of Christmas, and the virtuoso trumpeting of Gabriele Cassone is certainly a case in point, especially in collaboration with bass Peter Harvey in the aria “Wacht auf” from “Unser Mund sei voll Lachens.” Harvey, as in other of the Cantata Pilgrimage recordings, is a joy to savor, rendering his solos with a sound that is lithe, resonant and flexible and with a remarkable flair for stylistic expression. Cassone, who impressively also plays the solo horn parts on the recording, brings to the demanding trumpet lines a fine combination of contoured phrasing, fluid articulation, and overall brilliance. “Wacht auf,” unsurprisingly, is one of the high points of the recording.

Certainly, this volume of Christmas cantatas manifests the high standards, the attention to stylistic detail, and the zest for performance that have long characterized the work of Gardiner and company. Not everything is equally successful, however. In “Dazu ist erschienen” the first two chorales are rendered with an exaggerated articulation that seems to turn rhetorical gesture into mannerism. Bach’s homophonic settings are no strangers to expressive content, certainly, as harmonic twists for the enrichment of particular words well document, but here the clipped consonants seem to do no more than surprise. The use of strong articulation to dramatic ends fares much better in the solo singing of tenor James Gilchrist, especially in this same cantata’s “Christenkinder, freuet euch.” Gilchrist is a powerful singer, to be sure, and the affective content and floridity of the aria are well met by his confidence. In other places in the recording, however, some may find his sound rather too complex and vibrant, especially in places where attention to the undulation of verbal stress offers the chance for more contour.

Organized by liturgical feast, the recordings in this series can make Bach’s developing compositional style conveniently visible. In volume 14 the cantatas are drawn from 1723, 1724, and 1725, a small chronological window, but significantly we see Bach embracing dramatically different approaches to cantata structure. While all use the familiar components of extended chorus, da capo aria, and declamatory recitative, Bach’s reliance on the chorale in the 1724 cantatas (BWV 91 and BWV 121) is distinctively extensive, using paraphrases of choral verses to accommodate the modern musical forms without obscuring the cohesion the choral text offers. And in one instance, he mixes the choral text and melody with paraphrased declamatory recitative, somewhat in the manner of a medieval trope. Thus, while in sound the four cantatas here remain close one to another, the varied structures behind the sound show Bach’s grappling with questions of form. This, along with the spirited music making, gives the listener much to savor, indeed.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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