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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.
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.