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Recordings

Johann Sebastian Bach.  Cantatas Vol. 26 (Whit Sunday and Whit Monday)
02 May 2007

BACH: Cantatas, Vol. 26 (Whit Sunday and Whit Monday)

Among the virtues of hearing Bach cantatas performed in liturgical order—one of the hallmarks of John Eliot Gardiner’s stunning Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000—is the chance to savor Bach’s range of approach to unified text themes.

Johann Sebastian Bach. Cantatas Vol. 26 (Whit Sunday and Whit Monday).
Erschallet, ihr Lieder, BWV 172; Wer mich liebet, BWV 59; Wer mich liebet, BWV 74; O ewiges Feuer, BWV 34; Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut, BWV 173; Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68; Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174.

Lisa Larsson, soprano; Nathalie Stutzmann, alto; Derek Lee Ragin, alto; Christoph Genz, tenor; Panajotis Iconomou, bass. The Monteverdi Choir; The English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, Director.

SDG 121 [2CDs]

$40.49  Click to buy

In this present volume Gardiner presents seven cantatas, all for Pentecost Sunday and Monday, with a chronological span of 1714 to 1746/7. Thus we hear not only the development and refinement of Bach’s own abilities, but also his development of specific material. For instance, the opening duet of Wer mich liebet, BWV 59 is amply fleshed out later as the opening chorus of Wer mich liebet, BWV 74, an expansion in both vocal and instrumental scoring, rather like Bach discovering a newly rich palette of hues and returning to re-color an earlier image. (Three of the cantatas, BWV 173, 68, and 174, adapt material, as well, including a splendid reworking of part of the third Brandenburg, although the models are not recorded here.)

The variety within the cantatas of the collection can be impressive. Erschallet, ihr Lieder, BWV 172, for example, presents a festive chorus, appealingly brilliant and exuberant, an aria with some of Bach’s most virtuosic trumpeting, a duet in the form of a love scene between the Soul and the Spirit, akin to the sensuous duets of Ich hatte viel Bekummernis, BWV 21 from the previous year or Johann Christoph Bach’s wonderful Meine Freundin, du bist schön, and also a richly adorned chorale, a setting of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern with violin descant. An early work dating from 1714, it shows Bach in full control of varied resources and having no shortage of ideas in response to an imageful text.

Performed and recorded in June, 2000, this installment of the Cantata Pilgrimage falls midway through the year’s tour of (primarily) European churches. And though personnel will vary throughout the year, it is significant that here at the midpoint the ensemble’s “house style” is well established and the performances show no sign of fatigue with the project nor staleness in the rendition. Among the solo singers, tenor Christoph Genz, a former chorister at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, is particularly memorable for his brilliant sound and nimble execution, as well as his lyrical sensitivity. Soprano Lisa Larsson draws the task of singing one of Bach’s best-known arias, the chestnut “Mein gläubiges Herze” from Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68. Her performance sparkles and smiles, especially in collaboration with David Watkin’s spry violoncello piccolo accompaniment. Also notable is countertenor Derek Lee Ragin’s dramatic rendition of the highly theatrical aria “ Nichts kann mich erretten” from cantata 74. Ragin has a flair for the dramatic propensities here and the deft technique to “laugh at Hell’s anger.” The dynamic variation with his register shifts may detract on occasion, but this extraordinarily gestural aria is well-served by his commanding interpretation.

The choir is seasoned and fluent in its singing—Bach seems to be for them a “native tongue.” Gardiner has a wonderful capacity for investing his performances with rhythmic excitement, especially evident in the choruses. However the line between this rhythmic excitement and a harsh articulative exaggeration is not always well gauged, as in the final chorus of cantata 68.

All in all, however, the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage remains a most impressive undertaking. Its legacy of recordings document music-making of high distinction, indeed.

Steven Plank

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