BACH: Cantatas, Vol. 6

Moreover, the cantatas have also been closely associated with the blossoming of the historical performance movement: the Leonhardt-Harnoncourt complete recordings on Teldec (begun in 1971) remain one of the movementís distinctive and galvanizing achievements. The Leonhardt-Harnoncourt recordings were in many ways pioneering, nurturing the aesthetic appeal of period performance, establishing its commercial viability, and helping to define stylistic idioms. In 1994 Ton Koopman inaugurated a new cantata project that would combine public concert performances with a new complete recording series for Erato. If Leonhardt and Harnoncourt can be seen as establishing a new sense of historical style in their series, Koopman may be seen as celebrating the fluency of historical style in his.
The ìhouse styleî here favors shapely phrases that unfold with an easy swell and natural decay, often elegant, always contoured. Rhetorical inflection and dramatic dynamism are characteristic, though always in tension with a sense of decorum. The vocal sound favors a forward placement and a controlled vibrancy; rapid passage work is accomplished with seeming ease and impressive glottal articulation. And, though much of the expression is rooted in the gestural details, singers and instrumentalists alike render the details with a naturalness that allows them easily to integrate with the larger units of phrase. In contrast to a number of modern Bach interpreters who favor one-to-a-part choral forces, Koopman employs multiple singers in choral tuttis, reserving one-to-a-part textures for concertino passages. The tutti ensemble maintains throughout, however, a remarkable clarity of execution.
Volume Six of the series, initially issued in 1997 and re-issued here on the Antoine Marchand Challenge Classics labelóMarchand took over the series from Erato in 2003ópresents ten cantatas, the majority of which were written during Bachís first year in Leipzig, 1723-24. For the large part of his first two years in Leipzig, Bach composed, rehearsed, and performed a new cantata weekly. This pace carried on at such length is impressive, to say the least, but it also might lead us to expect that in an output so large, the quality could not possibly be maintained at a consistently high level. Surely there must have been an ìoffî Sunday or two! However, undermining that expectation, the selection here teems with some of Bachís most engaging and impressive music. Volume Six includes Bachís first two cantatas as Thomaskantor, ìDie Elenden sollen essen,î BWV 75 and ìDie Himmel erz‰hlen die Ehre Gottes,î BWV 76. Both are large-scale works in two partsóBach trying to impress his new employer with his fortitude?óand the latter is particularly compelling for the richness of its festive orchestration and the remarkable buoyancy of its opening fugue subject. Similarly, it would be difficult to surpass the fugues of ìNun ist das Heil,î BWV 50 and ìDu Hirte Israel,î BWV104 for memorability. The latter may draw on the clichÈs of the pastoral idiom, but Bach turns the predictable into the sublime with a fugue subject of remarkable fluidity and grace. There are stunning moments of intimate expression, as well, as the tenor-bass duet, ìJesus soll mein alles seinî from ìSinget dem Herrn,î BWV 190 with its haunting viola díamore obligatto reveals. Thus the selected works document not only the remarkable inventiveness of Bach and his allegiance to the excellence of his work, but also his wide expressive range.
Volume Six also satisfies in a pedagogical way in which we can hear and ponder various scholarly attempts to deal with historical anomalies. Cantata 190, for instance, features Koopmanís reconstruction of missing parts; Cantata 59 offers a hypothetical solution to the problems of movement order; Cantata 50 is performed not only in its familiar double-choir form (likely a later revision), but also in a hypothetical, reconstructed version for one choir. The volume also includes two versions of ìLobe den Herrn,î BWV 69 and 69a, which gives the listener the chance to compare the interesting effects of revision in both transposition and instrumentation.
My criticisms of the volume are few, and chiefly lie outside the recordings themselves. A closer English translation would be beneficial. Bachís musical language is often wonderfully sensitive to the imageful engagement of individual words, and the degree of freedom in the translations here sometimes makes this difficult to track. In other cases the translations are not so much free as wrong: ìDer schlug in Demut an die Brust,î the publicanís beating his breast in repentance becomes mysteriously ìDid smile upon his breastî (BWV 179); the Saviorís placing a crown on the heads of the faithful, ìSetzt er den Gl‰ubigen die Krone auf,î becomes ìAround the Throne the Faithful may attendî (BWV 186). And to these infelicities, one might also add typographical errors in the program booklet that a fuller copy-editing might have caught.
Without question, the cantatas of J. S. Bach must loom large in our understanding and appreciation of the composer. Equally without question, Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir have given us renditions that gratify and inform in great measure, indeed.
Steven Plank
Oberlin College

image_description=Johann Sebastian Bach. The Complete Cantatas, vol. 6
product_title=Johann Sebastian Bach. The Complete Cantatas, vol. 6
product_by=The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir. Ruth Ziesak, soprano; Elisabeth von Magnus, alto; Paul Agnew, tenor, Klaus Mertens, bass. Ton Koopman, conductor.
product_id=Antoine Marchand Challenge Classics CC72206 [3CDs]