BACH: Cantatas, Vol. 8

The group performed all 198 surviving sacred cantatas of J. S. Bach in the course of one year, traveling to a variety of churches in Europe beginning in Weimar, and culminating in three Christmastime concerts at St. Bartholomewís Church in New York City. For the most part, each performance featured cantatas written by Bach for the particular liturgical feast day on which the concert was presented. All the concerts were recorded live, this set containing the programs of September 28 and October 7, 2000, the fifteenth and sixteenth Sundays after Trinity, at the churches Unser Lieben Frauen in Bremen and Santo Domingo de Bonaval in Santiago de Compostela, respectively.
Given that the group had been traveling, rehearsing, and peforming a different handful of cantatas week after week for nine months, one would think the members would have run out of steam when these concerts took place. Indeed, Sir John writes in the liner notes that ìour approach was influenced by several factors: time (never enough), geography (the initial retracing of Bachís footsteps in Thuringia and Saxony), architecture (the churches both great and small where we performed), the impact of one weekís music on the next and on the different permutations of players and singers joining and rejoining the pilgrimage, and, inevitably, the hazards of weather, travel and fatigue.î So do these performances reflect the ravages of this devilish performance schedule? Far from it, the performances are fresh, energetic, sensitive, and suffused with the spirit of Bach at its finest.
This set, one of the first two to be releasedóthe other, recorded in London, includes three cantatas for the Feast of John the Baptist and three for the First Sunday after Trinityócontains two of my favorites (well, really, my favorite is whichever one Iím listening to at the moment), ìWarum betr¸bst du dich, mein Herz? BWV 138î and the solo cantata for soprano ìJauchzet Gott in allen Landen! BWV 51.î In the heart-rending opening movement of BWV 138, Bach gives us a wonderful mixture of recitative for the middle voicesóalto and tenor soloistsóskilfully intermeshed with the chorale of the title (Why are you troubled, my heart) sung by the full chorus. The same forces are employed in the third movement, which follows a bass recitative and is itself followed by solo movements for tenor, bass, and alto. For the closing chorale, Bach foregoes the usual plain, chordal setting and instead gives us a full-scale ìchorale-preludeî-type setting.
The mood of next cantata on the program, ìWas Gott tut das ist wohlgetan IIî BWV 99, contrasts greatly, reflecting the praiseful text (What God does, is well done). In BWV 51 (Rejoice unto God in all lands!), the talented soprano soloist Marlin Hartelius acquits herself extremely well, as does the trumpet soloist, Niklas Eklund. Following a recitative, we hear a beautifully sensitive rendition of the aria ìHˆchster, mache deine G¸te ferner alle Morgen neuî (Highest One, extend Thy goodness newly each morning). Next we get another chorale-prelude setting, but with the soloist instead of a chorus singing the chorale melody. The trumpet returns for the rousing ìAlleluja!î that brings the work to a close.
The final cantata on disc 1, ìWas Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan IIIî BWV 100, presents all six verses of the chorale text, each in a different setting: chorale-prelude setting for full chorus and orchestra, including flute, 2 oboes 2 horns, and strings; a contrapuntal duet between alto and tenor, with continuo; a soprano aria with flute obbligato; a bass aria with string accompaniment; an alto aria with oboe obbligato; and full chorus together with the full orchestra to balance the opening chorus and frame the whole work. There is no intermediate text, therefore no recitatives.
Disc 2 contains four cantatas: ìKomm, du s¸fle Todesstundeî BWV 161; ìWer weifl, wie nahe mir mein Ende?î BWV 27; Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben?î BWV 8; and ìChristus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95. Translations of these titlesóìCome, Sweet Hour of Death,î ìWho Knows How Near My End Is?î ìDearest God, When Will I Die?î and ìChrist Who Is My Life, which continues ìto die is my rewardîóclearly proclaim their subject. Death, according to the Lutheran tradition of Bachís time, is viewed as sweet, desirable, and a release from what is regarded as an unfulfilled and difficult life. Nevertheless, in most of the music to which Bach set these words is not as happy and joyful as one might expect, given thoseóone might say lugubriousótexts. Indeed, as John Eliot Gardiner points out in his excellent program notes, BWV 95 uses four successive funeral hymns.
If this set is indicative of what is to come, Bach cantata fans should start saving now to purchase all of them. Of course, these same listeners should already own the 17 or so volumes released so far of the complete cantatas recorded by Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir. But just think, youíll never have to buy Bach cantatas again unless, of course, another group comes out with such first-class performances as these.
Note a possible confusion: four CDs of cantatas from the Pilgrimage were issued on the Archiv label by Deutsche Grammophon, which then backed out of the project. Sir John then established his own label, Moteverdi Productions, to continue the set, picking up from where DG left off.
Michael Ochs

image_description=Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantatas, vol. 8
product_title=Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantatas, vol. 8
product_by=Malin Hartelius; Katharine Fuge; William Towers; Robin Tyson; James Gilchrist; Mark Padmore; Peter Harvey; Thomas Guthrie; The Monteverdi Choir; The English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner
product_id=Monteverdi Productions SDG 104 [2CDs]