Bach Cantatas, Volume 21

Volume 21 is rich in its program: four cantatas from
the pre-Lenten Quinquagesima, including Bach’s audition piece for Leipzig, Jesus nahm zu sich
die Zwölfe
, BWV 22, and Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV 159 with its hauntingly
beautiful and exquisitely memorable aria “Es ist vollbracht,” one of Bach’s most poignant
settings of Calvary themes; the other liturgical occasions here—Annunciation, Palm Sunday, and
Oculi—elicit two of Bach’s justifiably better known cantatas, Wie schön leuchtet der
, BWV 1, a richly scored, expansive treatment of Philip Nicolai’s famous chorale,
and Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182, featuring two spirited permutation fugues,
dazzling in their contrapuntal brio.

The stunning realization of the Pilgrimage itself—all the surviving cantatas performed within a
year at notable churches throughout Europe and the US in accord with the liturgical
calendar—and the front-rank status of Gardiner and his forces lead to high
expectations—expectations that are generally well met. The instrumental playing of the London
Baroque Soloists is quite a treat, with subtle and detailed articulation, as in the solo violin part in
BWV 182/4, commanding control of fast passage work–182/6 is a good example–and
well-contoured phrasing—BWV 1/3 comes quickly to mind–all gratifyingly present. The solo
singing, as well, is often wondrous. The lean and languishing tone and free high register of
Nathalie Stutzmann in BWV 182/5 is memorable in this aria of expressive dedication. Ruth
Holton’s beautiful clarity of sound and elegance of line is much in evidence in BWV 127/3, an
aria of funereal cast where the singer’s control must be maintained at considerable length—over
eight minutes here—a challenge that never darkens a stunning performance. Bass Peter Harvey
is outstanding in BWV 159/4, Bach’s hauntingly affective reflection on Jesus’s last words from
the cross, “Es ist vollbracht.” The wrenchingly beautiful oboe line, played with great artistry by
Xenia Löffler, combined with rich suspensions, an unusually contoured melody and Harvey’s
lyric gift make this one of the high points of the collection.

Given the Scriptural lessons on which the cantatas are based, it is not surprising that they often
take a contemplative, poignant turn. And it is this strand of the volume that seems most
successful. In other contexts, Gardiner and his forces favor a rhythmic zeal that is often exciting,
but also prone to an exaggeration that may not always please. For instance, the choral
syncopations in BWV 23/3 are roughly handled, giving an unexpected harshness, and the
opening chorus to BWV 127 shows an articulative bent that seems to try too hard to underscore
the bitterness explicit in the text. The last chorale of BWV 1 is thrilling in its splendor with
lively horn decorations, but here exaggeration also seems to take over as controlled brilliance
gives way to a somewhat raucously blaring, full-belted rendition.

There is so much to admire in this project of epic proportions. In this particular volume,
however, the admiration comes more quickly in the quieter moments. And these are to be
relished, indeed.

Steven Plank

image_description=J. S. Bach: Cantatas, Volume 21
product_title=J. S. Bach: Cantatas, Volume 21
Cantatas for Quinquagesima, the Annunciation, Palm Sunday and Oculi (BWV 22, 23, 127, 159, 182, 54 and 1)
product_by=Ruth Holton, Malin Hartelius, sopranos; Claudia Schubert, Nathalie Stutzmann, altos; James Oxley, James Gilchrist, tenors; Peter Harvey, bass; The Monteverdi Choir; The English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, Director
product_id=SDG 118 [2CDs]