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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata BWV9: 'Es ist das Heil uns kommen her'
Cantata BWV94: 'Was frag ich nach der welt'
Cantata BWV187: 'Es wartet alles auf dich'

Midori Suzuki (soprano), Magdalena Kozená (mezzo soprano),
Knut Schoch (tenor), Jan van der Crabben (baritone)
La Petite Bande
Sigiswald Kuijken
Rec 20-22 November 1999, Athen
Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472 77528 2 [68.26]
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What were Bach's performing forces for his cycles of cantatas at Leipzig? No-one knows for sure, and those who are best informed don't necessarily agree. They were not large, certainly, but were the vocal contributions one-to-a-part even in the choruses and chorales? That is what Sigiswald Kuijken advocates here, following the precedent of Joshua Rifkin, and the results are interesting and vital, though by no means conclusive.

These three performances were recorded live, with a commendably silent audience and a nicely resonant church acoustic. The music-making has great spontaneity and once Kuijken begins a movement, the tempo feels as though it could not possibly be otherwise - which in Bach of course it can. For this is musicianship of some distinction, Bach delivered with great concern for textural details and expressive turn of phrase. There is none of that ultra-fast driving of tempo which can (to my ears) mar Eliot Gardiner's Bach; nor the leaden dragging of which the older German school could sometimes be guilty.

The 'orchestra', if we can call it that, numbers fourteen including organ continuo. None of these pieces requires large forces; only flutes and oboes join the strings. But each, of course, has its own special flavour. The latest of them - from 1735 - has the earliest BWV number, confirming that the numbering of the cantatas makes no chronological sense. Cantata No. 9 includes some splendid concertante writing for the woodwinds, and develops its material from the chorale melody sung by the soprano, based on a hymn by Paul Speratus dating from 1523. No. 94 was composed in 1724. It is another chorale-cantata, this time featuring an obbligato flute, quite beautifully played by Sigiswald's brother Barthold. Cantata No. 187 opens with a lively ensemble (chorus) founded upon an orchestral ritornello. More than any single movement among these cantatas, this exemplifies the strengths of the performances: lively, bouncing rhythms, clear and balanced textures, bright-toned voices with excellent articulation. The performances convince entirely, though as one who loves the richness of Bach's choral writing, I cannot help but feel I'd like them even more with just a few extra voices added as appropriate to the choruses and chorales.

The production and publication standards are of the highest order, with insert notes by Kuijken himself and full texts and translations.

Terry Barfoot

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