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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas: Vol. 22

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80 [21:58]
Missa in G, BWV 236 [24:22]
Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30 [31:09]
Missa in F, BWV 233 [23:15]
Missa in A, BWV 234 [30:27]
Appendix: Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Gaudete omnes populi (Latin version of BWV 80, 1 & 5)
Angenehmes Wiederau, freue dich in deinen Auen, BWV 30a [32:54]
Missa in G, BWV 235 [26:02]
Sandrine Piau (BWV 30, 30a, 80), Johannette Zomer (BWV 233, 234, 236) (soprano); Bogna Bartosz, Nathalie Stutzmann (BWV 80) (alto); Jörg Dürmüller (BWV 235, 236), James Gilchrist (BWV 30, 80), Christoph Prégardien (BWV 30a) (tenor); Klaus Mertens (bass)
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir/Ton Koopman
rec. May, September, October 2002, October 2003, October, November 2004, November 2005, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam
ANTOINE MARCHAND CC72222 [3 CDs: 77:58 + 62:43 + 59:16]
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Less than half the 3+ hours running time in this final volume of Koopman’s cantatas cycle is actually taken up by cantatas.  Furthermore, two are very closely related, with five movements containing essentially the same music in each.  In addition to the cantatas, we have performances of Bach’s four missae, all of which are parodied from other works - although four movements have no traceable model.  The listener may thus be forgiven for dismissing these performances as non-essential, albeit potentially interesting.  However, having spent a considerable number of hours with this set, I am pleased to be able to recommend it wholeheartedly.  The standard of musicianship and vocal performance is very high indeed, even if the recording quality is sometimes lacking the warmth and richness associated with the likes of Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi) and Suzuki (BIS).
The first disc opens with BWV 80, one of Bach’s greatest cantatas, composed in its final incarnation for the Reformation Festival (October 31).  The opening chorus is widely recognized as one of Bach’s most brilliant contrapuntal masterpieces, in which an instrumental canon frames all four voices and continuo to produce a dense seven-part texture.  Some listeners may find the organ pedal used to reinforce the bass part in this movement too forceful – it certainly appears to drown out everything else at certain points.  However, I found it a rather fitting device for demonstrating the power of the text (‘A mighty fortress is our God, a sure defence and armour’).  Beyond the first movement, the cantata is also particularly notable for two beautiful duets (movements 2 and 7).  The second movement, for soprano and bass, is beautifully sung and the musicianship is superb.  Likewise, the pastoral movement 7, for alto and tenor, is exceptional here.  Indeed, listening to singing of this calibre has alerted me to one of the few relative weaknesses of the competing cantata project undertaken by Masaaki Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan (on the BIS label).  For all its many strengths, Suzuki’s series is sometimes let down by one or more of his vocalists.  Whereas that series is graced by many very fine soloists - and some, such as James Gilchrist appear in both series - they are not universally excellent.  Conversely, there does not seem to be a single weak point in Koopman’s choice of soloists – they all perform tremendously, at least throughout this volume.  Furthermore, Koopman is the most musical of directors and perhaps less interested than Suzuki in the message conveyed by the text.  This, of course, can either be an advantage or disadvantage depending on your predilections – but I find his emphasis on bringing out the musical texture of both instrumentation and voice highly persuasive.
BWV 30, also on the first disc, was written for the Feast of St John the Baptist (24 June), and first performed some time between 1738 and 1742.  It is a large-scale work, adapted from an earlier secular cantata BWV 30a (see below).  According to the booklet notes, the orchestral forces are identical in both works – however, this is not correct – Bach removed the three trumpet parts and the drums that are present in the secular work, presumably in order to provide a more solemn performance for the sacred feast.  Instead, BWV 30 is scored only for two flutes, two oboes, strings and continuo.  The work opens with a wonderful, driving chorus followed, after a bass recitative, by a pleasant if pedestrian aria, describing how John prepared the way for the Lord.  Bach’s adoption of his earlier secular music to provide new church music has been criticised through the years because the music is deemed an inappropriate ‘carrier’ of the sacred texts.  The alto aria (Part I, mv 5), has often been offered as a case in point, with W.G. Whitaker complaining that “there is absolutely no relation between text and music”!  For me, I have to say I don’t care whether the music fits the words or not here – it is simply one of Bach’s most beautiful musical creations.  If listeners agree, they may also want to dig out Magdalena Kozena’s rather wonderful performance in her disc of Bach Arias from 1997 (Archiv 457 367-2).
Other highlights of BWV 30 include a superb bass aria (Part II, mv 2), well sung by Mertens, although I found the tempo rather too brisk.  There is also a stinging soprano aria, with incisive and convincing playing by the orchestra.  Finally the formal opening chorus is repeated, rounding off an exhilarating and uplifting performance.
So how does this music sound in its originally intended secular setting (BWV 30a)?  The cantata was composed to honour Johann Christian von Hennicke, who was presented with a fiefdom near Leipzig in 1728.  The trumpets and drum (third disc, mv 1) certainly add great splendour to the opening chorus and none of the arias disappoint.  In this work (but not the sacred version), each vocal part takes on a ‘character’, with the soprano representing ‘time’, the alto playing the role of ‘fortune’, the river Elster represented by the tenor and ‘fate’ represented by the bass voice.  My comments on BWV 30 also apply here, with consistently excellent musicianship throughout.  Christoph Prégardien takes on the role of the tenor, but otherwise the vocalist line-up remains the same.  The only aria not to be borrowed for BWV 30 is mv 11, a short but pleasant piece expressively sung by Prégardien. 
The remainder of this volume is taken up by the four missae (plus movements 1 and 5 of BWV 80, parodied by W F Bach, but which have no place in J S Bach’s cantata).  These are relatively neglected works, although it is encouraging to see that a number of recordings have appeared in recent years perhaps most notably by the Purcell Quartet on the Chandos Chaconne label.  All the masses share a similar structure, beginning with a single Kyrie movement, followed by a four movement Gloria.  Although it may be inappropriate to consider individual movements out of the context of the entire work, I will highlight five movements as representing some of the finest music Bach ever composed.  In BWV 236, the Gloria chorus (mv 2), adapted from Cantata 79 is an astonishingly beautiful and powerful piece of music and played better here than in any other performance I have heard.  The duet for soprano and alto (mv 4), also originally from the same cantata, is similarly expressive.  The Cum Sancto Spiritu chorus that rounds off BWV 233 (second disc), taken from Cantata 40, has a wonderful horn section, brilliantly played by Andrew Clark and Jorge Renteira.  The gentle Kyrie from BWV 234, performed at a relaxed pace somehow reminds me of the majestic choral tradition exemplified by Karl Richter’s approach at its most refined.  Finally, the Domine Deus from the same work contains a glorious singing line for solo violin, played by the appropriately named Margaret Faultless.
Overall, I could find very little to fault in this final volume of Koopman’s series.  It has been a mammoth and sometimes problematic endeavour - including the series being shelved by Erato part way through completion and the setting up of the new Antoine Marchand label.  Considering how quickly the series has been organised, recorded and released, the quality is amazingly high and frequently matches or exceeds that of the other cantata projects currently under way.  This volume is an appropriately fine way of rounding off an important and excellent project.
Peter Bright


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