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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas with Violoncello Piccolo
Cantata No.41: Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, BWV41 (New Year, 1725) [26:48]
Cantata No.6: Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden, BWV6 (Easter Monday, 1725) [19:18]
Cantata No.68: Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV68 (Pentecost (Whit) Monday, 1725) [16:14]
Barbara Schlick (soprano); Andreas Scholl (counter-tenor); Christoph Prégardien (tenor); Gotthold Schwarz (bass)
Chœur de Chambre Accentus/Laurence Equilbey
Ensemble Baroque de Limoges/Christophe Coin (cello and conductor)
rec. Ponitz Church, Thüringen, Germany, October, 1995. DDD.
Texts with English and French translations included.
NAÏVE VOIX BAROQUE E8918
[62:20]

 

Experience Classicsonline


This is a straight re-release of Auvidis-Astrée E8555; indeed, the jewel-case and the CD itself are the Astrée originals, newly wrapped in the cardboard outer sleeve used for all these Naïve Baroque Voices recordings. Those recordings from this series which have so far come my way – Handel’s Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (OP30440, 2 CDs) (see review) and Monteverdi Madrigals Book V (OP30445), both directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini – have been excellent and the new recording is no exception. 

These may not be Bach’s best-known works but you can’t go wrong with JSB – no wonder that so many jazz musicians adore him – and you won’t find a single dud among the Cantatas. It was with good reason that Schmieder placed the Cantatas first in his BWV catalogue. If I ever feel a bit down in the mouth, listening to a Bach Cantata is a sure-fire remedy, and the new recording will serve better than most in that respect. Even with so many fine Bach Cantata recordings which have appeared since 1996 – Gardiner, Suzuki and Koopman chief among them – at its new price this is as clear a Bargain of the Month as any. If you don’t want to bother reading the rest of the review, just place your order. 

The connection between these Cantatas is twofold: they were all first performed in 1725 and they all feature the small cello or violoncello piccolo. It would appear that Bach had access to the services of a performer on this instrument in the first half of that year. (See Boyd M, The Master Musicians: Bach, London: Dent, 1983, 1990, pp.133-4, for this and similar examples of fortuitous instrumental availability.) On this recording the instrument is in the capable hands of the conductor, Christophe Coin. 

By coincidence, these Cantatas also relate to second-best celebrations – BWV41 to New Year’s Day rather than the Circumcision, also celebrated on January 1st, BWV6 and BWV68 to the second days of two major festivals. There is nothing second-best about the music, however, or the performances. 

John Eliot Gardiner’s performances on his own SDG label are more logically coupled: BWV6, for example, with other Eastertide Cantatas on a reasonably-priced 2-CD set (SDG128). Some may prefer this kind of association: I must admit myself to liking the convenience of the DGG Archiv boxes of Karl Richter’s versions, the Easter Cantatas collected on 439 374 2 (5 CDs for around £27) and the Ascension, Whitsun and Trinity Cantatas on 439 380 2 (6 CDs around £32). Better value still for the completist is the set of 75 Cantatas on 439 368 2 (26 CDs for around £130). 

Those Richter performances have worn pretty well, too, though they inevitably sound a little four-square by comparison with Coin or Gardiner. They’re not really sluggish, though, just a little more expansive – Richter’s BWV6 takes 20:28 against Coin’s 19:18 and his BWV68 runs for 17:52 against Coin’s 16:14. With superb soloists such as Edith Mathis, Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, these Richter versions are by no means to be dismissed. I certainly shan’t be jettisoning them any time soon – I may even add the Advent/Christmas box (439 369 2) which I never got round to buying (4 CDs for around £21) – but I suspect that this Naïve reissue will be a more frequent visitor to my CD player. 

The festive opening of BWV41 takes a little time to get off the ground, the chorus not quite together at first, but matters soon improve. Coin does not opt for the one-voice-per-part theory but neither his medium-sized choir nor the instrumentalists ever swamp the music. The soloists are well set back on the sound stage, which is better than having them too close. The very names of the soloists are almost a guarantee of quality singing. Andreas Scholl in particular – a pluralist in recordings of the Bach Cantatas – equals his performances of this repertoire with Herreweghe and Koopman. I don’t mean to disparage the other soloists when I say that his appearance, on track 3 – his sole appearance on the CD – almost eclipses their performances. The instrumental playing is also good, small niggles about the trumpets apart. The good burghers would have gone home contended to their Mittagessen if the performance they heard on 01.01.1725 was as good as that here. 

The Gospel for Easter Monday relates the strange story of the appearance of Jesus to the travellers on the road to Emmaus. The opening Chorale of BWV6 sets the words of the two followers, bidding the mysterious stranger to stay with them as evening approaches and the remainder of the work takes the form of a meditation on and expansion of those words by the soprano, bass and tenor, before the final Chorale which extends the initial supplication to a prayer for protection throughout eternity. 

It is possible to make the Emmaus story dramatic – as witness Caravaggio’s painting in the London National Gallery where the disciple’s arm, flung wide at the moment of discovery that this is indeed Jesus breaking the bread, emerges 3D-like from the canvas. Drama there had been the previous day, with the first performance of Bach’s Easter Oratorio, but Bach and his librettist opted for a quieter, more reflective style in BWV6, well captured by all concerned here. 

The text of BWV68 also opens with words from the Gospel for the day, on St John’s favourite theme of love: “God so loved the world that he gave His only-begotten Son.” Between these words and the sting in the tail in the closing Chorale, that all who fail to believe are condemned, the Cantata again provides a set of meditations on and expansions of that opening. Once again, all concerned here rise to the occasion. Barbara Schlick really excels in the best-known aria, Mein gläubiges Herze, splendidly accompanied by Coin on the violoncello piccolo (tr.14). 

The recording throughout comes close to matching the excellence of the performances. You may wish to turn the volume up a notch to compensate for the relatively backward placing of the soloists. Barbara Schlick suffers most from this, but it isn’t a serious problem. The booklet, a straight reprint of the original, is helpful and informative; the English translation is idiomatic. My only complaint is that the font employed is very small, especially in the texts and translations; at this small size (8 point or less) a sans-serif font would have been more legible. The CD cover depicts Leipzig in 1750; the outer cardboard sleeve displays an enigmatic fragment of van der Weyden’s portrait of Duke Philippe of Burgundy. 

This may not be the most essential Bach recording, but otherwise I cannot recommend it too strongly – and I repeat that there isn’t a single dud here or elsewhere among Bach’s Cantatas. These performers made two other Bach Cantata recordings for Astrée – may we now have reissues of them, please?

Brian Wilson





 


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