Most of Bach’s cantatas contain important parts for the whole
choir, but there are a few where the choir enters only in the
concluding chorale or not at all. This may have been due to his
desire to rest the choir occasionally or may have arisen as an
opportunity to give important roles to the few professional singers
whom he had at his disposal. Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi
has already offered us such recordings of cantatas for alto –
of which more anon – and bass soloists.
is one of a number of Ton Koopman’s Bach Cantata recordings
which lie outside the Complete Edition, commenced under Erato
and completed by Challenge Classics. (The label’s ‘Antoine
Marchand’ logo is a thin disguise for Koopman himself, since
it represents his name in French.) I presume that the present
performances are taken from that well-received series, though
neither the booklet nor the Challenge website makes this clear.
I understand that they are intended to retail at upper-mid-
rather than full-price, which, perhaps, explains their very
plain and rather pointless monochrome covers, contrasting
with the attractive cover designs of that Complete Edition.
It may also explain, but cannot excuse, the absence of texts
– the listener is not even directed to a website – when some
bargain-price CDs contain these.
is, however, nothing penny-plain about the performances –
how could there be with such a line-up of soloists and with
Koopman at the helm? Apart from the fragmentary Cantata 200,
these are all amongst Bach’s best-known cantatas, though I
do not believe that any other recording couples them all,
so comparisons are of limited value.
nearest comparison offered by another recording is Scholl’s
competing with himself in Cantata 54 on a CD which also offers
Cantata 170 (HMC90 1644, with Collegium Vocale and Philippe
Herreweghe, coupling Cantata 35). The timings of Scholl’s
two performances of Widerstehe doch der Sünde are remarkably
consistent, whether with Herreweghe (11:03) or here with Koopman (11:06). His singing, too,
is equally beautiful in both accounts and I was happy with
the performance on the Koopman recording until I turned to
the Herreweghe version. There the more intense accompaniment
points the cantata’s message of resistance to sin more forcefully
and, therefore, more effectively. The Harmonia Mundi recorded
sound has a slight edge, too, though I have no real complaints
about the Challenge Classics version here or elsewhere.
cantatas are a sure-fire remedy for feeling a bit down: the
text of No.54 may be all about sin – this is a Lenten cantata
– but the music dances in places. Those good burghers of Weimar and Leipzig must have looked forward to Bach’s cantatas at the mid-point
of the four-hour long main Sunday service, the Hauptgottesdienst,
especially on a cold Sunday in Lent. They would surely have
appreciated singing as fine as that offered by Scholl on either
recording; from the version with Herreweghe, even more than
from the Koopman version, they would also have discovered
that beautiful, enlivening singing and a clear moral message
can go hand in hand.
170, too, the Scholl/Herreweghe account has a slight edge
on Bartosz’s for Koopman. Bartosz’s opening is rather too
understated, whether by design or accident I know not; though
she later makes up, she never quite equals Scholl. Herreweghe’s
slightly faster tempo, too (20:48 against Koopman’s 21:37) pays dividends. Both
versions bring out the consolatory nature of the cantata,
related to the Epistle for the day, Roman 6.3-11, with its
theme of Christ’s overcoming death. In this cantata, too,
though the soloist sings Mir ekelt mehr zu leben –
I hate to live any longer – the music dances along and both
Herreweghe’s and Koopman’s performances capture the mood of
hope at this point very well.
my large collection of Bach cantatas, the Scholl Harmonia
Mundi CD surfaces more regularly than most. My only reservations
concern its shortish playing time and the fact that it has
now reverted to full price after being available for a time
at mid price. Koopman offers better value – four-and-a-bit
cantatas against Herreweghe’s three – in very decent performances,
but I know which version I shall still turn to for Nos.54
and 170. Whichever version you choose, even if you are normally
averse to counter-tenors, you are likely to find Scholl’s
account of Cantata 35 rounds off Herreweghe’s very recommendable
CD. Bogna Bartosz and Christoph Prégardien on the Koopman
recording offer enjoyable versions of Nos.55 and 200. No.200
may be a fragment – we know neither its date nor the occasion
for which it was intended – but it is a beautiful fragment
and Bartosz does it justice, her performance at the end atoning
for the hesitant beginning.
my preference for the Harmonia Mundi versions of two of the
other cantatas, I enjoyed this CD; if you prefer Koopman’s
coupling, you may buy with confidence. One of the delights
is Koopman’s own organ accompaniment in the first two cantatas.
This is Koopman’s organ playing at its lucid best, free from
the agogic distortions to which he is occasionally prone.
withheld the ‘Thumbs-up’ accolade for the mean failure to
provide texts but the beautiful performance of No.200 which
closes the CD swayed me. Bach cantatas are the exception to
my rule about trying not to keep multiple versions of works
in my over-crowded collection; this CD will certainly be staying,
for all my slight reservations.
absence of texts may be remedied by recourse to the University
of Alberta website which offers links to numerous
versions of the original texts, translations and commentaries.
This omission apart, the booklet, with notes by Christoph
Wolff, author of The World of the Bach Cantatas, is
informative and the English translation comprehensible. These
notes are aimed at the general listener rather than the specialist
– they fail, for example, to mention Koopman’s justification
for performing the music at higher than ‘baroque’ pitch. Musicologists
will need to turn to one of Wolff’s scholarly books.