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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Solo Cantatas for Alto and Tenor
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust BWV 170, Dominica 6 post Trinitatis, 1726* [21:37]; Gott soll allein mein Herze haben BWV 169, Dominica 18 post Trinitatis, 1726* [23:55]; Widerstehe doch der Sünde BWV 54, Dominica Oculi (3rd Sunday in Lent, 1714)+ [11:06]; Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht BWV 55, Dominica 22 post Trinitatis, 1726^ [12:54]; Bekennen will ich seinen Namen BWV 200, Fragment, Unspecified occasion* [4:20]
*Bogna Bartosz (alto); +Andreas Scholl (alto); ^Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir/Ton Koopman (organ*)
rec. Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, 1995 (BWV 54), 2002 (BWV 55, 169, 200), 2003 (BWV 170)

Experience Classicsonline

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. 

This 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. 

There 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. 

The 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. 

Bach 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. 

In Cantata 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. 

From 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 singing beautiful. 

A fine 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. 

Despite 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.

I almost 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. 

The 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. 

Brian Wilson 


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