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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Kaffeekantate (Coffee Cantata) BWV211 (c.1732-4) [28:51]
Bauernkantate (Peasant Cantata) BWV212 (1742) [31:51]
Edith Mathis (soprano); Peter Schreier (tenor); Theo Adam (bass)
Kammerorchester Berlin/Peter Schreier
rec. 1977 – exact dates and venue not stated. ADD.
No notes or texts included.
Experience Classicsonline

If you thought Bach’s cantatas were all serious, religious works, you haven’t yet encountered these two secular cantatas. Well performed, as here, they are both great fun. 

In the Coffee Cantata, grumpy old Herr Schlendrian (Mr Stick-in-the mud) tries to ban his daughter Liesgen or Lieschen from partaking of the alco-pop of the day, coffee. By various devious methods, the daughter gets her own way - of course - and all ends happily. To add to the joke, the work was probably first performed in a coffee house. 

In the Peasant Cantata the singers praise their new lord before indulging in various rural goings-on; we hear the comments of an unnamed male peasant, whose interests stretch only as far as plenty of beer and a roll in the hay, and his less vulgar girlfriend Mieke. 

The texts of both works are rather complex: that of the Peasant Cantata is especially hard to follow, even for those whose German is sound, because it is sung in a kind of Mummerset, the peasant dialect of Upper Saxony. The text of the cantata, which celebrates the inauguration of Carl Heinrich von Dieskau as Kammerherr or Lord of the Manor of Kleinzchocher, near Leipzig, was written by Picander who, himself, was a local official in that district. 

Slightly confusingly, the 18th-Century German name for the beverage was ‘Coffee’, not ‘Kaffee’, as in modern German. The 18th-Century affectation of adding umlaut everywhere can also be confusing: “Da kömmt Herr Schlendrian.” That’s nothing compared to the complexity of the Peasant Cantata – if you think your German is good, just try the first stanza: 

Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet
An unsern Kammerherrn.
Ha gibt uns Bier, das steigt ins Heet,
Das ist der klare Kern.
Der Pfarr’ mag immer büse tun;
Ihr Speelleut, halt euch flink!
Der Kittel wackelt Mieken schun,
Das klene luse Ding.

[We’ve got a new boss, our chamberlain. He gives us beer that warms us, that’s clearly the kernel of the matter. The parson may always be angry; you players get ready to perform. Mieke’s already shaking her skirts, the naughty little thing.]

Which brings me to my most serious reservation about this recording: there are no texts. I know the argument – this is a budget issue, so let’s keep the costs down – but we really need to stand that argument on its head. Those most likely to buy this recording are precisely the people who most need the texts, first-time buyers who want to experiment a bit off the beaten track. They don’t even get a reference to a web-site where they can find the texts; at least Naxos do that, though I’m sorry even to see them penny-pinching to that extent on their recent issues. 

On this Berlin Classics recording there aren’t even any notes to summarise the action. The tracking is generous, 34 for the CD overall, each track listed with its opening words on the back cover of the gatefold sleeve – but what use is that to the novice listener who buys the CD on impulse and who, as a consequence of feeling shut out from what it’s all about, may never buy another Bach CD? 

Help is at hand, however: the texts of BWV211 and BWV212 in German and English are available online – follow the hyperlinks from the relevant BWV numbers in this sentence. Full scores are also available for BWV 211 and BWV212 (both quite large files). 

Peter Schreier acts as soloist in the Coffee Cantata and as director. I hadn’t realised that he had begun to conduct as early as 1977, though I knew that he did so later: the Philips version of the Mozart Requiem which he directs is one of the best available. He opens the Coffee Cantata with a clearly-sung introduction to the ensuing dialogue; when he reappears in Nun geht und sucht der alte Schlendrian (Now off goes Herr Schlendrian, track 9) he sings as solemnly as if he were taking the evangelist’s role in one of the Bach Passions.

The narrator’s role as straight man, a part which Schreier plays to perfection, contributes to the humour of this cantata. James Taylor on the Helmut Rilling recording (details below) is much more dramatic – fair enough in the opening narration, but rather overdone in Nun geht. 

Theo Adam, as Schlendrian, sings well but in Hat man nicht mit seinen Kindern (What a lot of trouble children are! tr.2) he concentrates too much on the quality of the singing and too little on the irritation that Herr Schlendrian is feeling, as he explains the countless ways in which Liesgen daily annoys him. Thomas Quasthoff for Rilling sounds that little bit more irritated from the start – the faster tempo helps. When Schlendrian starts to chide Liesgen in Du böses Kind, du loses Mädchen (You wicked child, you naughty girl! tr.3) Adam gets rather more into the part, but he still doesn’t quite match Quasthoff, who really relishes the word loses. 

Edith Mathis at first sounds suitably chastened by the rebuke but in Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee gut (How delicious coffee tastes, tr.4) she sounds a little too bel canto to convery Liesgen’s girlish delight in partaking of the demon drink. In her reply to Wenn du mir nicht den Coffee läßt (If you don’t stop drinking coffee, tr.5) she does sometimes adopt an appropriately wheedling tone and I can forgive her everything for her account of Heute noch (This very day, tr.8), the longest aria in the cantata, which she sings to perfection. 

Christine Schäfer sings well, too, on the Rilling recording, and manages to sound more girlish. In Ei! Wie schmeckt, she sounds really ‘sent’ at the mere mention of the desired beverage. 

Thus, both Berlin Classics protagonists sing very well but neither is as fully in part as their competitors. All three soloists, however, capture the fun of the piece with their spirited rendition of the final chorus, Die Katze läßt das Mausen nicht (The cat won’t leave the mouse alone, tr.10). They sing this terzetto as an ensemble piece, whereas Rilling’s singers sound more like three soloists. 

The Kammerorchester Berlin offer stylish support, including a discreet but clearly audible harpsichord continuo. The opening Sinfonia of the Peasant Cantata is meant to sound rustic – something like a cross between Leopold Mozart’s Musical Sleigh Ride and his son’s Musical Joke – and the orchestra handle this rusticity to perfection. Rilling’s Bach-Collegium players are slightly more sprightly but hardly any more idiomatic. 

If Schreier’s singers again fail to capture the rusticity of their roles, that is less important than their failure to get fully into their parts in the Coffee Cantata. After the opening Sinfonia and the first two arias, Picander drops the tedious dialect – Mieke even refers to the new chamberlain as trefflich, a literary word not normally to be found in the mouths of peasants – and Bach, too, largely drops the rustic pretence. These are Meissen figurines of peasants rather than the real thing, so we are at liberty to judge them by the quality of their artistry. 

Again it is Edith Mathis who steals the show, especially in Unser trefflicher lieber Kammerherr (Our excellent, dear master, tr.18). Excellent as Christine Schäfer’s singing is on the Rilling recording, she is a little matter-of-fact here and it is Edith Mathis who takes the honours in this aria. Mathis might, however, have relished the word trinken more, as she anticipates the pleasure of drinking in the pub on track 32. 

Of course, Mathis doesn’t have to try as hard as Theo Adam to get in part here, since Mieke is meant to be rather more refined – and Adam does sing Dein Wachstum sei feste (May your increase be steady, tr.30) impressively; his voice really captures the laughter of the words und lache vor lust (and laugh for joy). Here Rilling’s fastish tempo does not allow Quasthoff to be quite so effective. In fünfzig Thaler bares Geld (Fifty dollars ready cash, tr.21), however, Quasthoff has the edge over Adam; whereas Rilling’s faster tempo on tr.30 is not to the music’s advantage, the opposite is true here. 

Both soloists join in a jolly rendition of the final chorus, Wir gehn nun (Off we go, tr.34) where the music anticipates the drone of the Dudelsack or bagpipe which awaits them at the pub. Both recordings are rounded off by lively performances of this – if anything, Rilling’s slightly faster tempo is more effective, but it is a close-run thing. 

The Berlin recording is good throughout, with no indication of its age or analogue origin. 

Available choice for this coupling is rather limited. I can’t speak from personal knowledge of the Naxos version (8.550641) conducted by Matyas Antal; though I have heard some of his other Bach cantata recordings and found them more than acceptable, the one review of this recording which I have seen is hardly encouraging. His tempos, as listed on the Naxos website, seem brisk – closer to those of Rilling than to Schreier – but it would be unwise to go for this version.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the Decca Oiseau-Lyre recording with Emma Kirkby and Christopher Hogwood has not succumbed to what I thought had been a nigh-universal deletion of that series: I am pleased to report that it is still available on 417 621 2. This remains a clear overall recommendation. 

The Rilling versions, which I have used as my benchmark for these two works, are split across two Hänssler CDs: BWV210 and 211 on 92.066 and 212/213 on 92.067, both at mid-price, around £9.50 in the UK. Inconvenient as the coupling is, you get two other fine works, well performed, the beautiful Wedding Cantata O holder Tag, beautifully sung on the first CD, and the mini-drama Herkules am Scheideweg (Hercules at the Crossroads) on the second. 

Vocal honours are about even between the Schreier and Rilling versions, though Rilling’s soloists are, as indicated, sometimes more in character. Rilling’s generally faster tempi sometimes work well, but not always. The fact that I lean towards Rilling overall – I award him the ‘thumbs-up’ accolade rather than Schreier – may be due more to my long familiarity with his whole set of Bach’s secular cantatas than to any inherent superiority. 

The version of the Coffee Cantata on the Bach Collegium/Suzuki recording is, like the Rilling, coupled with the Wedding Cantata. My MusicWeb colleague found this version somewhat lacking in comparison with the Kirby/Hogwood recording (see review), though other reviewers reacted more positively. 

Whichever version you choose, this is music to enjoy and the Berlin recording certainly allows it to be enjoyed.

Brian Wilson



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