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JS BACH Cantatas BWV 80-90 (three CDs BWV 80-82 / 83-86 / 87-90)     Bach-Ensemble, Helmuth Rilling   hänssler CD92-026 (BWV 80-82), CD92-027 (BWV 83-86) and CD92-028 (BWV 87-90) [67:05 - 68:35 - 68:44]

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These three discs are released individually, and also as part of the hänssler complete Bach edition. Within that edition, they comprise a reissue of the project begun in 1970 by Helmuth Rilling to record the more obscure Bach cantatas, and which 15 years later had expanded to include all the composer's work in that form. The cantatas are sequenced by the BWV catalogue, which means that they are not in the order of composition, but then as the booklet points out, there are many ways to order this music. All the recordings have been given state-of-the-art digital remastering, with the result that the sound is consistently excellent: clear, refined, detailed, and with hiss all but inaudible unless the level is turned up to unnaturally high levels.

Documentation is excellent, with all the information virtually anyone could want, from recording dates, to track times, titles with listings of individual instruments, to full texts in German, English, French and Spanish. Invaluably, there is a full page of notes for each cantata, Dr. Andreas Bomba most knowledgeably documenting the theological context of the piece, date of first performance, author of the libretto, and particular points of musical structure and interest. These are not historically 'authentic' performances, but rather attempts to "convey the meaning of Bach's works to listeners who have a completely different background in every respect." Dr. Bamba goes to considerable pains to make us realise that Bach's 200 'sacred cantatas' is not 'art music' in the 20th century sense, but working, functional music, in the service of God. The purpose was to focus on and illuminate through the emotion and beauty of music, the Sunday sermon, and thus concentration on the text and some understanding of the Christian context is essential for a largely secular modern audience to gain more than the first level of purely musical pleasure from the cantatas. This of course is the danger of the music being elevated both so high in the classical cannon, and paradoxically, simultaneously lowered to the level of musical wallpaper, that it's actual meaning and function will be entirely overlooked. The worst insult we could offer Bach is to 'appreciate' him, however, it is doubtful how many listeners today are willing, or even able, to meet this music on even half-way terms.

Aware of this, Rilling has set out to communicate, and he has taken care to ensure that this music lives. When bass Philippe Huttenlocher sings "my compassion's love is too ardent" at the beginning of BWV 89 we believe him. There is a wholehearted sense of commitment evident though-out these recordings, even though inevitably over such an extensive project there is a wide number of performers from various parts of the classical tradition. Soprano Arleen Augér is probably the best known name here, but she is in excellent company alongside such names as tenor Adalbert Kraus and Walter Heldwein, bass.

Of course 'early music' performance has moved on since these recordings were made, and it is certainly possible to find 'better' recordings of the individual cantatas, or perhaps, simply those which better suite a particular taste. However, these versions were landmarks on first release and remain very rewarding today.


Gary S. Dalkin


Gary S. Dalkin

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