Bach's cantatas are music's greatest treasure-trove,
but for the discerning music lover discovering their riches becomes
more and more possible. The recorded performances of this repertoire
are many and varied, and hearing this wonderful treasury of great music
in fresh and scholarly interpretations such as those directed by Ton
Koopman is to undertake a real voyage of discovery. And with more than
two hundred surviving cantatas, there is always more to discover.
This set of three CDs is Volume 12 of Koopman's survey,
and the eleven works gathered here lie right at the heart of Bach's
achievement in this field. They are taken from the composer's second
cycle of Leipzig cantatas, dating from 1724 and 1725, when his preference
was to develop the compositions from the reference source of the chosen
chorale theme. In the hands of a master such as Bach, this seemingly
restricting policy served only to concentrate his genius. Therefore
the variety and ingenuity and insight are nothing less than extraordinary.
What of the performances? They are good; good enough,
in fact, to make the listener feel that the music could not possibly
sound otherwise. With Bach of all composers, of course, nothing could
be further from the truth, but no matter. Anyone investing in these
discs will gain great pleasure from them.
Koopman is a particularly good judge of tempo, maintaining
momentum and vitality at the same time as allowing the music to breathe,
which is sensible when singing is involved (there is none of John Eliot
Gardiner's rushing here). Perhaps the best example of this successful
balance comes with the opening chorus of Cantata 99, 'Was Gott tut,
das ist wohlgetan ('What God does is with reason done'). The bouncing
rhythms are just right, so that the details of strings, woodwinds and
voices can simultaneously be heard, and the attractive melodic contour
is effortlessly projected.
Koopman's soloists and chorus are very good too, though
sometimes the expressive possibilities of the music might be more indulged.
Philippe Herreweghe (Virgin VBD5 61721-2), for example, is a more committed
guide to the emotional world of Cantata 107. But that is not to deny
Koopman's success in this piece, simply his view is different, and he
is aided by some particularly good singing from his tenor, Christoph
Prégardien, who in fact is excellent throughout the set.
The balancing of instrumental lines with vocal lines
is another of Koopman's strengths. Sometimes, indeed the results are
outstanding, as for example in the playing of the oboe d'amore obbligati
in Cantata 124. If Prégardien is the best of the solo voices,
the others are never less than satisfactory. Klaus Mertens gets the
opportunity to indulge the quality of his rich bass voice in Cantatas
8 and 78 in particular, in which he is perhaps the central focus in
articulating the musical tone. Yet these obvious highlights apart, the
solo singing does not really capture the attention. For Koopman's casting
of solo voices does not have the stamp of authority that we find, for
example, in the performances of Helmuth Rilling (Hänssler), though
of course this is because his priorities are different. The music does
offer these opportunities, but since Bach's concertists (solo voices)
were simply members of his chorus, star singers were not his priority.
The recorded sound is entirely natural, the ambience
just right for this repertoire. The booklet is substantial and informative,
with full texts and translations, and there is no question that all-round
this issue is a quality product. Koopman's performances are eminently
sane and beautifully judged. If there are moments when he misses the
opportunity to project greater intensity and drama, that is because
his judgement took him elsewhere. For the listener, the best performance
of Bach must always be 'the next one'; which is not to deny the rewards
of returning to these beautifully judged performances again and again.