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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Complete Cantatas – Volume Six

CD 1 [61.45]
Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes BWV 76 [32.55]
Die Elenden sollen essen BWV 75 [28.50]
CD2 [61.23]
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 190 [16.18]
Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei BWV 179 [13.55]
Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten BWV 59 [10.48]
Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele BWV 69 [20.21]
CD3 [72.52]
Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft BWV 50 (incomplete) [3.24]
Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht BWV 186 [29.23]
Du Hirte Israel, höre BWV 104 [18.38]
Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele BWV 69a [18.13]
Nun ist das Heil un die Kraft BWV 50 (incomplete) [3.16]
Ruth Ziesak – soprano; Elisabeth von Magnus – alto;
Paul Agnew – tenor; Klaus Mertens – bass
The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir/Ton Koopman
rec April and September 1997, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
ANTOINE MARCHAND CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC 72206

 

Ton Koopman’s recorded series of complete cantatas of J S Bach began in 1994 with a projected gestation of 10 years. Therefore the last volumes should be coming out about now. Interesting to find that Erato, the original label, are already flogging the recordings for reissue elsewhere. Needless to say, the undertaking to record all of these fabulous works was always an expensive one and Ton Koopman’s group never do things by halves; before the recording sessions in Amsterdam’s lovely Waalse Kerk all of the cantatas to be included in any upcoming volume are performed in the major concert halls of the Netherlands and taken on international tour. The result of this format is that the music is well known to players and singers before rehearsals for the recordings even begin. This familiarity with the music does make a difference when the consistency of a project of this size is considered. Looking through earlier releases, and those that have come out since volume six was released one is struck most by the consistency of the personnel engaged. Both orchestra and choir show minimal change over the years, and although there has been some variation in the soloists, even that grouping is underpinned by the solidity of the bass Klaus Mertens, who has appeared on every disc. To anybody who has one or more volumes of this series a new volume comes like a return visit to the well known home of an old friend.

Of course, whether or not one likes the Ton Koopman approach is another matter, and a subjective one at that. Koopman probably has almost as many detractors as admirers but it is unarguable that he has taken a standpoint on the performance of baroque music and stuck to it over the years. Much discussion has occurred over the argument as to whether Bach intended his cantatas to be sung by choirs or soloists and there is hardly space to approach this topic here. Koopman favours the former view and the Amsterdam Baroque Choir was formed as a group of 18 professional singers specifically for this recording project. The balance of parts is five sopranos and tenors, four altos and basses. This might suggest a lack of solidity in the bass section, but bearing in mind that the bass part is almost invariably doubled by the orchestral continuo (in most of these performances a solid group of two ’cellos, double bass, bassoon and organ, there is certainly no problem with the sound in the choruses being properly anchored to the bass line. In considering a movement like that which opens the (incomplete) cantata No. 50 Nun ist das Heil un die Kraft the advisability of using a chorus seems obvious. A powerful fugue with subject entries rising from the bass there would seem a sense of weakness in this music using solo voices. Koopman’s singers are of such a calibre that there is no lack of precision and when the three trumpets and drums enter at the first episode the need for bold forces is obvious.

Mention of trumpets brings one to the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Here again, no matter what one’s views on Koopman’s approach, one can have nothing but admiration for this band. As mentioned above, they have a remarkable consistency of personnel and this really does show. So often one enjoys the vigour of the period instrument bands but laments the rough edges in the blending, especially of strings. In short, intonation is often just poor. The familiarity of the players of the ABO with each other actually shows. Since the cantata project began the group has been led by the violinist Margaret Faultless, with significant input from the cellist Jaap ter Linden. They way these two work to produce a unified approach to string playing has led this band to be probably the most consistent of any of the Dutch period instrument groups and their playing is always a tasteful joy. Especially in the passages of recitative where accompaniment is only Jaap ter Linden’s cello playing and Koopman at the organ there is wonderful blend of the bass lines and the often-sinuous recitative line above. This gives a resultant sense of purpose and beauty to what can otherwise seem often to be rather longwinded recitatives. Further instrumental delight is in the wind and brass playing. The winds benefit especially from the oboe playing of Marcel Ponseele. A characteristic warmth of tone and perfection of intonation set him apart from most players of the baroque oboe. Although Ponseele works with many of the continental groups he remains a distinctive feature of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra sound. Similarly the trumpet playing of Stephen Keavy, Jonathan Impett and James Ghigi has quite a different character from when these same English players work with other groups. There is a punch and almost stridency in the trumpet sound that commands attention. Certainly there is never anything half-hearted in the playing of the ABO.

The soloists also carry important parts in the cantatas of Bach. In the first volumes of this series the soprano soloist was usually Barbara Schlick. In latter volumes she has been substituted for a variety of sopranos, often drawn from the Amsterdam Baroque Choir. This has certainly provided variety, although one does tend to miss the lovely colours that Schlick brought to the arias. In this volume the soprano is Ruth Ziesak, who sings with a beauty of sound and a flow of line that is admirable. Nonetheless, in comparison with Barbara Schlick, there is not quite the same emotional depth underpinning the attractive sound. The same could be argued about the tenor Paul Agnew, in comparison to the more frequently engaged Christoph Prégardian. There seems to be an extra level of understanding that the soloists gain from long exposure to Koopman and the ABO. Paul Agnew certainly gives a completely convincing performance, but Prégardian just seemed to have an extra dimension in some of the earlier volumes. This same authority can be seen here in the tremendously dependable Klaus Mertens. The stalwart soloist par excellence, Mertens exudes gravitas throughout the volume, although his sound is not particularly large, nor low. It is the precision with which he executes the recitatives and running passages of aria that impresses. Of the alto Elisabeth von Magnus one could argue that she is the anachronism of the soloists as the use of the female contralto in Bach’s time would have been, at least, unlikely. The first two volumes of Koopman’s cycle used a male alto in the form of the German countertenor Kai Wessel, but he was replaced in volume three, and it has been von Magnus ever since. Sometimes in the solos it does sound a little odd, although, like the other soloists, she makes a consistently attractive noise. Von Magnus is, however, particularly good in ensemble situations where her voice blends with much greater ease than the more penetrating sound of a countertenor ever could. The Duet for soprano and alto Laß, Seele, kein Leiden von Jesu dich scheiden in the cantata No 186 Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht is a perfect example of blended polyphonic singing. Quite marvellous.

Certainly there are aspects of Ton Koopman’s recordings that are difficult to defend on musicological grounds, but what is unarguable about these performances is that every movement is inherently musical. The 1970s Leonhardt / Harnoncourt complete cantatas on Teldec (the first such cycle and a great undertaking in its time) went for the full historically accurate reconstruction using German boys choirs and drawing the soprano soloist for each recording from the ranks of trebles in those choirs. Historically accurate maybe, but the result was often teeth-grindingly uncomfortable to listen to. Invariably, a project on this scale requires choices to be made, and there are often other matters to consider than the purely historical if CDs are to be listenable, and sell in a 21st century context. Not everyone will agree with the choices that Koopman makes, of course, but he certainly has made all of his choices with musical considerations uppermost. This reviewer for one finds the results generally to be deeply satisfying performances of incomparable music.

Peter Wells

 


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