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Johann Sebastian Bach - Legendary Recordings
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Johannes-Passion BWV 245 [130:27]
Agnes Giebel (soprano)/Marga Höffgen (contralto)/Ernst Häfliger (tenor)/Franz Kelch (bass – Jesus)/Hans-Olaf Hudemann (bass – arias)/Thomanerchor Leipzig/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Günther Ramin
rec. October 1954, Thomaskirche, Leipzig
Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten BWV 59 [12:56]
Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen BWV 51* [20:05]
Magnificat in D major BWV 243 [31:48]
Agnes Giebel (soprano)/Marga Höffgen (contralto)/Hans-Joachim Rotzsch (tenor)/Theo Adam (bass)/Hermann Prey (bass)/*Armin Männel (trumpet)/ Thomanerchor Leipzig/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Thomas
rec. June and December 1959, Thomaskirche, Leipzig
Wiederstehe doch der Sünde BWV 54 [13:26]
Ich habe genug BWV 82 [26:56]
Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen BWV 56 [22:13]
Marga Höffgen (contralto)/ Hermann Prey (bass)
Thomanerchor Leipzig/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Thomas
rec. December 1959, Thomaskirche, Leipzig
Motetten:-
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 225 [15:40]
Der Geist hilft unsrer Schwachheit auf BWV 226 [8:43]
Jesu, meine Freude BWV 227 [22:46]
Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir BWV 228 [9:31]
Komm, Jesu, komm BWV 229 [9:36]
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden BWV 230 [7:26]
Thomanerchor Leipzig/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Thomas
rec. Leipzig 1958/1959
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott BWV 80 [28:33]
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme BWV 140 [28:38]
Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht BWV 55* [15:41]
Agnes Giebel (soprano)/Hertha Töpper (alto)/Peter Schreier (tenor)/Theo Adam (bass)/ Thomanerchor Leipzig/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Erhard Mauersberger
rec. October 1966, Thomaskirche, Leipzig; *April 1968Versöhnungskirche, Leipzig
Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee von Himmel fällt BWV 18 [16:33]
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 62 [23:26]
Jesu, der du meine Seele BWV78* [24:12]
Adele Stolte (soprano)/Gerda Schriever (alto)/*Annelies Burmeister (alto)/ Peter Schreier (tenor)/Theo Adam (bass)/Thomanerchor Leipzig/Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Erhard Mauersberger
rec, November 1967, Haus Auensee, Leipzig; *November 1970 Versöhnungskirche, Leipzig
Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren BWV137 [15:07]
Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis BWV 21* [39:42]
Arleen Auger (soprano)/Ortrun Wenkel (contralto)/ Peter Schreier (tenor)/Theo Adam (bass)/*Siegfried Lorenz (bass)/Thomanerchor Leipzig/Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum/ Hans-Joachim Rotzch
rec. 1981/1982 and *1982/1983, Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig
Gottes Zeit ist der allerbeste Zeit (Actus tragicus) BWV 106* [23:02]
Rosemarie Lang (alto)/Dieter Weimann (tenor)/Hermann Christian Polster (bass)
Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret BWV 31 [22:44]
Helga Termer (soprano)/Eberhard Büchner (tenor)/ Hermann Christian Polster (bass)
Erfreut Euch, ihr Herzen BWV 66
Heidi Riess (alto)/ Eberhard Büchner (tenor)/Siegfried Lorenz (bass)/Thomanerchor Leipzig/Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum/ Hans-Joachim Rotzch
rec. * 1975, Haus Auensee, Leipzig; 1976, Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig
Erschallet ihr Lieder BWV 172 [22:00]
Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt BWV 68 [16:09]
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern BWV 1* [21:32]
Arleen Auger (soprano)/Ortrun Wenkel (contralto)/ Peter Schreier (tenor)/Theo Adam (bass)/*Siegfried Lorenz (bass)/Thomanerchor Leipzig/Neues Bachisches Collegium/ Hans-Joachim Rotzch
rec 1981 and *1981-83, Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig
BERLIN CLASSICS 0183942BC [10 CDs: 65:20 + 65: 07 + 65:04 + 62:55 + 74:23 + 73:06 +_ 64: 24 + 54:58 + 77: 37 + 59:58]



 

The choral foundation at the Thomaskirche, Leipzig, dates back as far as 1212 and the records of the Cantors, responsible for the music there, go back at least as far as the late fifteenth century. Johann Sebastian Bach was Cantor between 1723 and 1750 and this ten-disc set lets us hear examples of his sacred choral music conducted by four of his successors in the post. In chronological order of service these are Günther Ramin (Cantor 1940-1956); Kurt Thomas (1957-1960); Erhard Mauersberger (1961-1972); and Hans-Joachim Rotzsch (1972-1991).

The set is revealing in all sorts of ways, not least in showing how styles of Bach performance changed over the second half of the twentieth century. It also offers a vivid illustration of the advances in choral singing during the same period.

The first two discs contain a 1954 performance of the St John Passion directed by Günther Ramin (1898-1956). The performance has two major attractions: one is singing of Ernst Häfliger, who sings the tenor arias as well as the role of the Evangelist; the other is the presence of the peerless Agnes Giebel, one of the finest of all Bach sopranos.

Häfliger is a first-rate Evangelist. He sings with clarity and intelligence throughout and his identification with the text is complete. He really tells the story and his tone throughout the compass of his voice, his forward projection and his clear diction consistently give pleasure. I was a little less happy with the arias. He sings the very difficult ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ with a good, full voice. However, when it comes to the equally demanding ‘Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken’ he sounds as if the cruel tessitura has put him under strain once or twice. Frankly this aria needs a lighter touch than either Häfliger or his conductor supply.

Franz Kelch sings the role of Jesus, as he was to do a few years later for Fritz Werner [review], a recording in which Marga Höffgen also appeared. Kelch is not in the same league as Häfliger. His singing is somewhat heavy, as at ‘Redest du das vor dir selbst’ in the scene in Part One with Pilate (CD 1, track 26). But I don’t think Ramin helps him very much, consistently setting tempi for Kelch’s passages that are slow, often to the point of being ponderous. There’s an example of this just a few bars further on in the same track at the words ‘Mein Reich is nicht von dieser Welt’.

Marga Höffgen sings her arias well. In ‘Von den Stricken’ her voice is well controlled and she sings expressively without overdoing things. She and Ramin give a slow, intense performance of ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ Here too Höffgen is most expressive and she’s well supported by the obbligato cellist. However, even greater pleasure is provided by Agnes Giebel. She offers a lovely delivery in ‘Ich folge dir gleichfalls’, where her tone is light and silvery. Her singing in this aria is beautifully poised and I enjoyed too the hint of breathiness in the flute playing; I suspect the flautist may have been using a wooden instrument. Much later, in ‘Zerfliesse, mein Herze’, she’s gently beseeching in a way that I find most moving.

Unfortunately not all the singing is at this level and I’m sorry to say that one of the main problems I have with this performance lies in the singing of the choir itself. Listeners will notice a certain edge, even rawness in the tone from time to time. We hear this with their very first chords, on the word ‘Herr’ in the opening chorus. And it’s there again in the chorus ‘Wäre dieser nicht ein Überläter’ Actually, I find this edge not inappropriate, particularly in the crowd scenes. What’s much harder to take, however, is the all-too frequent fallibility of intonation, especially – but not solely – on the part of the trebles. One notices this, for instance, in the chorale ‘Wer hat dich so geschlagen’ in Part One. Another instance comes in the chorus ‘Sei gegrüsset, lieber Judenkönig’. Sadly, these are not the only examples and one’s listening pleasure is diminished as a result.

The conducting of Günther Ramin is clearly inspired by a deep devotion to and identification with the music and with the Passion story itself. I just wish I didn’t find his conducting so earthbound at times. The very opening of the piece offers a case in point. The orchestral introduction to the first chorus is one of the most extraordinarily intense passages in Western music. The tension should be screwed up inexorably so that the choir’s first cry of ‘Herr’ confronts the listener head-on. The choir’s singing at this point is actually quite arresting but what has preceded it is not. Ramin just doesn’t build up the tension in the way that, say, Benjamin Britten or John Eliot Gardiner does. Matters improve thereafter but this is never a reading that excites or involves me, I find. In Part Two the chorus ‘Wie haben ein Gesetz’ just lumbers along at a dreadfully ponderous tempo that robs the music of all energy. Yet, surprisingly, when the music is reprised just a few minutes later – ‘Lässet du diesen los’ - Ramin adopts a quicker speed, greatly to the music’s advantage. Yet he and the choir do some good things too, In Part Two, when the soldiers divide Christ’s clothing – ‘Lasset uns den nicht zerteilen’ – the singers display a rare lightness and I very much like the way that Ramin builds the excitement by means of a very gradual crescendo. I feared that the final chorus, ‘Ruht woll’ might be on the slow side but in fact Ramin moves it on nicely.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about this performance but the deficiencies in the choral singing are a problem and Ramin’s direction is often too heavy for my taste and it hasn’t got sufficient fire and drive in it. This is a devotional work, to be sure, but it’s also a piece of religious theatre and a successful performance needs more of a sense of drama than I hear in this account. However, as part of this collection it’s welcome for the performances of Ernst Häfliger and Agnes Giebel in particular.

The next three discs offer us performances by Ramin’s successor as Cantor, Kurt Thomas (1904-1973). There are five cantatas plus performances of the Magnificat and the six Motets BWV 225-230. For me the pick of the bunch is Agnes Giebel’s performance of the cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen BWV 51. Her singing of the exultant opening aria has marvellous clarity and despite the demanding passagework she still takes great care with the words. The Recitativo that follows is paced a bit on the slow side but Giebel’s radiant singing makes one forget that. Her glorious delivery of the line ‘Wie priesen, was er an uns hat getan’ is a moment to savour and she ravishes the ear with a stream of pure silvery tone in the aria that follows. I felt that the duetting violins in the chorale movement were rather two prominent – it almost sounds like a movement from a Double Concerto with background vocal obbligato In the concluding ‘Alleluia’ aria the pace is quite steady but the performance exudes joy. Here, as in the opening movement, there’s a splendid contribution from trumpeter, Armin Männel. This is a quite marvellous performance and I’m delighted it’s been included.

I also enjoyed the account of Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten BWV 59, in which Theo Adam is the bass soloist, though this is not clear from the documentation. He and Agnes Giebel sing very well, with Giebel distinguishing herself particularly through the expressive and spacious way she delivers the recitative ‘O! was sind das für Ehren’. It’s also noticeable that the choral contribution is much better than was the case in the St. John from five years earlier. Here one can detect a much-improved intonation and there’s a much better body of sound and internal balance.

The performance of the Magnificat in D major BWV 243 is rather variable. It starts quite promisingly with a joyful rendition of the opening chorus but then Kurt Thomas adopts some tempi that I find rather stodgy, such as in the two soprano arias, ‘Et exultavit’ and ‘Quia respexit’, though the artistry of Agnes Giebel makes the latter, in particular, an enjoyable listen. Hermann Prey sounds a bit ponderous in his solos. It’s interesting to hear as the tenor soloist Hans-Joachim Rotzch, who was soon to become Cantor himself. He sings well. All in all, however, this doesn’t strike me as a very imaginative account of this great work.

Thomas’s second disc is devoted to three solo cantatas. Marga Höffgen is good in BWV 54. Hers is a true contralto voice and she sings with a good full tone. This is a strongly projected performance in which the singer puts quite a good deal of emphasis on the words, thereby illustrating the dangers of sin. I was less convinced by Hermann Prey’s performance of BWV 82. I’m afraid the sublime opening aria is taken at a pace that’s enervatingly slow. Prey and Thomas take 8:58 over this movement. Another singer from the same generation, Hans Hotter, requires only 8:08 in his 1950 reading (EMI) whole among more modern readings Janet Baker (1966, also EMI) takes 6:62, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (2002, Nonesuch) 7:40 and Thomas Quasthoff (2004, DG) 6:50. Though Prey sings well, even his vocal quality can’t save the day. The marvellous central aria, ‘Schlummert ein’, is similarly earthbound, taking 11:05. The concluding aria is a bit livelier but even here one can’t escape the general feeling of morose heaviness and matters aren’t improved by an emphatic orchestral bass line. This is not a performance to which I shall wish to return.

Prey is heard to better advantage in BWV 56. The opening aria is, again, very measured – Prey takes 8:26 against Quasthoff’s 7:00 – but at least there’s more nobility to be heard. The fine aria, ‘Endlich, endlich wird mein Joch’ features a nimble oboist and well articulated divisions from Prey and there’s a welcome spring in the step of the music even if the tempo is not as sprightly as some I’ve heard.

The third and final disc from Thomas brings us the six Motets, BWV 225 – 230. I wish that Berlin Classics could have tracked separately the various sections of each motet, such as BWV 227, which has no less than 11 sections. Sadly, however, each motet is presented as a single track. The performances are not particularly memorable, I fear. In part I wonder if this is because the choir was recorded with the microphones placed too closely. That places the choir under a scrutiny that they can’t always withstand. So, for instance, in BWV 225 there isn’t unanimity of ensemble in the first few bars and the intonation of the trebles is suspect at times and unfortunately these flaws are present throughout the performance of this piece. I don’t find sufficient rhythmic vitality; there’s no real spring in the key word ‘Singet.’ Later in the piece, when the counterpoint gets going, the choir sings lustily and with some energy but with little dynamic variety, I found listening a rather wearying experience. The slower second section (track 1 from 6:09) is better but I didn’t really care for the choir’s tone, which sounded edgy to me. Frankly, the singers sound challenged to their limits by this piece and the choral blend is not good. The performance of BWV 226 is more ingratiating because there’s more dynamic contrast in the singing and the choir sounds much better blended. The fugal section (track 2 from 4:23) is well delineated. .

BWV 227 has some good moments, such as the opening, where there’s welcome attention to dynamics, and the fifth section (track 3 from 6:46) where the singing has good bite. Against this, however, must be set the eighth section (from 13:20) where I hear more fallible intonation. BWV 229 is well projected and the choir sings it with conviction. In BWV 230 there’s ample vigour in the singing though I would have welcomed more evidence of light and shade. In all, this account of the Motets has some positive features but I can’t honestly say that the standard of performance or interpretation is consistently high enough.

Discs six and seven bring us examples of the work of Erhard Mauersberger (1903-1982). I found his performances more consistently enjoyable, not least because his pacing of the music is pretty good throughout. BWV 80 opens with vigour and strength in the choral singing. This first movement, in which Mauersberger rightly eschews the trumpets and drums added to the scoring after Bach’s death by his son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, is a superb invention. In his standard work, The Cantatas of J. S. Bach (1992) Alfred Dürr declares that this opening chorus "probably represents the high point of Bach’s chorale-based vocal music." That judgement is certainly vindicated by Mauersberger’s incisive performance. He benefits from a fine team of soloists with Theo Adam on trenchant form and Agnes Giebel radiant in the reposeful aria ‘Komm in mein Herzenshaus’. We also encounter Peter Schreier for the first time. In the first recitative that he sings, ‘So stehe dann’, he invests every word with meaning and his voice has that tangy ring that always made his singing so distinctive

BWV 140 is also a success. Giebel and Adam offer distinguished accounts of the two duets, in the second of which Willy Gerlach is the excellent and tireless oboist. The famous chorale ‘Zion hört die Wächter singen’ is sung as a solo by Schreier, a decision of which I approve very much. The final item on disc six features Schreier alone in the solo cantata Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht BWV 55. He does it very well and the distinctive grain and timbre of his voice suit this piece very well. The taxing tessitura of the opening aria, depicting "the writhing sinner" (Dürr), seems to pose him no problems at all and this cantata offers further evidence of his consummate skill in Bachian recitative. The aria, ‘Erbarme dich’, splendidly sung, also features a flute obbligato, which is excellently played.

On the second of Mauersberger’s discs it’s good to find Berlin Classics have included a cantata, BWV 18, that’s not as well known as some. It’s a cantata for Sexagesima Sunday and the libretto burns with Reformation zeal. One of it’s most unusual features, unique in the cantatas so far as I know, is the third movement. This takes the form of a recitativo for tenor and bass soloists, here the excellent Schreier and Adam. Their passages are punctuated by short passages of a Litany, sung by the soprano soloist, here Adele Stolte, each of which is followed by a brief response by the choir. The Litany includes one choice passage that reads, in Richard Jones’s translation: "And from the Turk’s and the Pope’s cruel murder and blasphemies, rages and storms, preserve us like a father." Strong stuff indeed! Agnes Stolte is a singer who I’ve not heard before but she does well in her aria ‘Mein Seelenschatz ist Gottes Wort’, where she receives support from a most effective obbligato furnished by four violas and two recorders in unison.

The other two cantatas are much more familiar. In the opening chorus of the Advent cantata BWV 62 it’s noticeable how much more secure in intonation the trebles sound than on earlier discs. The "joyfully soaring aria" (Dürr) ‘Bewundert, o Menschen, dies grosse Geheimnis’ is perfectly suited to Peter Schreier, who displays enviable breath control. Theo Adam is also well suited to the robust bass aria ‘Streite, siege, starker held!’ In the opening chorus of BWV 78 I admired the way Mauersberger brings out all the lines, both choral and orchestral, with clarity. The duet for soprano and alto is beautifully balanced and Schreier is once again equal to all the demands that Bach places on his solo tenor. The last aria in the piece, ‘Nun du wirst mein Gewissen stillen’, includes a rippling oboe obbligato, well taken here, which partners Adam in an excellent account of this vigorous aria.

The remainder of the set consists of three CDs in which the baton is in the hands of the immediate past Cantor, Hans-Joachim Rotzch. There’s another important change for these three discs in that the accompaniment is provided not by the Gewandhausorchester but by a specialist chamber orchestra, the Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum. This group, founded in 1979 by members of the Gewandhausorchester and playing on modern instruments, I believe, was named as a homage to the Collegium Musicum founded in Leipzig in 1702 by Telemann and which Bach himself directed from 1729.

BWV 137 is done well. The rich scoring includes timpani and a trio of trumpets. I enjoyed the lively account of the splendid opening chorus and also the following movement in which a charming violin obbligato decorates Otrun Wenkel’s aria, based on the well-known chorale melody. Later in the cantata the tenor aria, ‘Lobe den Herren, der deinen Stand’, brings another strong contribution from Peter Schreier. The other cantata on this disc is the masterly BWV 21, a large-scale work in no less than eleven movements. Rotzch unfolds the opening sinfonia spaciously and then gets responsive singing from the choir in the chorus that follows. This is followed by the concise soprano aria ‘Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not’, of which Alfred Dürr writes that it is "of such overwhelming expressive power that it might be considered one of the most moving arias that Bach ever wrote." Fortunately Arleen Auger is on hand to sing this eloquent creation with wonderful insight and she receives marvellous support from oboist Günter Heidrich. Miss Auger is also on excellent form in the later dialogue aria with Theo Adam and the listener’s pleasure is completed by Schreier’s fine account of the rejoicing aria ’Erfreue dich, Seele, erfreue dich, Herze’, for which his timbre seems ideally suited. All in all, this is a very satisfying account of the cantata.

The next disc brings us the early cantata BWV 106. I love this piece, which seems to me to be one of the most intimate in the whole canon. I’m not sure this performance fully delivers, however. The wonderfully luminous sinfonia, with its intertwining recorders, is taken a touch too slowly, I think. The choir sing their contribution well but it sounds to be a bit on the large side. I had the impression that in his 1964 recording [review] Fritz Werner opted for a reduced choir and his performance worked rather well. I thought. However, it sounds as if Rotzch just uses his standard forces and the sound is just a bit too heavy, though the choir sings well enough. Tenor Dieter Weimann has a clear, ringing voice but he seems to sing too strongly in his aria. On the other hand I like Hermann Christian Polster, the bass, who gives a nicely sprung account of ‘Bestelle dein Haus.’ To be fair there are more pluses than minuses in the performance of this cantata.

If BWV 106 is an intimate work then by contrast BWV 131 is a very public piece, including, as it does, timpani and three each of oboes and trumpets. The richly-scored sinfonia is jubilantly done and the celebrations continue in the first chorus. Here the trebles sound a little pressed on occasions but overall the movement is convincingly done. Polster is impressive in his recitativo and aria. The tenor, making his first appearance in the set, is Eberhard Büchner and he employs excellent clear and forward projection. He enunciates the words very well in his recitativo and he also impresses in the aria, ‘Adam muss in uns verwesen’. There’s a good contribution too from another series debutant, soprano Helga Termer. I hear a slight edge to her tone but nothing that causes concern and she sings the aria ‘Letzte Stunde, brich herein’ well.

The CD is completed by BWV 66. Here, the opening chorus of rejoicing, illuminated by a high trumpet, is buoyantly delivered. The bass aria, ‘Lasset dem Höchsten ein Danklied erschallen’, is an aria of gratitude and Siegfried Lorenz does it well. The cantata also includes a dialogue recitative and aria between Hope (tenor) and Fear (alto). Eberhard Büchner and Heidi Riess combine well and there’s also an excellent violin obbligato in their aria.

The tenth and final disc opens with a splendid cantata, BWV 172. Its festive opening chorus, illuminated by three shining trumpets, is perhaps taken here at a tempo that’s a fraction too stately but the singing has refreshing bite. All three trumpets are also wheeled out by Bach for the splendid bass aria, ‘Heiligste Dreieinigkeit’ Theo Adam’s commanding voice is well suited to this music. Peter Schreier is equally successful in the heavenly aria ‘O Seelenparadies’ in which the music, in Dürr’s memorable phrase, "conveys the impression of release from all earthly gravity." Schreier is an eloquent advocate, though some may prefer to hear in this music a tenor with more of a touch of honey in his tone. The dialogue aria between the Soul (soprano) and the Holy Spirit (alto) finds Arleen Auger soaring rapturously while Ortrun Wenkel provides a solid foundation. For once the cantata ends with a reprise of the opening chorus and when the music is as thrilling as is the case in this cantata then I for one am delighted.

Then Rotzch gives us BWV 68. He invests the 12/8 rhythms of the opening chorus with a nice swing and the horn’s reinforcement of the soprano line is a shrewd touch on Bach’s part. This cantata contains one of Bach’s most celebrated arias, ‘Mein gläubiges Herze.’ This is a delightful inspiration and what a joy it is to hear Arleen Auger sing it so eagerly and radiantly. Recently, though I enjoyed greatly Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of this cantata as part of his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, I felt slightly uncomfortable with the fleet speed he adopted for this aria.[review] I have no such reservations about Rotzch’s pacing, which gives his soloist just the right amount of space, while allowing the music to skip with joy Like BWV 172 this cantata also ends with a chorus rather than a chorale. Here a trio of trombones provides additional sonority and the quiet end to the movement is well managed.

The last item in the collection is BWV 1. In the opening movement the inclusion of pairs of horns and oboi da caccia creates an extra richness in the scoring. Rotzch springs the rhythms nicely. There’s another enchanting aria performance from Arleen Auger to savour. You can almost see her smiling as she sings and the oboe da caccia obbligato contributes well. Perhaps the tempo could have been just a touch livelier but it’s still a lovely performance. We also get one more chance to enjoy Peter Schreier in the aria ‘Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten’ and yet again he delivers.

Summing up this collection is not easy. There are some performances that strike me as being less successful than others and often the less successful ones are the result either of stodgy tempi or choral singing that is less than excellent. In this connection, one thing that the collection does demonstrate is the extent to which standards of choral singing improved during the second half of the twentieth century. As will have been apparent from my detailed comments on the individual performances I don’t find Günther Ramin or Kurt Thomas to be the most imaginative of Bach conductors on the evidence of the recordings here assembled. However, in the case of Ramin we only have one work by which to judge him here, albeit a major one, and it may well be that other examples of his recorded legacy in Bach would show him in a much more favourable light.

What can’t be denied is the great devotion and commitment to Bach’s sacred music, and to the religious ideas that inspired it, that all four conductors demonstrate consistently. These are not conductors who think of these pieces as concert works. Rather it’s music that was in their very blood and was an integral part of their daily work as musicians serving at the Thomaskirche. These performances, even if one disagrees with points of detail, exude a natural conviction. They are part of a living, breathing tradition.

The solo work is consistently good, with some soloists - Auger, Giebel and Schreier in particular - standing out. As I’ve said the choral singing is more variable in quality but is consistently good under Mauersberger and Rotzch. The obbligato instrumental playing is uniformly good and often much better than that.

Inevitably, since the recordings span a period of nearly thirty years, the recorded sound is inconsistent, improving as the recordings become younger, but it’s never less than satisfactory. The documentation is a little disappointing. The full German texts of the cantatas are provided but there are no translations. The typefaces are of differing sizes and some are very difficult to read. Most seriously, however, the booklet note, which comes in English and German, is quite brief and not very satisfactory. It contains only scant information about both the Thomanerchor itself and about the four Cantors whose work is featured. I would have thought that since an important raison d’être of the project seems to be to celebrate the Bach performance tradition of the Thomaskirche and some of its recent Cantors more should have been said, for once, about the performers, especially as to many listeners these conductors will be little more than names. For those wanting to know more, some biographical information about all the conductors featured in this set can be found at http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Performers/Thomaskantors.htm

However, despite some shortcomings this is a most valuable and interesting set and lovers of Bach’s sacred music should certainly investigate it.

John Quinn

 


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