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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Actus Tragicus
Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 (1725) [19:58]
Ich hatte viel Bekummernis, BWV 21
(1725) [41:03]  
Barbara Schlick (soprano); Kai Wessel (alto); Guy de May (tenor); Klaus Mertens (bass)
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir/Ton Koopman
rec. 1994, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam. DDD
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72289 [61:01]

Experience Classicsonline


Recorded in 1994 for Erato, this pair of cantatas reappears on Challenge Classics, the label that has taken over Ton Koopman’s Bach cantatas project. The performances have a typical sensitivity, with female solo voices rather than male, and a mixed choral complement to match. The pitch is a semitone above modern pitch, and the instrumental playing wonderfully stylish under Koopman’s ever-alert direction.
 

These two cantatas date from earlier in Bach’s career. BWV 106, known as ‘Actus Tragicus’, was composed at Mulhausen in 1707, for a funeral or memorial service, and stands among the first manifestations of Bach’s greatness. The instrumentation is unique: two recorders, two violas da gamba and continuo, a combination appropriate to a funeral service. The initial sinfonia, with its prominent recorders, sets the tone, and here Koopman’s tempo is perfectly judged to create the context for the whole work. The sequence of vocal movements – arias, choruses and chorale – covers the usual range, and there are some fine examples of cantus firmus, a role well suited to the recorders, so beautifully balanced in this performance. 

The recorded perspective allows details to make their mark, while also bringing due attention to the nuances of the vocal line. While this is an early work, by Bach’s standards, it is by no means immature, and the extra degree of insight brought by experienced singers really tells. For this reason Koopman’s well considered performance can gain recommendation above that of Nikolaus Harnoncourt (Teldec 4509 91760-2), whose boys’ voices are no match for Barbara Schlick and Kai Wessel. 

BWV 21, Ich hatte viel Bekumneris, was written at Weimar around 1713, soon after Bach’s appointment there. This is a substantial work in its every respect, and it is a reflection of the impact that catchy names can make in the world of music that the ‘Actus Tragicus’, less than half its scale and scope, gets the major billing on the CD cover, and in large capital letters, moreover. In truth BWV 21 is the main attraction, excellent though BWV 106 may be. 

The complex history of BWV 21 confirms that it held a special place for Bach. Having originally composed the music for Weimar, he next used it in 1720 for a performance in the Jacobikirche at Hamburg, on which occasion he had travelled from Cothen, where he was then employed. It is rumoured that he may have been searching for a new appointment, while it is also possible that the music may have been performed at Cothen too. The last documented performance of the cantata took place soon after Bach arrived at Leipzig, in 1723. This was on 13 June, the third Sunday after Trinity. This was evidently a special occasion, since he added cornett and trombone parts to the choral ninth movement. 

In whichever version, the cantata traverses a wide musical and expressive range, including four soloists and featuring some dramatic exchanges between the singers representing Jesus (bass) and the Soul (soprano). Bach may not have written operas but he undoubtedly knew how to create a musical drama. Such description is not inappropriate to this performance, but there are others that offer and equally fine or even more dramatic experience for the listener. The Bach Collegium Stuttgart, directed by Helmuth Rilling, for instance (Hänssler 94028), has particularly fine contributions from Arleen Auger and Wolfgang Schöne. 

Ton Koopman is a notable Bach interpreter and these performances are well judged and sensitively drawn. The musicological decisions are always appropriate, such as tempi and the numbers of performances employed. It is not necessarily a first choice in either work, but at the same time this disc will not disappoint and will offer enduring rewards. 

Terry Barfoot 

 


 


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