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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1739)
Erschallet, ihr Lieder, BWV 172 (1714) [20:29]
Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182 (1714) [28.33]
Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21 (1714) [38:55]
Emma Kirkby (soprano); Michael Chance (counter-tenor); Charles Daniels (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass); The Purcell Quartet
rec. 22-24 May 2007, St. Jude on the Hill, Hampstead
2 CDs for the price of 1
CHANDOS CHAN0752(2) [49.04 + 38.55]
Experience Classicsonline

This is the third volume in the Chandos survey of Bach’s early cantatas (see review of Weimar vol. I). As with previous issues these cantatas are sung one voice to a part by a distinguished quartet of soloists. The soloists sing the chorales and choruses as well – the complete single-voice approach. In principle I welcome this mode of performance, and have on my library shelves some superb examples of Bach performed by single voices. The four singers in this case are accompanied by an ensemble of just twelve instrumentalists. And, frankly, it is the instrumental playing which is the best thing on the disc.
There is some lovely singing here, particularly in the solo movements. But the singers are all very mature, with highly developed personalities and both Kirkby and Chance use a number of vocal tricks to negotiate the tricky vocal lines. Chance has a tendency to shade in and out of individual notes and Kirkby’s voice does not respond as flexibly in the upper ranges as it once did. This would not matter if we were just talking about solo movements as all four soloists still have a vast amount of experience and skill to give and their solo contributions are well worth listening to.  In the choruses however, the singers are disappointing. They just don’t gel as a vocal entity and you long to hear the choruses sung by singers with a greater sense of line and a slightly less determined vocal identity.
There are just three cantatas on the discs and they make a fascinating trio. Erschallet, ihr Lieder uses drums and three trumpets to resounding effect to illustrate the opening words ‘Resound, ye songs, ring out, ye strings’. The cantata has a tricky textual history as Bach performed it a number of times, each with variants on the particular pitch standard used. The Purcell Quartet use the lower conservative key, but even so Kirkby sounds a little taxed at the very top of her range.  The cantata is a rather jubilant work, veering towards ecstatic joy at the prospect of heavenly eternity.
This is followed by a cantata which may be a re-working of an even earlier one. Himmelskönig, sei willkommen seems to have existed originally in a version for four voices plus trio sonata accompaniment. The additional parts were added later. It would have been interesting to hear the work in its original state and there would have been room on the disc. As it is we hear it in the state in which Bach performed it in 1714. It is similar in tone to the previous cantata, but instead of trumpets Bach gives us a more intimate heavenly conversation.
The final cantata of the set, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis also has textual problems as Bach re-used a separate work for the grand finale - with trumpets and drums. As that work originally had a five-part string texture, Bach had to make some hasty adaptations. Unusually for him, the piece never seems to have reached a definitive state. It is performed on this disc in the form in which it was given in 1714. The cantata is far more monumental than the previous two, with despair dominating the first half. The second opens with the Soul still in despair. Gradually hope dawns in the light of Jesus. Unlike the opening cantata on the disc, Bach holds back the trumpets and drums until the last glorious moment.
The advantage of this particular group of cantatas is that we can hear three of Bach’s works dating from the same period in 1714. The CD booklet contains an informative article giving a good background to the works, along with texts and translations. At 88 minutes the set has a rather short playing time. You can’t help wishing that they’d managed to fit another cantata onto the discs.
There is much to enjoy here including fine instrumental playing and, thanks to the small-scale forces of the Purcell Quartet, some splendidly transparent textures. Whilst this set is certainly recommendable for anyone interested in Bach’s early cantatas, the solo singing is not quite up to the high standards set by the instrumental contribution.
Robert Hugill


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