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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Vergnügte Ruh’, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV170 (1726)  [22:04]
Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV54 (1714)  [12:26]
Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV169* (1726) [24:15] 
James Bowman (counter-tenor), * with Gillian Fisher (soprano), John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Charles Pott (bass); The King’s Consort/Robert King
rec. Wadham College, Oxford, UK, 5-7 September, 1988.  DDD
Booklet with texts and translations
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55312 [59:03]
Experience Classicsonline

I listened to this 20-year-old recording immediately after the most recent volume in John Eliot Gardiner’s ongoing series of Bach cantatas on his own SDG label.  The SDG recordings (not of the same cantatas and not, therefore, directly comparable) were made much more recently.  Fine as are they and all the volumes I have heard to date, these Hyperion recordings actually made the SDG sound a little old-fashioned and slightly heavy in comparison.  I shall be recommending those SDG performances in a forthcoming Download Roundup, which makes my recommendation of the Hyperion reissue even firmer.
 
The second Cantata on the Bowman recording, Vergnügte Ruh, No.170, provides a very useful test case, since I first encountered it on a classic recording by Janet Baker with the ASMF and Neville Marriner, now available as a superb bargain on Australian Eloquence 476 2684.  Em Marshall recommended this recording, finding the performance ‘full of sensitivity’ despite a preference for the counter-tenor voice in Cantata 170 – see review.  The fact that I rate the Eloquence rather higher than EM is partly due to nostalgia – Janet Baker is one of those singers whom I’d gladly hear singing the contents of Yellow Pages – but hers is a classic recording which should be in everyone’s collection.
 
EM’s preferred counter-tenor in BWV170 was Andreas Scholl.  His version of Cantatas 35, 54 and 170 with Philippe Herreweghe (HMC90 1644) is a modern classic and almost as much a prized item in my collection as the Janet Baker – my only grouse is that it used to be available at mid price and has now reverted to full price.
 
The sleeve notes for the Hyperion reissue quote an original review of this CD in which the reviewer was convinced after hearing just the first three notes of BWV170.  It took me a little longer than that to place Bowman’s singing in the same very exalted category as Baker and Scholl – I had to overcome a very slight feeling that Bowman sounded just a trifle plummy in places – but I was soon convinced.  Scholl and Herreweghe are a little more fleet-footed (20:48 against 22:04 for Bowman/King) but the latter never plod and both interpretations make excellent sense in their own terms. 
 
Helmuth Rilling with the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart on Hänssler, with Julia Hamari as soloist, is a little slower still at 23:12 – that version, too, is well worth considering, though the coupling is less logical; instead of other cantatas for solo alto, as on Harmonia Mundi and Hyperion, Hänssler couple the cantatas in BWV order, with nos.169-171 sharing a mid-price CD, 92.051.  As it happens, BWV169 is another alto cantata, also on the Hyperion CD, but BWV171 is a work for four soloists.
 
Scholl’s HM CD also contains another cantata on the Hyperion reissue, BWV54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde.  He re-recorded this with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Ton Koopman in 2003 and that version has been re-coupled with another account of BWV170, this time with Bogna Batosz as the alto soloist, on Challenge Classics CC72282, which I reviewed and recommended recently.  I expressed a marginal preference then for the Harmonia Mundi versions and I must admit that the Challenge Classics version has not had much of an outing since I reviewed it.
 
The Bowman/King version of BWV54 is rather slower at 12:26 than either the Scholl/Herreweghe (11:03) or Batosz/Koopman (11:06) but it never sounds too slow.  This is, after all, a Lenten cantata, though one which goes with quite a swing.  All three versions blend the requisite weight with suitably Bachian lightness.  Though an early work, this cantata is one of Bach’s finest and well worth hearing in any one of these three excellent performances.
 
Bowman and King more than hold their own against the competition, especially when Rilling alone of those competitors offers BWV169, Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, another 1726 cantata which rounds off the Hyperion recording in excellent fashion.  Bach seems to have had an excellent alto soloist at his disposal in 1726, hence the preponderance of alto solo cantatas in that year.
 
BWV169 also features on the Rilling CD, this time with Carolyn Watkinson as soloist.  Rilling is a little faster than King (23:37 against 24:17) but this marginal difference is not reflected in the performances – both sound very well judged.  Rilling’s account of the opening Sinfonia goes with a real swing and I like the greater audibility of the organ in his version, but otherwise honours are about equal; Carolyn Watkinson is perhaps a little too operatic-sounding by comparison with Bowman but I wasn’t greatly troubled by this.  The Hyperion supporting soloists in the final chorale of BWV169 sing well – King’s use of solo voices here, as against Rilling’s chorus, places him in the Rifkin one-voice-to-a-part camp.  I’m happy with either, but marginally prefer King’s single-voice approach.
 
The Hänssler recordings are ADD – surprisingly when the recording dates are given as 1982 and 1983 – though they are none the worse for this; the other recordings to which I have referred are all DDD.  I have no complaints about any of them sound-wise; I could (and do) happily live with all the recordings that I have mentioned.  I genuinely wouldn’t want to be without any of them.
 
Hyperion offer the texts and translations and full annotation, even in this lowest price bracket; Challenge, at a rather higher mid price, stint on the texts, though their notes are scholarly and informative.  Harmonia Mundi also offer the texts and translations – did so, indeed, when their CD was at a lower price.  Though I (very marginally) prefer Watkinson and Rilling in BWV169, Scholl and Herreweghe in BWV54 and 170, and still hanker after Baker/Marriner in BWV170, I’m sure that the Bowman/King reissue will also be regularly taken out, played and enjoyed in our household.  As it’s also the joint least expensive and the best presented of the versions under consideration, it deserves to sell very well - even if it were more expensive.
 
Brian Wilson
 


 


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