Sigiswald Kuijken is coming to the end of his Bach pilgrimage.
It has taken in one cantata for each Sunday of the liturgical
year over a five year period. He hasn't quite managed the same
high profile as Gardiner or Suzuki in their similar projects,
nor indeed has Kuijken achieved the same uniformly high standards
as those eminent conductors. His is a more idiosyncratic cycle,
and I have had some reservations about the previous instalments.
Each disc is recorded in superior SACD audio, but the precision
of the engineering is not always matched by the performing style
of the orchestra. The sound has often been merciless in highlighting
suspect tuning in the strings and occasional balance problems.
That dichotomy is evident on this disc, of cantatas for Easter
Sunday and Monday, with the tight focus of the engineering often
at odds with the laid-back style of the performance. Fortunately,
the technical side of the playing here stands up to the forensic
scrutiny of the audio, which finds little wanting. On one occasion
there is some loud rattling of woodwind keys, which, considering
we are talking about baroque instruments, can only be coming
from the bassoon. One of the arias is accompanied by a tenor/bass
string instrument, which the orchestra list suggests is Kuijken
himself on the violoncello da spalla; an exotic choice of instrument
but not a particularly pleasant sound.
Otherwise, the timbres and textures are all very pleasing and
easy on the ear. This might be explained by the fact that both
of these cantatas, and BWV249 in particular, emphasise the wind
over the strings in most of their movements. The woodwind playing
is very good indeed. The players are just as relaxed in their
style as the strings, or at least give that impression while
playing with both precision and passion. Both recorder and flute
are used, the one player alternating, and both give elegant
woody colours. The three trumpeters manage to combine flair
and restraint to a degree that is all too rare. It is also worth
mentioning that they play "fully natural" trumpets - without
vent holes. That's usually a recipe for some dodgy tuning, but
all the trumpet lines here are spot-on.
As ever, Kuijken works in one-to-a-part mode with no choir.
Joshua Rifkin would, no doubt approve, but the four soloists
have to work hard to give these boisterous scores their due.
The first chorus of the Easter Oratorio (Kommt, eilet und
laufet ihr flüchtigen) in particular sounds to me like
a work for large choir, and while the singers give us the contrapuntal
lines with valuable clarity, the chamber textures seem at odds
with the spirit of the score.
No such concerns with the solo movements though, and each of
the singers really makes the most of their various moments to
shine. Alto Petra Noskaiová and bass Jan Van der Crabben
are both competent purveyors of the Bach's solo lines. Neither
excels, but the evenness of their singing has a value in itself.
In particular, the fact that Crabben sounds equally at home
in every part of Bach's bass register is an asset, and sets
him apart from the bass soloists in other recent Bach cantata
cycles. But both are outclassed by soprano Yeree Suh and tenor
Christoph Genz, who put in some very special contributions.
Genz demonstrates that you don't need to be in the very highest
register to be a characterful and passionate tenor. Suh has
an extraordinary voice, very pure and uncomplicated. She often
sounds like a boy treble, and her sound might provide some welcome
nostalgia for those who fondly remember the days when these
top lines were always taken by boys' voices.
Sigiswald Kuijken has his fair share of admirers, who are likely
to find much of this recording very much to their taste. The
woodwind playing and the soprano and tenor arias in particular
are up to the highest standards of this cycle. But, as with
previous instalments, it is a mixed bag, and not everything
hits the mark. That is a consequence, I suppose, of Kuijken's
easy-going approach, which at its best combines spontaneity
with a sense of intimacy that fully justifies the use of a minuscule
ensemble (a Petite Bande indeed). Personally, I'd go for Suzuki
or Gardiner every time, but if you find their readings too regimented
and too detail-focused, then Kuijken might just be the man for