Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 29 ‘Wir danken dir, Gott’ [3:35]
Sinfonia Cantata BWV 150 ‘Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich’ [2:29]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 42 ‘Am Abend aber desselbigen verwirret’ [6:24]
Concerto from Cantata BWV 35 ‘Geist und Seele wird verwirret’ [5:16]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 156 ‘Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe’ [2:35]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 35 ‘Geist und Seele wird verwirret’ [3:21]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 196 ‘Der Herr denket an uns’ (Wedding Cantata) [2:29]
Sonata from Cantata BWV 31 ‘Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret’ [2:39]
Concerto from Cantata BWV 152 ‘Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn’ [3:15]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 169 ‘Gott soll allein mein Herze haben’ [8:54]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 12 ‘Weinen, Klagen, sorgen, Zagen’ [2:23]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 52 ‘Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht’ [4:06]
Concerto from Cantata BWV 142 ‘Uns ist ein Kind geboren’ [1:25]
[Allegro] from Cantata BWV 146 ‘Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal’ [7:55]
Sonata Concerto from Cantata BWV 182 ‘Himmelskönig, sei willkommen’[2:24]
Sinfonia Concerto from Cantata BWV 174 ‘Ich liebe den Höchsten’ [6:05]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 21 ‘Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis’ [2:47]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 18 ‘Gleichwie der Regen’ [2:52]
Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 75 ‘Die Elenden sollen essen’ [2:30]
Accademia Bizantina/Ottavio Dantone
r ec. 3-7 January 2011, Church of San Girolamo, Bagnacavallo, Ravenna
DECCA 478 2718 [73:24]

I greatly admired and am still a big fan of Ottavio Dantone’s Vivaldi recordings (see review), so needed little persuading to explore his take on J.S. Bach. We’ve come across a few of these separate Sinfonia movements in a recent ECM release with Heinz Holliger and the Camerata Bern (see review), and while they pop up now and then as fillers in orchestral programmes I don’t remember seeing quite as many collected onto one CD. As Clifford Bartlett points out in the booklet notes, “Bach did not habitually preface his cantatas with an orchestral movement”, and so this programme only misses out the earlier short mini-prologues, and those from Cantatas 4 and 106, which are deemed “too integral to the cantatas as a whole to be played in isolation.”

This is a point which can be made for those who are familiar with Bach’s cantatas. In this programme there is sometimes a sense in which the ‘and next’ moments feel truncated – the expectation of a human voice or chorus denied. This isn’t so much of an issue for most of us who only dip into the huge field of Bach’s cantatas from time to time, and for those who are unfortunately allergic to singing this kind of selection is a godsend. One can perhaps see it as the antithesis or complementary to something voice-heavy like Masaaki Suzuki’s A Choral Year with J.S. Bach on the BIS label (see review).

As you would expect from the Accademia Bizantina, these are period-style performances with clean lines and little or no vibrato in the strings. There is always continuo of one kind or another, the bassoon is considered standard ‘whether or not it was notated’, and there are healthy doses of organ, rather less prominent harpsichord in some pieces. My only real beef with this recording is in fact the organ. This is a ‘portativo’ or small organ with limited tonal colour and a rather penetrating treble sound which dominates in the works where it has a solo role. The opening joyous Sinfonia BWV 29 ‘Wir danken dir, Gott’ is a representative example, and is almost more off-putting than inviting. This may not bother most people and I don’t want to labour the point, but every time it leaps out at us my heart sinks just a little.

Highlights for me include the trumpet and drum succulence of the Sonata BWV 31 ‘Der Himmel lacht’ followed immediately by the whispering busy-ness of the Concerto BWV 152 ‘Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn’. Comparing the Sinfonia BWV 21 ‘Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis’ with the Holliger CD I mentioned earlier I don’t feel as much of an emotional charge from the Accademia Bizantina, though they still create a nicely grieving mood, the organ noodling away in the lower registers but with an appropriately more mellow stop. This is mirrored earlier on by BWV 12, and compliments go to the oboist in both cases. You can also be prepared to hear things you will have heard elsewhere. For instance the Sinfonia BWV 52 ‘Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht’ is lifted almost straight from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.1, giving the horns a chance to shine. This is followed by the short Concerto BWV 142 ‘Uns ist ein Kind geboren’ which has duets from recorders and oboes, which in turn sandwiches the orchestral Allegro BWV 146 ‘Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal’ which comes from the Harpsichord Concerto BWV 1052 in D minor – the solo in the hands of ‘it’s that organ again’.

This CD is a joyous project and a very nice thing to have around. It looks as if the band had fun with the photo shoot, though note the lack of reflection of the players inside the case – that precariously close water’s edge is a photoshop illusion. I was hoping the effect of having all of these pieces together in one place would be something akin to discovering a ‘new’ Bach work – something which felt like an extra-extended suite or even something vaguely symphonic, but this isn’t quite the case. Care has however been taken to structure the programme so that these is a reasonable amount of contrast, and with gorgeous playing, bags of excellent music and a very fine recording this is an easily recommendable release.

Dominy Clements

A joyous project – very nice to have around.