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RECORDING OF THE MONTH  


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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas for Soprano

Cantata No.202 (Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten) (Wedding Cantata, date?) [21:00]
Cantata No.152 (Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn) (Sunday after Christmas, 1714) [18:11]
Cantata No.199 (Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut) (Trinity XI, 1714) [23:28] 
Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Andreas Wolf (bass-baritone: No. 152)
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Petra Müllejans
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, 2016. DDD.
Texts and translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902252 [63:03]

Reviewed as 24-bit download with pdf booklet containing texts and translations from eclassical.com.  Subscribers stream from Naxos Music Library.

The complete Soprano Cantatas I
Cantata No.82a (Ich habe genug) (Purification, 1727) [20:15]
Cantata No.202 (Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten) (Wedding Cantata, date?) [19:28]
Cantata No.210 (O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit) (Wedding Cantata, c.1741) [31:27]
Gillian Keith (soprano)
Armonico Consort/Christopher Monks
rec. St Michael’s, South Grove, London, 2016. DDD.
Texts and translations included
SIGNUM SIGCD488 [71:23]

Reviewed as 24-bit download with pdf booklet containing texts and translations from hyperion-records.co.uk.

The Recording of the Month accolade is for Carolyn Sampson but Gillian Keith’s Signum recording augurs very well for the projected series on that label.

Though by no means limited to singing Bach, Carolyn Sampson has featured in a number of recordings of his cantatas for Harmonia Mundi, BIS, Hyperion and SDG with the likes of Philippe Herreweghe, Masaaki Suzuki and John Eliot Gardiner but not, I think, previously with Petra Müllejans.  Similarly Gillian Keith features on many of John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach pilgrimage series of recordings for his own SDG label.

There are very fine rival performances of the cantatas on the Harmonia Mundi CD, all now ascribed to the Weimar period, c.1712-14, though not coupled as here.  I yield to none in admiring Emma Kirkby, but I have a feeling that Carolyn Sampson’s will also be my version of choice for No.202 in future.  Then I listened to Gillian Keith and found myself almost equally entranced.

The chief competition in Cantata No.202 comes from Emma Kirkby with the Academy of Ancient Music Chamber Ensemble and Christopher Hogwood on mid-price Decca 4559722.  Even more to the point, that classic recording exactly duplicates the programme on the Signum recording.  Whether deliberately or not, they have chosen to go for broke with Volume I of their series.

There’s another Emma Kirkby recording featuring Cantatas Nos. 82 and 202, this time coupled with the secular cantata No.208 and recorded in 1981 and 1985 with The Taverner Players directed by Andrew Parrott (82 and 202) and The Parley of Instruments directed by Roy Goodman and Peter Holman.  No.82, which exists in versions of soprano, alto and bass soloist, is sung in the version for bass voice by David Thomas, with Emma Kirkby as soloist in No.202 and one of the soloists in the ‘Hunt’ Cantata, BWV208.

Whether or not you like this version, released on a 2-for-1 package and currently available on CD or download from Hyperion for just £6, will depend on your attitude to the notorious one-to-a-part controversy.  This affects the choruses of No.208, which are sung only by the soloists and with reduced string accompaniment, plus the insertion of two movements from original versions of what became Brandenburg Concertos.  That apart, this is a competitive version of No.208 but David Thomas sounds too lumpy in No.82 and even Emma Kirkby is not quite on top form in No.202.  She sounds less engaged than on her later Decca recording with Christopher Hogwood, but even less-than-ideal Kirkby is still pretty good.

Cantata No.202 is coupled with the much less well-known Cantata No.173a and No.36c, the secular version of the sacred Cantata No.36, on Volume 3 of the BIS recordings of the secular cantatas.  (BIS-SACD-2041 – review).  With Joanne Lunn as the attractive soloist this is a competitive account, though her voice is sometimes a little too backward, as at the opening where it’s covered by the oboe.  All concerned clearly enjoyed recording these works and there are not too many recordings of No.173a apart from box sets.  (Download in 16- and 24-bit sound with pdf booklet from eclassical.com).  The latest volume of this enterprising series of the secular cantatas, volume 8, was released on 30 June 2017: Cantatas Nos. 206 and 215 (BIS-2231, SACD or download in 16- and 24-bit sound with pdf booklet from eclassical.com).

As an example of an old-fashioned soprano with an early period orchestra, I listened to Agnes Giebel, recorded by Telefunken (now Teldec) with Concerto Amsterdam and Jaap Schröder in the 1960s, as included in the USB of all Bach’s extant works, now sold out, though you may find the odd second-hand copy – review.  My purist colleagues would take exception to the amount of vibrato which she employs; even so I enjoyed hearing this recording again.

Emma Kirkby is the purest toned of the singers in Cantata No.202 but after continued listening I found myself unable to decide between her recording and those of Gillian Keith and Carolyn Sampson.  Though the Freiburgers are not quite at their best here, overall I suspect that most listeners will prefer Carolyn Sampson’s slightly fuller tones, with Gillian Keith tonally somewhere between Kirkby and Sampson.

This is a good opportunity to remind readers of the virtues of the series from Masaaki Suzuki (BIS) and John Eliot Gardiner (SDG and some earlier recordings for DG Archiv).  The Suzuki is now available to download in virtual boxes from eclassical.com at keen prices, while the equally desirable complete Gardiner set on SDG is available to download along with other recordings on that label from Hyperion, all with better pdf booklets than from any other source, and again more economically than on disc.  In all three cantatas, however, Sampson need fear no competition from very fine performances in these cycles – try Cantata 199, track 19, Tief gebückt und voller Reu, one of the most beautiful movements in any Bach cantata, fully the equal of the more evocative moments in the Passions and beautifully rendered here. 

Thus far the Harmonia Mundi recording seemed to be heading for Recording of the Month status, having already been chosen as Recording of the Week on BBC Radio 3 Record review.  Then along came the Signum, enticingly billed as the first of a planned series and going head-on with the classic Emma Kirkby and Christopher Hogwood album.  Having listened to Kirkby, Sampson and Keith in Cantata No.202 for some considerable time, I really cannot point you to an outright winner.  I’ve had the new Signum playing on a repeating loop while I’ve been typing up this review and at no point did I tire of listening to it and I suspect that the same would have been true of each of the others had I tried the experiment.  The only small reservation about the Signum is that Gillian Keith takes a little while to get warmed up in the opening Cantata 82a, with some insecurity about how to pronounce ich.  It certainly sounds as if this was recorded first because the problem soon disappears.

In the end I suppose that couplings will be decisive.  If you already have a male-voice version of No.82, the female-voice version presents the music in a different light, so there’s room for both.  You may, for example, have the wonderful classic recording of Nos. 82, 159 and 170 with Dame Janet Baker, Robert Tear and John Shirley-Quirk (in No.82) with the ASMF and Neville Marriner (mid-price Decca Eloquence 4762684 – Bargain of the Month). 

Even among soprano and alto recordings of No.82, in addition to Emma Kirkby there’s tough competition from Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Craig Smith (Nonesuch 755979692-2, download only, with No.199 – review review).  There’s much that’s academically wrong about this recording but Lieberson’s wonderful voice, even with an overdose of vibrato, more than compensates.  At times she reminds me of Janet Baker, which I cannot say of René Jacobs on budget-price Harmonia Mundi, who sounds rather plummy (HMA1951273, with No.35 and the spurious No.53).  It’s not just academics, however, who will join me in preferring Gillian Keith’s lighter, purer, more Kirkby-like voice.  Among counter-tenor versions I praised Iestyn Davies, Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen in Nos. 54, 82 and 170 in Christmas 2016 and I now think that I could have been even more ardent, as John Quinn was – Recording of the Month. 

Of the other works on the Harmonia Mundi recording there’s less competition than usual in Cantata No.152.  John Eliot Gardiner recorded it in New York at the final concert of his 2000 Bach Pilgrimage with none other than Gillian Keith as soprano soloist, with Peter Harvey (bass).  On SDG137 – review – the other cantatas are also for Christmastide and New Year, Nos. 28, 122, 190 and the motet BWV225.  It can be downloaded for £7.99 in lossless sound, with pdf booklet, from hyperion-records.co.uk, replacing the defunct mp3 versions which I mentioned in DL Roundup December 2010.

First I listened to the classic recording made by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien with a boy treble and Thomas Hampson as soloists.  Revelatory in their time, these Teldec recordings by Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt now sound slightly stodgy and the demise of the handy usb version of all Bach’s extant music means investing in a heavy 60-CD box set of the complete cantatas, but I like to return to them, not least to this account of Cantata No.152, released in 1986.  Bach would have heard a boy in this work and Harnoncourt’s treble, Christoph Wegmann, sounds ethereal, though a little squeaky at times and hardly able to match an adult soprano voice.

There’s a real sense of occasion arising from the recordings on SDG137 and I’m delighted that Hyperion have made the whole series, of which this is one of the highlights, available so inexpensively and with much better documentation than any earlier download.  As is the case between the new Signum and Harmonia Mundi recordings of No.202, it’s almost impossible to choose between Gillian Keith (SDG) and Carolyn Sampson (Harmonia Mundi) in No.152 and both are very well accompanied but I think that the latter has the better of it by a very small margin.

I’ve already mentioned Carolyn Sampson’s wonderful account of Tief gebückt (Cantata 199).  Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, coupled with the recording of No.82 mentioned above, is wonderful but not for purists.  If No.152 is less well known, No.199 is very well represented.  I’ve chosen for comparison John Eliot Gardiner’s pre-pilgrimage recording for DG Archive with Magdalena Kožená as soloist (4635912, with Nos. 113 and 179 – DL Roundup August 2009), Elisabeth Watts and Harry Bicket on Harmonia Mundi HMU807550 (with No.51 and excerpts from 31, 57, 84 and 105 – download only: from eclassical.com, NO booklet) and Barbara Schlick with Christophe Coin (Naïve E8911, with Nos. 85, 175 and 183 – review – download only: from eclassical.com, NO booklet).  Subscribers can stream all these from Naxos Music Library but again without booklet.

On Naïve Barbara Schlick sings beautifully and she is very well accompanied, with Christophe Coin directing from the violoncello piccolo, a cross between a viola and a cello, in No.199 and three other cantatas for which Bach specified this instrument.  With very good contributions from Andreas Scholl and Christophe Prégardien in the other cantatas, this is well worth having, even without the booklet – texts of Bach cantatas are readily available online.  Tief gebückt is taken at a fastish tempo – 6:41 against 7:51 from Carolyn Sampson – and much of the affective power of the music is missed apart from a huge rubato in mid-stream, but otherwise I enjoyed Barbara Schlick’s clear-toned singing.

Elisabeth Watts on Harmonia Mundi has been highly praised in some quarters – an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone – and her account of Tief gebückt – 7:18 overall – is more affective than Barbara Schlick’s but her diction and tone are far less clear, almost as if the music were being sung by a mezzo and the general effect is unappealing.  Overall I’m almost as disappointed with this recording as my colleague Johan van Veen, writing on his own web-page – review.

Magdalena Kožená and John Eliot Gardiner (DG) are slower still in this aria and it’s very much to the advantage of the music.  The singing is beautiful, too; even if Magdalena Kožená’s tone is not quite as ethereal as Carolyn Sampson’s, this offers the strongest challenge to her of any of the versions which I sampled and it has the logic of being coupled with two other cantatas from the same Sunday, Trinity XI, albeit that the other two are from a later period (1723 and 1724).

Karl Richter’s DG Archiv recordings of Bach cantatas represent the best of an older school, directed by someone steeped in the Lutheran tradition.  At 9:46 he offers by far the slowest version of Tief gebückt that I’ve heard, yet Edith Mathis doesn’t overdo the pathos.  The CD box sets which DG released some time ago are no longer available apart from the Advent and Christmas cantatas.  The 6-disc set for the Sundays after Trinity (I) is one which I failed to grab when they were around but I’m pleased that Qobuz have made it available to stream: six hours of stylish performances, with the likes of Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, which have dated yet never really date, but it’s somewhat pricey to download at £41.20.  Those content with mp3 will find the set for £29.99 from 7digital.com.

It’s hard even for most Christians today to empathise with the extremely penitential tone of Cantata No.199.  It doesn’t really fit the Collect, Epistle and Gospel for Trinity XI, but it’s all of a piece with Martin Luther’s assertion in the first of his 95 Theses that the whole life of a Christian should be one of repentance.  (Dominus et magister noster Iesus Christus dicendo ‘Penitentiam agite etc.’ omnem vitam fidelium penitentiam esse voluit.)  Archbishop Cranmer bequeathed the Anglican Church a form of confession before Mattins and Evensong couched in marvellous prose but filled with similar self-deprecation.

It’s a vast over-simplification and I’m not expressing it very elegantly, but Richter was imbued with the tradition that ‘there is no health in us’ and we can share that tradition through his total commitment to the music, whereas modern interpreters such as Masaaki Suzuki and John Eliot Gardiner – and Carolyn Sampson and Petra Müllejans on the new recording – can still find a key for the modern listener.

It’s time for me to choose.  If you are looking for just one version of Cantata No.199 it’s a very close call between Magdalena Kožená, whose Archiv CD is on sale for around £8.50, and Carolyn Sampson.  For me the splendid performances of Nos. 152 and 202 clinch it in favour of the new Harmonia Mundi.  If, however, you choose the DG, Gillian Keith on Volume I of the Signum series makes a very good alternative choice for No. 202, with a fine account of 82a to boot.  You might even consider both new recordings: I’ve enjoyed both.  If you download from Hyperion the 16-bit Signum costs just £7.99 and the 24-bit £12.00, both complete with pdf booklet.  At present the eclassical.com Harmonia Mundi download costs $13.20 in both formats, again with pdf booklet, but the 24-bit is likely to increase by about 50% in the near future.

Brian Wilson


 




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