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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
Cantata No.82: Ich habe genug, BWV82 (Candlemas, 1727) [22:55]
Alexandra Bellamy (oboe)
Cantata No.32: Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV32 (Epiphany I, 1726) [22:42]
Cantata No.106: Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit ‘Actus tragicus’, BWV 106 (funeral, c.1708) [20:39]
Dunedin Consort/John Butt (harpsichord, BWV32, 82)
rec. St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 3–6 December 2020.
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
LINN CKD672 [66:24]

It’s not so much that the Dunedin Consort and John Butt take us where no-one has gone before – though their recording of Copland’s In the Beginning and other works (BKD117) broke new ground for them – as that they take us over familiar territory and map it more clearly than most have done before. All their Bach recordings for Linn Records to date have cast new light on the highlands of his music, from the Brandenburg Concertos (CKR430 – review DL News 2103/13) to the two Passion settings (St Matthew CKR313 – review review, St John CKR419 – review) and the b-minor Mass (CKR354). If the Magnificat and Christmas cantatas (CKD469 – review) and the present release seem like comparative lowlands, you won’t think so after hearing these Linn recordings. (The retreat from the SACD format means that the preface to some of these recordings, originally CKD, has changed since they were reviewed, but the number remains the same. Hi-res fans who missed the SACD releases now need to choose 24-bit downloads.)

The opening Cantata No.82, which commemorates the words of the aged Simeon when Jesus was presented in the temple, was composed for Candlemas, the feast which commemorates that presentation on February 2nd. Luke tells us that, having waited all his life for the event, Simeon spoke the words which became the evening canticle Nunc Dimittis, “Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”, so the text of this cantata is an elaboration of that farewell theme: Simeon – and the Christian soul – have achieved enough in discovering Jesus. The tone is at once valedictory and consoling, set with some of Bach’s most beautiful, almost other-worldly music.

There are some formidable competitors in this cantata. Fairly recently Iestyn Davies (countertenor), with Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen, received high praise (Hyperion CDA68111, with Cantatas 52, 54, 170 and 174: Recording of the Month – review review). That’s the alto version, so in direct competition with my all-time favourite featuring Janet Baker, with the Academy of St Martin and Neville Marriner, rather long in the tooth but still very well worthwhile, despite being download only, devoid of booklet, and a good deal more expensive in lossless format than when EM reviewed it as Bargain of the Month (Decca Eloquence 4762684, with Cantatas 159 and 170, download only).

Reviewing the Hyperion in my Christmas survey, 2016, the highest praise that I could give to it was that it could hold its head high even in the company of the Decca recording and an older Hyperion recording from James Bowman and the King’s Consort. The new Linn is in the alternative form with bass soloist, and, with minimal forces and period instruments, it sounds even more lively, so I can duck the Building a Library choice and recommend both this and one of the alto recordings. Baker and Marriner linger a little longer over the beauties of this cantata; though their Simeon is older and more arthritic, their performance is not in the bad old-fashioned style, so that’s another reason to have that alongside one of the newer accounts. Like Davies and Cohen, the agility of the new recording is never at the expense of the deeper meaning of words and music. Those older recordings set a very high benchmark, but the new Linn recording is up there alongside them.

If Cantata No.32 doesn’t quite match the profound beauty of No.82, I would still have happily endured sitting through the 4-hour Hauptgottesdienst on a cold winter first Sunday after Epiphany in 1726 to hear a performance as appealing as this. Like the more famous Wachet auf, Cantata No.140, it’s a dialogue between the soul and Jesus, which Joanne Lunn and Matthew Brook bring off to a t. Beautifully as it’s sung in authentic style by a boy treble, Walter Gampert, for Gustav Leonhart (Warner download 8573812046, with Cantatas 33 and 34, super-budget price, no booklet), I’m more than happy to forego authenticity for this beautifully moving Linn performance.

The funeral cantata, No.106, seems to have been composed much earlier than the other works here, probably when Bach was still at Mühlhausen, aged about 23, but it’s far from an immature work. It has been speculated that the funeral was for Bach’s uncle; if so, it may help to explain the depth of sincerity with which Bach sets words which are far removed from the modern attitude to death, yet speak to us through the music. How Bach could achieve such musical maturity so soon would be known only to him – and perhaps even not to him – and God. Similarly, I can’t begin to tell you how the likes of the Dunedin Consort bring us such a wonderful recording as this of Cantata 106, only that they do. Trained as I am to use words and to teach others to use them, they fail on such occasions. Perhaps recording in the middle of the Covid pandemic brought the Consort closer to Bach’s world view; I know many seem to have rediscovered a sense of the spiritual, and this account of all these cantatas, not least No.106, is intensely spiritual.

It’s impossible to recommend a ‘best buy’ for this or any other Bach cantata recording because the chosen couplings are so diverse. Among the versions of No.106 which I like, Vox Luminis with Lionel Meunier, including a notable male alto, Daniel Elgersma, is coupled with Cantatas 150 and 102 (Alpha 258 – Christmas 2016), John Eliot Gardiner with EBS with the Easter Oratorio, death followed by resurrection (SDG719 – DL News 2014/3) and Masaaki Suzuki and the Japan Bach Collegium with Nos. 71 and 131 (BIS-CD-781). The youthful Amici Voices make an especially fresh case for Nos. 106 and 182 on Hyperion (CDA68275 – review).

The only way to cut the Gordian knot of couplings is to choose a complete set, such as the Suzuki on BIS. Forgetting about the complexities of coupling, however, the new Linn recording would be among my top two or three recommendations for each of the three cantatas which it contains.

Brian Wilson

Dunedin Consort:
Joanne Lunn (soprano, BWV32, 106)
Katie Bray (alto, BWV106)
Hugo Hymas (tenor, BWV106)
Matthew Brook (bass, BWV32, 82)
Robert Davies (bass, BWV106)

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