BACH Cantatas Vol.4. Various/Amsterdam Baroque/Koopman (Erato) – INKPOT
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Complete Cantatas Volume 4
Lisa Larsson, Els Bongers, Anne Grimm, Caroline Stam sopranos
Includes full texts in German, English and French
Ton Koopman’s (left) cycle of Bach’s massive oeuvre of sacred and secular cantatas continues apace. Volume 4 is the first of two volumes containing secular cantatas that Bach composed during his long stay in Leipzig.
Not numbered in chronological order of composition, Bach’s cantatas involve a wide range of themes and emotions, and anyone willing to explore them will surely find something of interest. The secular cantatas of course, offer a somewhat wider choice of topics; yet it is interesting to note that the sources of Bach’s popular “Christmas Oratorio” are the secular cantatas. The grand opening chorus of said oratorio, for example, uses the music of Cantata BWV 214 Tnet, Ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!.
“Sound, ye drums! Ring out, trumpets!” exclaim its opening chorus, and in true Baroque fashion, Bach scores the words with vivid drums and brass. The timpani and trumpets in this recording of Cantata 214 have an immediate presence that is both pleasing, jubilant yet firmly-balanced with the choir and orchestra. The choir’s singing is wholly uplifting, enjoying their words with a dynamic “lift” that I found very satisfying. The use of a Baroque guitar and lute instead of a harpsichord in the continuo may surprise some, as the former occasionally sounds like a rattling pan of metal sticks, but once I got used to them, they actually added to the energetic fervour of the performance. As for the instrumental solos, let me single out the superb oboes in “Fromme Musen! meine Glieder!” (track 15) and the trumpet-punctuated bass aria of “Kron und Preis gekronter Damen”, sensitively-accompanied by the orchestra.
ON DISC 2 is the famous “Coffee Cantata” (BWV 211) which pits a fed-up father against his caffeine-attached daughter. I was amused to hear tenor Paul Agnew, taking the role of the narrator, characterize his parts, injecting his line “He indeed growls like a bear” with a humourously ugly delivery of the word “Zeidelbar” (“bear”).
The bass Klaus Merten is equally distinct, sounding the angry father yet amusingly helpless against his daughter’s addiction. The printed libretto in the sleeve takes a share in the humour by literally translating his character’s name Schlendrian as “Mister Humdrum”! Soprano Anne Grimm plays her role well, and in her central aria, the charming “Heute noch”, she sings with elegant fervour and delight. Although I would kill for the sexy rendition of the same aria by Barbara Bonney on a Philips disc, the sensitive instrumental accompaniment and the characterization of the male roles make this Erato performance the better one as a whole.
Speaking of sopranos, Lisa Larsson takes many of the central parts in this collection, including the two cantatas for solo soprano, BWVs 204 and 209. Her voice, I am happy to report, is light in character yet full of tonal strength, somewhat the best of both worlds. I enjoyed her performance of Cantata BWV 209 Non sa che sia dolore (“He who knows not what sorrow is”), with an Italian libretto about farewell and many prominent parts for the cool flutist of the orchestra. A definite must for followers of Bach’s B minor orchestral suite. But I enjoyed the third disc’s recording of the “Contentment Cantata” (BWV 204) even more, for the performers’ superb sustainment of the theme and mood of contentment. Besides the enchanting, perfectly-relaxed singing of Larsson, let me also praise again the charming oboes, led by Marcel Ponseele, in “Ruhig und in sich zufrieden” (“To be peaceful and contented”, 3:2).
Ending disc 3 is Cantata BWV 201 – “The Contest between Phoebus and Pan” – if you would pardon me, a Classical karaoke competition, complete with arguments as to who is better. Previously I said that this was a disappointment, but having listened to it again and compared it with Jacobs’ version on Harmonia Mundi, I realize I had wronged it somewhat. The opening chorus of “whirling winds” is well-crafted. It is finer than Jacobs’ but not as fierce; but the best version is actually the Leonhardt on Philips. What this reading of the cantata lacks is the degree of drama as found in the other versions.
Phoebus’ (Merten) 10-minute competition song is well-sung and sustained, though not utterly satisfying. Pan (Bentvelsen) seems to me to have the more interesting aria – “Zu Tanze, zu Sprunge, so wackelt das Hertz” (“With dancing and leaping” 3:15) – listen to the fresh and lively accompaniment of the orchestra. Even though Merten is the better bass, I am personally-inclined to give Pan the prize. As the libretto goes, Pan loses. I am also unimpressed by countertenor Peter de Groot, whose singing sounds strained. Andreas Scholl has recorded this cantata for Harmonia Mundi, reviewed here.
STILL, no one buying this three-disc volume is likely to be disappointed. The opening work of the first disc is Cantata BWV 198 La Frstin, La Noch Einen Strahl, the famous “Funeral Ode” for the funeral of Queen Christiane Eberhardine of Poland, Electress of Saxony. A masterpiece of consistent distinction, it has not a single note that is not worth attention. From the tenderly melancholic yet unsentimental reading of the opening chorus to the surprisingly gentle arioso of the bass, everything is beautifully balanced. Alto Elisabeth von Magnus, whose singing in Volume 3 was somewhat forced and strained, sounds much more natural here, with an interesting recitative on track 4 depicting quivering bells. Larsson also makes her presence here, sounding boyish yet demonstrating her vocal strength.
For Cantata BWV 215 Preise Dein Glcke, Gesegnetes Sachsen (“Praise your fortune, Blessed Saxony”), the opening chorus is also a trumpet-and-drums affair; one which I felt the trumpets needed more presence, as in Cantata 214. Here their trills sound submerged into the orchestra. Like Cantata 201, the performance needs to generate a little more push. Yet, hearing the trumpeteers’ sensitive dynamics elsewhere in this collection, these are perhaps the effects Koopman wishes. Likewise, I enjoyed Merten’s singing here as I did elsewhere, and soprano Els Bongers makes her high notes count, well-delivered with engaging continuo.
Overall I was happily impressed by Koopman’s (right, with the ABO) sensitive accompaniment and continuo, the latter of which is often nicely unobstrusive yet beautifully poised with the singers. At certain points, usually in recitatives, I was also delighted by the musical presence of Koopman’s harpsichord-playing. The Amsterdam Baroque Choir is a joy to listen to, unified in voice and sensitively-dynamic: compliments to the chorus master Simon Schouten.
The notes are too brief for such an important and massive project – each cantata only gets a quarter of a page of notes, and there is no information on the performers. An entire book will be devoted to the secular cantatas of Bach (ie. Volumes 4 & 5 of the recordings), published in conjunction with the recordings. Finally, this is a very satisfying and enjoyable set, well-recorded, which will arguably be one of the best places to start in the series.
Having saved his screaming female classmates from the offending presence of a cockroach in the classroom, CHIA HAN-LEON has now been promoted to “Crush-and-Flush Man”, Destroyer of Trespassing Roaches.
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005: 21.2.1997 Chia Han-Leon
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