Bach Cantatas, Volume 9

The end of a series recorded on a shoestring but still containing many beautiful offerings

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Catalogue Number: 99380

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Catalogue Number: 99377

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Vocal

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Catalogue Number: 99378

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Vocal

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Catalogue Number: 99379

Following hard on the heels of the volumes I reviewed last November, Pieter Jan Leusink now concludes his super-budget cantata project with four further volumes of miscellaneously presented sacred works. The overall conclusion drawn last November was that for those who might baulk at paying full price for the current cycles from Masaaki Suzuki (BIS) and Ton Koopman (Erato), these accounts will satisfy a number of people who relish the prospect of dabbling in Bach’s endless invention but who might not otherwise do so in a series of this size and expense. To suppose, however, that these are just performances for general rather than specialist consumption would be misleading, especially in these later boxes (which contain some of Bach’s finest choral masterpieces, such as Nos 5, 75, 21, 4, 70, 105, 43, 31, 76, 147 and 67). Here, Leusink traverses the final peak with far more consistently enduring accounts than the comparative ‘hit or miss’ of the earlier readings. Unsurprisingly for an enterprise designed around tight rehearse-record schedules, there will always be scrappy moments – and the occasional horror which sounds like a run-through – as well as a few ‘neutral’ musical statements resulting from simply too short an acquaintance with the material.
More encouragingly, there is also a striking and rare quality here which shines through more strongly than in the majority of the earlier volumes and gives Leusink and his Dutch colleagues genuine credentials. It is the unmannered and straightforward approach to delivering the essence of the work in question (whether by design or shortage of time I care not!), the honesty and means to get directly to its heart through real ‘performance’, often at the point of discovery. In this respect one is reminded of the earlier recordings from Leonhardt/Harnoncourt, a set which one suspects will be increasingly revisited for that very reason. For all the ‘al dente’ movements here, there are as many refreshingly uninhibited and distinguished readings, notably Nos 119, 43, 74, 197, 127, 104 and 148. There is a keen ear for the fundamental ‘conceit’ of the music upon which spontaneous music-making happens ‘as if live’; unassuming, common sensical and unegotistical, the earthy Kapellmeister approach reminds one of the unspectacular (and occasionally a touch unimaginative) but free-breathing performances by the likes of Karl Ristenpart, Wolfgang Gonnenwein, Fritz Lehmann, Felix Prohaska and Fritz Werner in the 1950s and 60s (a discography which has all but disappeared from the catalogue).
For some, a proportion of the solo singing, which would not be tolerated in the context of an unfolding project in the Suzuki/Koopman mould, will understandably prejudice this series. Also, ears attuned to the refined and homogeneous textures of the top baroque orchestras will find the grainy and sometimes rather thin violins (for instance in No 41 and the ‘dialogue’ in No 67) altogether too disturbing. Others may find this more acceptable and, at times, even liberating, especially when joined by the wonderfully colourful wind playing and robust brass playing; the oboe of Peter Frankenberg, in particular, is one of the set’s greatest qualities, though not far behind is the trumpet consort, led by Susan Williams. The trumpeters were clearly booked for a ‘block’ month or two to record the majority of the large-scale works since few brass pieces appeared in the earlier boxes. Notable again is the outstanding bass singing of Bas Ramselaar, whose resonant warmth and musicianly response to text is the most significant vocal strength in the set. He is someone who deserves to be heard in much recorded Bach with his exceptional capacity for both resonant projection and intimate introspection. There are copious examples of both, but Nos 126 and 20 give us the best of the former, and No 197 of the latter. Also to be admired are the two main sopranos, Ruth Holton and Marjon Strijk. Both have a vocal timbre of the effervescent and light variety though they bring much radiance and projection to their music-making, and far more accuracy in matters of tuning than in the earlier boxes. Holton sings splendidly in the two demanding arias in No 75 (a bi-partite work of real stature), with breeziness in No 52 and loving understanding in the stunning cantabile of No 120 (which Bach used in a later version of the G major Violin Sonata), and with great cultivation in BWV31. She sails through the treacherous No 51 with great elan. Strijk brings considerable fluency to her arias in both Nos 25 and 28.
The alto part is less appealingly taken. Am I the only person who would like to hear more mezzos, contraltos and even boy altos for these parts, rather than the often excellent but over-used countertenor? That is not to decry the beautiful singing of the Scholls, Daniels, Bowmans and Blazes of this world but merely to reclaim some of the territory – in the name of variety – for the rest. Koopman, to his credit, has ‘mixed and matched’ far more than other current practitioners. In any case, this is rarely an issue here as the countertenor singing is altogether far too variable to merit comparison with Paul Esswood (for Leonhardt and Harnoncourt on Teldec) or any other fine Bach alto singers. Sytse Buwalda should not have been lumbered with the responsibility for all the alto arias, several movements of which represent some of Bach’s most treasured examples of reflective ardour. Despite Buwalda’s unsteadiness, he occasionally delivers something reasonable, such as in Nos 148 and 83, and, though I yearn for a mezzo, I can live with his rendering of the delectable ‘Schlaefert’ from No 197. Exactly the same complaint can be levelled at Knut Schoch, a courageous tenor but one without the capacity for variation of colour in his sound, as one hears and expects from both Paul Agnew for Koopman (Erato) or Gerd Turk for Suzuki on BIS. Too often, the upper tessitura just isn’t there or else he cannot control it. Luckily, Nico van der Meel is wheeled out for the big ones and he is splendid in both ‘Ja, tausendmal tausend’ in No 43, as well as No 74. In No 31, he is redolent of the deeply touching singing of Helmut Krebs for Werner (Erato, 6/95 – nla). Also used is Marcel Beekman, who shines in No 48 and projects a palpable joie de vivre with Ramselaar in the fine duet, ‘Wie will ich mich freuen’ from No 146, as does Holton with Ramselaar in the duet of No 32.
The boy-led Holland Choir and ‘period’ band, Netherlands Bach Collegium, are again central to the success and distinctive essence of this series. The teamwork in the choir is admirably demonstrated in some of the most difficult pieces, such as the large ‘da capo’ chorus of No 34, the fervent No 197 and infectiously crackling No 70, resulting in white-hot expositions of thrilling proportions. In tandem, both singers and instrumentalists turn out some agreeably unusual textures, notably the reedy inner parts of the chorus to No 31 and the deliciously balanced strings and oboes in the Sinfonia to No 146. The clucking horns are also given their head with truly organic sounds in No 174 (the first movement of Brandenburg No 3). There are workman-like performances of Nos 147, 66, 180, 58 and 31 which, when all is said and done, do not seriously rival Gardiner, Herreweghe, Coin, Rilling or Suzuki in those works respectively. Leusink’s success elsewhere comes largely through his admirably well-judged feeling for tempos and a means of accentuation which drives the music forward inexorably: the build-up of momentum in No 77, for example, is irresistible, as is the no-nonsense swagger dealt to No 126 (only Richter hits this same spot) and last chorus of No 119. A robust bass line helps. Similarly, No 43 opens with such a generous and unsentimental lilt as to give its prelude as clear a juxtaposition with the ‘ascension’ fugal subject as I can recall hearing. There is, however, a fine line here between luminous vitality and sheer panic; the latter afflicts control in some choruses where Bach just cannot be learnt in a rush: Nos 65, 48 and 137 are examples where phrases are snatched, or over-sung, to the detriment of both textural cohesion and intonation, as well as general quality of sound.
There is little need to round up. It should be clear by now that Bachians, old and new, should investigate this series with an eager circumspection, taking the rough with the smooth but relishing the open-hearted spirit of the enterprise. The best performances will bring the listener close to the solar plexus of Bach’s ‘Kantatenwelt’. Texts in German only.'

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