Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas for the complete Liturgical Year, Volume 15.
Cantata BWV52 Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht (23rd Sunday after Trinity, 1726) [14:49]
Cantata BWV60 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (24th Sunday after Trinity, 1723) [14:14]
Cantata BWV116 Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ (25th Sunday after Trinity, 1724) [16:33]
Cantata BWV140 Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (27th Sunday after Trinity, 1731) [23:38]
Yeree Suh (soprano), Petra Noskaiova (alto), Christoph Genz (tenor), Jan van der Crabben (bass)
La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
rec. Beguinenhofkerk, Sint Truiden, Belgium, 5-6 December 2011. DSD
Notes, texts and translations included.
ACCENT SACD ACC25315 [71:51]
Proverbially, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, should you wish to do such a bizarre thing. There are certainly many valid ways of performing Bach’s church cantatas.
Sigiswald Kuijken’s way in this series, which has now reached Volume 15, is easily overlooked in view of very fine complete series from John Eliot Gardiner (SDG), Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt (Warner Teldec Alte Werk, now only in a bumper 60-CD set) and Helmut Rilling (Hänssler). That from Masaaki Suzuki (BIS) is now nearing completion. Yet these Accent recordings are not least among their brethren. They are distinctive in the use of solo voices for the choral parts, a practice which has stirred a good deal of controversy, It works well in the hands of practitioners as adept as Sigiswald Kuijken and Joshua Rifkin, whose recordings of some of the cantatas with solo voices are available on two inexpensive 2-CD sets from Decca Oiseau Lyre.
I recommended Kuijken’s Volume 9, Cantatas for Advent (ACC25309), in my December 2010 Download Roundup - here - but I seem to have lost contact with the series since then. The quality of that and the present volume serves as a reminder that I must investigate more of the volumes from this source; those that have been reviewed on this site have mostly been very well received. You can try this and the earlier volumes for yourself from Naxos Music Library if you subscribe to that valuable institution.
The works contained on Volume 15 complete the cycle for the church year; all are for the latter part of that cycle. The inclusion of a second booklet entitled ‘CD Edition 2006-2012’, wrapping up the project, clearly suggests that ‘that’s all, folks.’ Though the final Sundays after Trinity belong to a fairly grey time with nothing much happening liturgically, these dark Sundays in late November would have been enlivened by these Bach cantatas.
Cantata No.52 opens with one of Bach’s ‘borrowings’ from an early version of his own Brandenburg Concerto No.1 - why should he not have raided these concertos when the Margrave to whom he sent them apparently showed not the slightest interest in them? The playing of La Petite Bande in this sinfonia suggests that a complete set of the Brandenburgs from them would be well worth having.
The Lutheran lectionary differed from both the Tridentine Roman rite and the English Prayer Book, the latter derived from the medieval Sarum Missal, in providing readings for 27 Sundays after Trinity, a number reached only in exceptional years when Easter falls very early. Up to the 24th the Epistle and Gospel are identical with English usage, but Nos. 25-27 are provided with different readings, all anticipatory of Advent.
Cantata No.140 is usually thought of as an Advent work, but the traditionalist church fathers in Leipzig banned the performance of cantatas at the Hauptgottesdienst for most of Advent, so this work was actually composed for the 27th after Trinity. In Roman Catholic practice before Vatican II and as prescribed in the English Prayer Book, the propers for this Sunday were always used on the last Sunday before Advent and they foreshadow that time, with a collect inviting God to stir up the hearts of the faithful. In England it came to be known as ‘stir up Sunday’ and it was traditional to give the fig pudding a final pre-Christmas stir on that day.
With different readings for the 25th and 26th Sundays, Lutheran practice made it unnecessary always to use those for the 27th on the last Sunday before Advent, so Bach composed only one cantata for this day. It’s a shame that it can be used on the day only very occasionally, as it’s one of his best known works, and deservedly so. The Gospels for those final Sundays before Advent are taken from Matthew 24 and 25, dealing with the Last Things and the Second Coming; that for the 27th tells the story of the Wise Virgins who were ready for the Coming and the Foolish Virgins who were not.
It’s not so much the Epistle and Gospel texts for the day that Bach employs, though these stress the need for wakefulness, as the hymn which gives the cantata its title, Wachet auf! ruft uns di Stimme - Sleepers wake! a voice is calling. The tune of that hymn, which finally blazes out at the end of the cantata, has become almost as well known as that of O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden - O sacred head sore wounded. Each is a re-working of an earlier tune - in this case an Advent hymn by Philipp Nicolai (1599). These re-workings have come to be completely Bach’s own, not least for the rocking dotted rhythm which accompanies the Nicolai tune when it appears in the opening chorale.
As it happens, Joshua Rifkin’s one-to-a-part recording of Cantata 140 is available on Decca 455 7062, as part of a budget-price twofer, and that’s the obvious comparison for Kuijken’s performance. Rifkin is best known as the pianist who made Scott Joplin’s works famous, so he’s particularly well placed to achieve that dotted rhythm but Kuijken actually achieves the effect as well, perhaps rather better.
That chorale illustrates what is the Achilles heel of the solo-voice approach because, although I appreciate the beautifully clean lines of the music in this form, it makes a greater impact with more voices in attendance, as on Volume 52 of the BIS/Suzuki cycle - see my Download News 2012/22. With one voice to a part the soloists are even more exposed than usual; those on this Kuijken recording are good but not outstanding.
That BIS recording is due for release on hybrid SACD in January 2013 (BIS-SACD-1981) but it’s available to download in advance, in mp3 and better-than-CD 24-bit lossless. At 6:54, Suzuki adopts a noticeably more deliberate tempo than Kuijken (6:24) or Rifkin (6:14); John Eliot Gardiner, on one of the CDs which DG released before abandoning the project takes 6:19 (with Cantata No.147, recently reissued at budget price on 478 4231). He’s very slightly faster still, live on his own label (SDG171: 6:16). All these approaches work well and I liked all of them, but my preference would be for the greater weight, both in number of voices and chosen tempo, of the Suzuki.
It would be irrelevant to mention Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recording, once available on Teldec Alte Werk coupled with Cantata No.147, unless you plan to purchase the 60-CD box of his Bach recordings - you could do worse - or are prepared to download these two cantatas from classicsonline.com (at £2.99, a bargain; an even better download bargain comes from amazon.co.uk at £13.49 for Cantatas 138-140, 143-159, 161-163, almost 7 hours of music with Harnocourt and Leonhardt at the helm). Actually Harnoncourt is not at his best in this movement - at 7:11 he may be only seconds slower than Suzuki but, having once made this my recording of choice, I now think he’s just a little turgid.
I hesitate to choose one version of Cantata No.140 above all others - all have their virtues. The Decca is an excellent bargain: with six favourite cantatas on one 2-CD set for around £9, Rifkin and the Bach Ensemble are well worth having, but I’d have to place the forthcoming Suzuki top of my tree if the coupling appeals - a rather illogical collection placing No.140 with cantatas for the second Sunday after Easter and for the council election, the only connection being that they all date from 1731.
The couplings on Accent make more sense and all the performances are thoroughly enjoyable. Both the BIS and Accent come in hybrid SACD format, though I listened to the BIS as a 24-bit download. Both sound very well indeed, the Accent placing the performers nearer to the listener, as is appropriate when such small forces are employed.
Both booklets are informative but the Accent recording also contains a second booklet with the raison d’être for the whole project set out. The main booklet is rather too large to have fitted in a normal CD jewel case, so the gatefold presentation seems to have been inevitable, though it makes an awkward size - too large to fit in a single-CD slot in a cabinet and too small for a 2-disc slot.
I’ve dwelled on Cantata No.140 because it’s the best known of the four here, but the virtues of the other works are of the same order, as are my minor reservations about the occasions when solo voices don’t quite work for me. With one cantata for each Sunday of the year under his belt, it appears that Sigiswald Kuijken and Accent have now pulled the plug on the project; if so, they’ve gone out in style.
Kuijken’s rival to other more complete sets ends in style.
Masterwork Index: Bach cantatas BWV 52 & 60 ~~ BWV 116 & 140
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