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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata ‘Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust’ BWV 170
Cantata ‘Ich habe genug’ BWV 82
Cantata ‘Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem’ BWV 159
Cantata ‘Ich will dein Kreuzstab gerne tragen’ BWV 56
Cantata 'Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht' (Coffee Cantata), BWV 211
Cantata 'Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet' (Peasant Cantata), BWV 212
Julia Varady (soprano); Janet Baker (mezzo); Robert Tear, Aldo Baldin (tenor); John Shirley-Quirk (bass); Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
St Anthony Singers (BWV 159 & 56)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Neville Marriner
rec. January 1966, Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, (BWV 159 & 170); April 1964, St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London, (56 & 82); November 1981, Henry Wood Hall, London (211 & 212)
Notes but no texts. ADD/DDD
ELOQUENCE 482 9722 [9:21 + 79:04]

Depending on how you look at it, this new Eloquence twofer issue presents either a nice balance or a peculiar mismatch in pairing four devotional with two secular, satirical cantatas, but they are unified by the idea of showing two very different sides of Bach and having the same conductor, being all the recordings of Bach cantatas that Neville Marriner made for Decca’s early music label L’Oiseau Lyre and Philips: four from the mid-60’s with two of Britain’s finest young singers, John Shirley-Quirk and Janet Baker, and two recorded in 1981 by the husband-and-wife team Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Julia Varady. They were previously released separately on CD and the first was reviewed on MWI.

I had high hopes for this compilation, initially confirmed by the sheer beauty of Janet Baker’s singing of “Vergnügte Ruh’” but my delight soon soured when I moved on to Shirley-Quirk’s “Ich habe genug” which, even making allowance for pre-woke-period sensibility, is conducted at a glacial tempo, taking well over four minutes longer than Baker’s contemporary account recorded with Yehudi Menuhin. That still sets the standard but in recent years I have coupled it with the beautiful version from Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, which is obviously more historically informed but similarly paced. It doesn’t matter how elegantly and feelingly Shirley-Quirk’s sonorous and flexible bass-baritone negotiates the music when he is hobbled by such plodding direction.

The other three cantatas are not as compromised by slower speeds; especially melodic and soulful is the aria “Es ist vollbracht” in BWV 159, where the bass’ melismatic passages are shadowed by a plaintive oboe. As the notes remark, “No other composer has dealt so movingly with the subject of death as Bach” – something of an obsession in liturgical music of that era and given similarly profound treatment in BWV 56, where Shirley-Quirk again displays exemplary legato, agility, evenness of tone and breath control.

A further irritation is the absence of any texts, particularly irksome if one is to follow and appreciate the Peasant and Coffee cantatas, recorded in early digital sound and first released on a digital LP. The humour doesn’t wear terribly well but the words are needed if one is to be able to enter into the spirit and you will have to track them down yourself.

By this stage of his career, although only in his mid-fifties, having subjected his instrument to decades of over-singing and some unwise roles such as Wagner and Verdi, Fischer-Dieskau’s baritone is grey and windy. He compensates by barking and over-emphasising syllables in a kind of “glorified Sprechstimme” (to borrow a fellow reviewer’s apt phrase) almost parodying the more grating elements of his later singing style, so what comedy there is emerges as heavy-handed.

Varady – an extraordinarily versatile and under-rated artist whom I much admire in many things - is occasionally uncharacteristically shrill and twittery in the Coffee Cantata, her vibrato intermittently degenerating into a tremolo, although is also often shimmering and silvery, recalling her soprano at its best; she seems more comfortable in the Peasant Cantata. She makes a nice job of the central aria of the Coffee Cantata, the lilting, three-quarter-time “Heute noch”, but the music itself is generally slight in comparison with Bach in full, hieratic mode and when Aldo Baldin comes in as the Narrator in full Passion-Evangelist mode before the concluding trio, the effect is jarring.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields acquits itself admirably, bolstered an array of accomplished solo instrumentalists such as Philip on keyboards.

While the humour, especially of the Peasant Cantata, might be obtuse and that of the Coffee Cantata very sexist to a modern listener, this 64-year-old reviewer was mildly amused by the notes’ reference to Bach’s continued inspiration “even in his old age”, given that this remark seems to have been made in the context of writing about that cantata composed in 1742 when the composer was 57…

All in all, this is a mixed blessing, although selective listening decidedly affords considerable pleasure.

Ralph Moore

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