Cantata releases plumb Bach's infinite variety

Immediacy is the hallmark of one recent recording of the composer's church cantatas, while another performance places the religious music in broader historical perspective.

Published August 13, 2006

Every week, it seems, someone somewhere makes a new Bach recording. Thank goodness they're all different. Two of the latest are perfect examples; even though both mine the same vein within the grand Bach treasury, the recordings couldn't be less alike. One, a live recording from Holy Trinity Church in Long Melford, England, is unique in every aspect. The 26th volume in an ambitious series encompassing all of Bach's church cantatas as performed on the actual liturgical holidays for which they were originally intended, the disc features seven cantatas written for Whit Sunday and Whit Monday. None are particularly notable in the Bach canon nor are they well-known, although a few motifs will strike Bach fans as strangely familiar. Furthermore, with John Eliot Gardiner leading the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, all of whom are acclaimed early music experts, the performances are consistently spry, even thrilling. Listen especially for the fierce chorus concluding BWV 68 - warning that "He that believeth is not condemned" - and the bustling orchestral sinfonia that launches BWV 174. The recordings themselves have a legitimate advantage in documenting actual events. In lieu of hermetically perfect sound, they project an unusually exciting sense of realism.

Sound quality is warmer and the level of musical inspiration is greater in both Bach cantatas on the Naxos disc. Marianne Kielland's succinct, pretty alto never wears out its welcome, even as she approaches soprano territory, just as Markus Schafer's plaintive tenor seems tailor-made for BWV 55. The Cologne Chamber Orchestra handles its many prominent parts with flair, most dramatically in two rousing organ concerto movements. Including cantatas by Hoffmann and Telemann not only places Bach in a flattering light but also fleshes out the disc significantly, transforming it into an insightful little slice of 18th century church music. In fact, the only thing lacking in this otherwise admirable recording is a translation of the German texts.


* J.S. Bach: Cantatas BWV 34, 59, 68, 74, 172-174; Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor (Solo Dei Gloria). Grade: A-

* J.S. Bach: Cantatas BWV 35 and 55; Melchior Hoffmann: "Meine Seele ruhmt und preist"; Telemann: "Ich weiss, das mein Erloser lebt"; Cologne Bach Choir, Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Helmut Muller-Bruhler, conductor (Naxos). Grade: A

- ZACHARY LEWIS, Times correspondent