SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BACH: Cantatas for the Liturgical Year, Vol. 13 – Accent

For one-voice-to-a-part purists, Sigiswald Kuijken’s performances of Bach’s cantatas are a must-hear.

Published on September 13, 2011

BACH: Cantatas for the Complete Liturgical Year, Vol. 13 = Easter Oratorio BWV249; Cantata for Easter Monday BWV6 – Yeree Suh, soprano / Petra Noskaiová, alto / Christoph Genz, tenor / Jan Van der Crabben, bass / La Petite Bande / Sigiswald Kuijken – Accent multichannel SACD ACC 25313 [Distr. by Qualiton], 59:00 ***1/2:

An introductory note in the booklet accompanying this recording explains that La Petite Bande has set out to record one Bach cantata corresponding to each Sunday and high holy day for an entire year in the church calendar. The project was planned to last several years (2006-2012), during which time the cantatas would be presented in concert performance as well as committed to disc. The cantatas under review here were recorded in 2009. Since the Ascension Oratorio was released as Volume 10 in the series, I assume the CD releases at least are not progressing in chronological order according to the liturgical year.

This is a pretty lavish production, with a tri-fold cardboard case offering two thick booklets, one with notes on the cantatas; full texts in German, English, and French; and information about the performers. The second booklet contains some scholarly observations by Sigiswald Kuijken concerning the prosody of Bach’s cantata texts, as well as notes on the vocal and instrumental forces employed. Following the lead of Joshua Rifkin and other musical scholars, Kuijken maintains that Bach’s cantatas were originally performed not with a chorus but with one singer per part; hence, we have four singers rendering both solos and choruses.

As far as instruments are concerned, Kuijken opines that the modern violoncello was not used as a continuo instrument during Bach’s day. Instead, that role was taken by the violone (basse de violon in French). Where Bach asks specifically for violoncello, Kuijken employs a violoncello da spalla, a curious, unwieldy-looking instrument quite a bit larger than a viola and held against the shoulder (spalla in Italian). At such points, Kuijken sets down his violin and takes up its oversized cousin. He manages to coax some enticing sounds from it in the third number of BWV6, a chorale in which the soprano sings the Lutheran hymn Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ (“Oh, bide with us, Lord Jesus Christ”) while the violoncello da spalla weaves an intricate instrumental filigree around the voice. It’s at such moments that these performances really come into their own.

However, it’s in the sinfonia of BWV249 and in the choruses that Kuijken’s recording will divide the opinions of his listeners. For those who buy into the one-voice-per-part scholarly argument, the purity and flexibility that solo voices afford will fully justify the choice. I can see their point. Kuijken’s small instrumental forces (just seven strings in all) bring off the sinfonia with virtuoso dash; ditto the four soloists in the juggernaut of an opening chorus, Kommt eilet und lautet (“Come, hasten, come running”). Compare this to Phillipe Herreweghe’s recording on Harmonia mundi with the much larger forces of the Collegium Vocale, and you can understand why Herreweghe takes things at a more leisurely pace: four hand-picked soloists can be counted on for vocal virtuosity. A chorus of eighteen? Not so much.

Herreweghe’s performance is more polite, with a lower temperature setting than Kuijken’s. The playing is suaver, more polished as well, though to some extent that may have to do with Herreweghe’s more distant recording. Kuijken’s is a close-up affair, with the result that winds and strings seem just a couple of arm’s lengths away from your listening space. I have to say that the recording is not entirely to my liking. Trumpets and timpani are recessed a bit and hint at depth, but the vocal soloists appear to be on just about the same plane as the strings and woodwinds; despite the usual openness that SACD sound affords, it’s all kind of two-dimensional. Add to this a slight but discernible echo around the voices, and you have sound that’s less than ideal. And frankly, Herreweghe’s performance simply has more grandeur.

Still, purists will want to hear Kuijken’s recording. It has excitement in the choruses, added tenderness in the solo numbers, plus those special scholarly insights that Kuijken brings to the proceedings. However, I have to confess that when I want to hear Bach’s magnificent Easter Oratorio, this isn’t the recording that I’ll turn to first.

—Lee Passarella




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