Müller-Brachmann, BWV 56, 82, 158
Quasthoff, BWV 56, 82, 158
Should the urge to delve even into every last corner of Bach's cantata output strike anyway, the most economical way to come into their all possession would probably be to buy Brilliant Classics' complete Bach Box of which the fine set of cantatas by Pieter Jan Leusink with the Holland Boys Choir and the Netherlands Bach Collegium make up the lion share. The most luxurious way of acquiring these divine works is undoubtedly achieved by collecting Sir John Elliot Gardiner's gorgeous (in performance and presentation) set on his own, Soli Deo Gloria, label. (Harnoncourt/Leonhardt (Teldec), Helmuth Rilling (Haenssler), Ton Koopman (Challenge Classics), and Masaaki Suzuki (BIS) are other options.) Somewhere in between lies the more reasonable decision to opt for a few recordings of one's favorite cantatas. Or, for lack of knowing them all: the most popular.
Famous recordings of Bach cantatas are plenty. And three particularly notables ones - Hotter/EMI, Dieskau/DG, Hunt-Lieberson/Nonesuch - have in common the particularly beautiful solo cantata (originally for bass, but also available in an alternate version for mezzo or counter-tenor) "Ich habe genug".
Now Bach-specialist Helmut Müller-Brühl, who has made many acclaimed (though decidedly not famous) Bach (and Haydn and Telemann) recordings for Naxos has issued a CD with three Bach cantatas that, for selection and performance, well merits inclusion among the core of Bach cantatas anyone may want to have on their shelves.
A friend and classical music specialist at Tower Records (RIP - Tower, that is... not the friend who is doing well back in his native Trinidad) had always professed his love for HMB's Bach... and, his untenable predilection for Solti's perverse St.Matthew Passion not withstanding, I must say very much to his ears' credit. The Cologne Chamber Orchestra, founded by Hermann Abendroth in 1923 and led by HMB since 1964, and the Collegium Vocale Siegen compare well even to the most famous Bach-playing ensembles. Since 1987 the Cologne Chamber Orchestra is a historical performance practice/modern instrument hybrid. Not the only reason that group and leader remind a good deal of the excellent Helmuth Rilling and his Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart.
BWV 82 - "Ich habe genug" ("I have enough"), BWV 52 - "Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen" ("I shall gladly carry the yoke of the cross") and most likely BWV 158 "Der Friede sei mit dir" ("Peace be with thee"), also, are from the late 1720s; mature, "Leipzig" Bach. They are all thematically related by the renunciation of a life in suffering - or rather: embracing the mercy of God (and life eternal) in death. "Ich habe genug" was famously staged by
Scored for prominent strings and Continuo, soloist and solo oboe, it has attracted some of the greatest singers. (There are almost twice as many recordings of this cantata than the next popular, BWV 52.) Lorraine Hunter-Lieberson's is a particularly gorgeous rendition, but the work is just as powerful in the Bass-Baritone original. And Hanno Müller-Brachman, the other "HMB" on this recording (who also works on Bach with Herreweghe and Rilling), more than holds up against the staggering competition of Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Thomas Quasthoff, Ian Bostridge, and Matthias Goerne. It's a gorgeous, calm, and felt delivery marked by HMB-2's round, deep, never booming, voice. It's rather straight-forward singing and though the sound reminded me more than once of Fischer-Dieskau (among HMB-2's teachers), it's not a laden with meaning, nor inflecting as delicately. A quality not necessarily to be considered a detriment. Perhaps the finest compliment that can be paid to this disc is that, standing in direct competition (i.e. containing the same Cantatas, also sung by a baritone) to Deutsche Grammophon's recording with Quasthoff and the Berlin Baroque Soloists under Rainer Kussmaul (a tremendous Bach CD by all means - and in itself highly recommeded), I'd not want to have to chose between the two. (Of course, I haven't - but that's not quite the point.)
BWV 56 conveys the intense feeling of long-suffering and, later, exultation of relieve before ending in the calm, mildly gloomy "Komm, O Tod, du Schlafes Bruder" ("Come, O Death, Sleep's Brother") - one of my favorite choruses in all of Bach. Less than two minutes long and yet encompassing a universe of sadness that only music (and perhaps the dark eyes of a dying horse) can convey.
Perhaps composed for Easter, BWV 158 relates to the others with its central Aria (with Chorale) "Welt, ade..." - "Farewell, world, I am weary of thee". Cheery stuff this is not, but often music is best when it is at its gloomiest. "Gruftmusik [Crypt-music] really is what it is all about", Heinz Holliger recently told Christian Gerhaher, one of Germany's finest Lied-baritones, in full and joking agreement with Gerhaher's predilections toward the dark sides of music. As if to underscore their point, this CD is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful example of just how eminently enjoyable suffering can be.
And of course, never do dark and somber moods sound more uplifting as in Bach, master of the musical prayer.