Bach, Actus Tragicus & BWV 21,
Koopman / ABO
Challenge Classics CC72289
Bach, Whitsun Cantatas,
Koopman / ABO
Challenge Classics CC72290
Bach, Early Cantatas v.3,
It is among Bach’s very early cantatas, perhaps composed to apply for an organist position in Halle in 1713 and it has everything a cantata needs: intimacy, a touch of grandeur, arias, choruses, and a most beautiful oboe solo in the Sinfonia. The first verifiable performance took place on June 17th, 1714 in Weimar. That Bach was aware of the cantata’s quality is shown by revisions he continued to make, presenting the work (most likely) in 1720 in Cöthen and again that year to get an organist job in Hamburg, and yet again as part of his Leipzig cantata series in 1723.
The result is that there are several different versions available, at least three of them reconstructable. The differences are mostly in details; the enjoyment of the work is not in the least determined by whether BWV 21 is listened to in C-minor (1714 Weimar & 1723 Leipzig versions) or in D-minor (1720 Cöthen/Hamburg) nor whether the solo arias and high voice parts of the duets with bass are sung by a tenor (Weimar), a soprano (Hamburg), or alternating among them (Leipzig). Additionally, in the (three-soloist demanding) ‘luxury’-Leipzig version, the choruses alternate between the soloists and the whole group of ripienists, and trombones are added to the penultimate chorus (“Sei nun wieder zufrieden…”). The last aria (“Erfreue dich, Seele…”) can be alternatively taken by either of the high voices, soprano or tenor.
Usually, it is the Leipzig version that finds its way onto recordings; among others Richter (Archiv, 1969), Rilling II (Hänsler, 1976), Kuijken (Virgin, 1988), Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi, 1990), and Suzuki (BIS, 1999). In 1994, Ton Koopman included BWV 21 in Volume 1 of his Cantata cycle (then still on Erato, now Challenge Classics and reissued on a single disc), but chose to record the Hamburg version, adding alternating soloists and tutti in the choruses, Leipzig-style and the alternatively scored chorus in an appendix. In his first recording (volume 9 of the BIS series, 1997), Suzuki also keeps to the Hamburg version, except still more strictly and he offers some of the soprano parts (the opening aria “Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not…” and the duet including recitativo) in alternative movements.
The latest addition to the BWV 21 discography comes from The Purcell Quartet (Chandos, 2007, 38:55, see also MusicWeb review by Robert Hugill) whose third release of the “Early Cantatas” builds on the success of their previous work. They regale us with the version that would have been heard in Weimar of 1714. The Purcell Quartet (so much is in the name) adheres strictly to the OVPP (one voice per part) approach, so even in the chorus sections there is only the quartet of soloists employed. That particular element, admittedly, is very unlikely to be historically correct—even in Weimar, Bach will have surely found at least four or eight more singers to give him a little oomph for the festive, often grandiose sounding choral parts.
Their chamber-style Sinfonia is tremendously moving with the intimacy of lament; the latter generally being more a solitary than communal activity. But—perhaps not surprisingly—when the cantata turns celebratory in the second part and it is upon the chorus to assure us that we have “not been abandoned by God” and later extol the “glory and power [of] him that sitteth upon the throne”, the (less than) OVPP approach does miss out on something that even the slimmed down choruses of all the other HIP conductors deliver.
The Purcell Quartet is more successful in giving BWV 182 and especially 172 wholly satisfactory outings: Explosive and bold in the latter (“Erschallet, ihr Lieder”), the make the resplendent C-major opening chorus a cracking (sacred) curtain opener, a feat where, unlike in BWV 21, the chorus is not missed. Trumpets (David Blackadder, Phillip Bainbridge, Timothy Hayward) resound gloriously and give the work a flavor that, to my ears, hints at the Charpentier Te Deum. BWV 182 is just a notch below 172. Tenor and alto Charles Daniels / Michael Chance have a confined, slightly sour tinge that I don’t notice in any of their other performances and the flute solo isn’t quite as impressive as the oboe in BWV 21 or the trumpets of BWV 172. Small quibbles in light of their high performing standards and Emma Kirkby’s and Peter Harvey’s dependably excellent contributions. The performers have tuned their instruments to Brad Lehman’s “Modified Sixth Comma” temperament.
There are earlier recordings that may even be further from the Purcell’s approach than Richter, but it is usually Richter (and Rilling) whose ‘grander’ stance is so thoroughly musical and still transparent that even ears reared on Harnoncourt or used to Herreweghe can find much to enjoy. So they do. Broad and orchestral, and in the later choruses with a glorious Christmas Oratorio-like ring to it, Richter (43:47) sends his superb soloists Edith Mathis, Ernst Haefliger, and Dietrich-Fischer Dieskau victoriously through the cantata. Manfred Clement turns the Sinfonia (all conductors come in at about three minutes) into a generous mini oboe concerto. The collective chest of the choir is very broad, but there is so much to admire in the spirit and skill of Richter’s Munich Bach Choir, you’d not want it any other way when listening.
At 43:45, Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande (just saved from severe subsidy cuts) are just as expansive—although by very different, HIP, means. His soloists, especially soprano Greta de Reyghere and tenor Christoph Prégardien are the finest of all the modern recordings. Only when René Jacobs’ alto peeks through (in the fugue of the chorus concluding part one, “Was betrübst du dich, meine Seele”), is the casting slightly less than ideal. All in all, the calm pulse and grace of Kuijken and his soloists make this my current reference recording.
I had not listened to Ton Koopman’s BWV 21, one of the discs with which I started my own exploration of Bach’s cantatas, in ages. I’ve since read some unfavorable reviews Barbara Schlick has gotten for both, her Herreweghe and Koopman, recordings. But re-approaching these interpretations with some caution, I wasn’t turned off by her voice—even if I do prefer de Reyghere (Kuijken), Arleen Augér (Rilling II), and Yukari Nonoshita (Suzuki II). Perhaps it does get a bit much with Koopman, since his version is essentially a solo-soprano cantata (and taken a whole note higher placing greater stress on her voice), whereas Herreweghe mixes it up with Howard Crook (particularly beautiful in the aria “Bäche von gesalznen Zähren”).
Ton Koopman also includes the Actus tragicus (“Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit”, one of the cantatas from Bach’s 1707/08 Mühlhausen period) on this extract from his cycle (my MusicWeb review of three earlier of those reissues here, Terry Barfoot’s review of this disc here), and if BWV 21 doesn’t climb to the top of the comparative latter, BWV 106 makes the same point previous releases have made: That Koopman has, if anything, become underrated amid all the Suzuki- and Gardiner-hoopla of the last few years. Klaus Mertens and Guy de Mey are wonderful, the choruses among the best of any HIP groups (matched only, occasionally, by Gardiner and surpassed only by Herreweghe), and with a general geniality about it all that is difficult to put in words.
Much easier to single out the super recorder solos by Marion Verbruggen on the plus-side and Schlick’s condensed vibrato on the caveat-side. I remain unconvinced that re-issuing these discs at high mid-price (₤10, €12, $17) was wise; at low mid-price more potential listeners might feel comfortable picking these discs up for their general, casual goodness rather than hyperbole-laden superlatives (which they simply don’t elicit)… but even as is, every issue reminds me what a treasure I’ve got in Koopman’s complete cycle.
Another new Koopman release couples “Erschallet, ihr Lieder” (BWV 172 also included on the above mentioned Purcell Quartet disc) with the three other cantatas for Whitsun, “Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt” (BWV 68), “Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte” (BWV 174), and “Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen” (BWV 175). Now it’s Koopman who has Christoph Prégardien as his tenor and Mertens is synonymous with quality work, anyway. Sopranos are, for 172 and 68 respectively, Barbara Schlick and Deborah York. The wonderful Bogna Bartosz is the alto in the latter two cantatas, Kai Wessel the countertenor in 172. Compared to the Chandos disc, BWV 172’s opening is as if straight out of the Christmas oratorio, with trumpets in full stride and timpani pounding away… not nearly as explosive but at least as jubilant.
The Sinfonia of BWV 174 is happily bustling and of course very familiar: it is the same as the Third Brandenburg Concerto’s first movement, arranged here by Bach to include horns and oboes. Originally part of volume 19 in Koopman’s cycle, this is the latest of just a handful of recordings of this cantata. It’s such a beautiful cantata that one wonders why it has (Kurt Redel’s old, out of print recording excepted) only been recorded as part of complete cycles, so far. With Bartosz, Prégardien, and Mertens at his service, Koopman takes top honors ahead of Gardiner (Nathalie Stutzmann, Christoph Genz, Panajotis Iconomou). Suzuki hasn’t gotten around to it yet.
Briefly back to BWV 21, though: With all but two of my favorite versions (Rilling II and Suzuki II, where my memory must serve me) in direct comparison, Kuijken is a winner ahead of Herreweghe who serves my desire for a fleet (37:06) HIP version better than Suzuki I (37:15) and Koopman (41:03). For exploring textural extremes, the Purcell Quartet would be worth considering—but the reason to add their disc to one’s Bach collection is really the two other cantatas (BWV 172 and 182) it comes with. With Rilling II, Kuijken, and Herreweghe all available on individual budget-price discs, the splurge & compare approach is a realistic and tempting possibility. For those interested in Bach’s musical cross references and parodies, the Organ Prelude & Fugue BWV 541 contains the fugue of the opening chorus, except in (G) major.