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Bach: Cantatas, Vol. 12
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 25 October 2010
I have been collecting more or less the entire Suzuki series, mostly for cost reasons, but have also been collecting some of the John Eliot Gardiner "pilgrimage" albums, including this one. This is because, in general, there are some occasions when Suzuki doesn't quite hit the mark and Gardiner definitely does. It wotks the other way too. I also own a CD of Bach arias performed by Bostridge and Biondi, which cover one of the cantatas on this album (no. 55) and also an aria from another cantata on this album (No 139)

On the whole I found these performances both impressive and enjoyable. For me the critical tests for performances of Bach cantatas are whether the performance conveys the true stature of the music, and also whether it engages me emotionally. For by far the most part I think the performances convincingly pass these tests.

I want to mention a few aspects,both positive and negative that particularly struck me-first the positive (1)-(3):

(1) I thought that the overall standard of the solo singing was good. The soloist who stood out most for me me was the baritone Peter Harvey, who has quite a lot to do here. His singing was usually both beautiful and affecting. His lower register isn't very strong, but this mostly didn't seem to matter.

(2) I preferred James Gilchrist/Gardiner's performance of cantata no. 55 to Bostridge/Biondi's. This is largely for reasons unconnected with the singing- in the former performance the tempo of the first aria is too quick and not suited to the character of the music. Also I think the obbligato in the second aria is more affecting when performed with a flute (as under Gardiner) rather than with a violin (Biondi), despite the variable intonation of a baroque flute. I also don't think that James Gilchrist's singing in this cantata, as a whole, is inferior to Bostridge's. I thought Gilchrist's singing of the second aria was outstanding.

(3) As has been noted, this album contains the celebrated cantata no. 140 ("Wachet Auf"). i have been familiar with this for many many years and still think this one of Bach's greatest works. The performance does the work justice and sounds vibrant and fresh, inspite of the fact that Gardiner and the performers must be very familar with it. I found the second duet a bit less engaging tban the rest (perhaps because it didn't seem to suit Peter Harvey's voice so well).

(4) The first movements of cantatas 60 and 89 were slightly lacking in intensity. I think this was down to the interpretative approach adopted by Gardiner, rather than deficiencies in the singing.

(5) in general I thought there was a slight over-emphasis on small points of detail (down to Gardiner again)-eg the dynamic contrasts on the first syllable of "alleluia" in the first chorus of cantata 140. However, I don't think one should give this aspect too much importance

(6) The first aria of cantata 139 sounded rather rushed as it also does as performed by Bostridge/Biondi. Bostridge's singing is definitely superior to Gardiner's tenor in this aria.

(7) I didn't particularly take to cantata 52 apart from the sinfonia (the opening to Brandenburg concerto no.1), which was performed with great verve. The rest of the work seemed musically rather insignificant compared with the other cantatas on the album, and the soprano used a bit too much vibrato for my taste.

In summary I would pose 2 questions: Is this album worth purchasing? Definitely yes-I would add that Gardiner has written some fascinating things in the liner notes about the works performed, which is a clear bonus. Secondly, on the strength of the works performed, is Gardiner clearly a superior Bach interpreter to Suzuki? My answer to this is no!

Antony Ornstin
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 October 2010
...BWV140 "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme". My very favourite cantata. Nothing spectacular, but a perfectly-formed gem of a cantata. This is a gorgeous version, one of the best I've ever heard, with nicely sprung rhythms and nice pacing of the individual parts, rounding off with a perfectly realised final unison chorale. Very happy with it. Worth the price of the CD alone.

However, there are other good things on the CD. The others were not so well known to me, but they were another part of the enjoyable voyage of discovery that the cantatas have been. At one point, I thought I'd wandered into the wrong CD - out came what was unmistakably a version of the opening movement of Brandenburg Concerto No.1, complete with its braying horns. Such is the sinfonia that opens BWV52.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This 2-disc set contains the cantatas for the 22nd and 23rd Sundays after Trinity, and this review constitutes my 24th in the series, leaving three more to go. The great and visionary `pilgrimage' that Gardiner and his associates undertook in the year 2000 had them performing all Bach's extant cantatas on the liturgical dates for which he had created them, or as near as might be. Easter was late in 2000, there was no 27th Sunday after Trinity and a cantata for that occasion has therefore been added to the second disc here. This cantata is none other than the great Wachet auf (`Sleepers awake'), no. 140, so this particular issue comes to a particularly splendiferous conclusion.

For anyone joining the train at this station, the year 2000 was not just the so-called millennium year (there was no year zero, 1 BC was immediately followed by 1 AD and the millennium year is therefore 2001), it was also the 250th anniversary of Bach's death, aged 65. Behind the marvellous music-making there must have been hardly less marvellous planning, management and leadership on Gardiner's part. We know because various participants tell us that very often they were learning the piece they were to perform the next Sunday from scratch during the previous week, and to top that they were travelling around Europe, and even as far as America towards the end, between their weekly concerts. I now own 25 out of the 27 sets, and I can report with complete candour that I detect no sense of fatigue or loss of motivation at any point. Credit of course goes to the various performers (and the technical recording staff who seem totally unfazed by the constant changes of acoustic), Bach himself inscribed `SDG' (= soli Deo gloria, glory to God alone) on each masterpiece, but the rest of us will surely award a lot of that to Bach himself.

The recording venues were respectively All Saints Tooting and Winchester Cathedral. If Tooting is thought by anyone to lack stateliness, the reason for recording there was simply that the majestic acoustics of Eton Chapel, where the performance had actually taken place, were at the mercy of the flight-path to Heathrow airport, and the ensemble recreated the sense of a live performance by means of long recording takes. In any case, what's wrong with Tooting? Chaucer's more famous pilgrimage went to Southwark, after all. We can read all about it from the `blog' contributed by Gardiner himself in the usual way.

Also as normally, there is a shorter contribution from one of the performers, this time the viola player Annette Isserlis. This short essay seems to me exceptionally interesting, because in addition to the standard gasps of admiration there are thought-provoking comments on the role of the instrumentalists generally. I shall quote Mme Isserlis verbatim `As instrumentalists we are therefore embedded in the substance of each cantata, as portrayers and symbolists as well as accompanists'. Myself, I would almost go further. In Bach it is instruments, and not really the voices, that take the lead. Bach was an `absolute' musician, and it seems to me that his infinite musical faculty found its natural outlet through the wordless medium of instruments. He did not, I venture to think, react to texts as Handel did, or as Schubert did, the texts simply served as the occasions for music. In any case the religious fervour and conviction that breathes through everything Bach ever composed was something that possessed his entire mind and soul. Much of the pietistic verse he set was thin poor stuff, but set against music like this who cares what it amounts to?

It is very rarely indeed that I have expressed any real reservations about the quality of what I have been privileged to listen to, and I have no reason or wish to do so here. The singers seem to combine the insight of veterans with the freshness of newcomers, and the all-important instrumental parts are superbly done on their period instruments. It is surely superfluous to utter platitudes about the stylistic insight and command shown by such a director and such executants. I ended, as the set itself ends, in dulci jubilo, even if I might qualify (hopefully without impiety) the usual SDG.
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