on 17 July 2013
I bought the CD last February feeling sadly certain that this Kuijken Bach Cantata series had come to an end. I'd been listening to it since 2006; at that stage Accent promised 20 Cds by 2012 (with one cantata for each Sunday & feast-day of the Lutheran Year), but the production-rate slowed steadily, and with the news that the future of La Petite Bande is threatened by funding cuts in Flanders, it seemed that this 15th volume would be the last. Happily the 16th CD has just appeared, and having reviewed that recording, and described Kuijken's general approach (you can follow the link to the rest of my reviews) I thought I would devote this comment to focusing on one example of what the series has to teach the listener - in Kuijken's performance of Cantata 140 "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme".
"Wachet auf" is about the best-known of all the Cantatas, usually heard performed by a large chorus, leaving a memory of the great melody sailing majestically over a busy orchestra. Put on Kuiken's version and immediately something seems wrong. Where is the tune? It seems to have vanished and even the lower voices are hardly audible. Admittedly, as the movement proceeds and the voices climb their registers, they become more audible, and the chorale itself finally does get to the top of the texture - but the ordinary listener's natural conclusion would be that using only single voices in Bach does not work.
A natural conclusion, but a wrong one. The real reason we cannot hear the chorale is that Bach is not concerned that we should - that is why he starts the tune on a single unsupported soprano voice low in its register, and also begins the three other voices low down, only letting them rise gradually. For him the chorale is not the dominant voice, but the scaffolding around which he builds his vocal concerto - and "concerto" is the word he used for this music. All the parts derive from fragments of the chorale, but the tune itself remains elusive, buried in the texture, whose dominant feature is the thudding footstep of the approaching Bridegroom: we shall only be fully aware of the chorale tune at the very end of the cantata, when all the forces play it unadorned.
But why then (you ask) can we hear the tune so clearly in "conventional" choral performances? For the simple reason that the top line has been greatly reinforced and encouraged to sing its head off (and often doubled by a trumpet stop), while everyone else, particularly the band, is told to pipe down - thus entirely subverting Bach's intentions, pretty clearly expressed in his writing.
This is a simple, but radical lesson and it takes a while to sink in; but as we strive to hear what is going on in Kuijken's performances we do gradually learn to let Bach speak in his own language rather than insist on hearing him in the same way that we hear (say) "Elijah" or "The Dream of Gerontius". I am grateful to Kuijken for that.
PS if anyone has (like me) enjoyed Sigi Kuijken's various performances over the years you may like to visit his website [http://www.lapetitebande.be/index.php]
which offers an opportunity to support the work of his group.