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on 22 November 2013
A selection of two of J. S. Bach's copious output of church cantatas, Wach auf (Awake) and Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life). According to the comprehensive CD notes, 140 was written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, and because Easter fell early that year, an extra cantata was required. What a brilliant piece of work for an 'extra' - composers of the time were fascinated by chord progressions, this is superbly illustrated by the jaunty opening of 140. It's all really uplifting music, the playing is precise with a good pulse, the choristers and soloists mostly excellent. Authentic period instruments were used, including violino piccolo, violoncello, oboe de caccia, and harpsichord. Pitch is A' = 415Hz. All this accounts for a slightly mellow, dulcet quality to the instrumental music, presumably as it would have been heard at the time of composition. Digital sound quality is excellent and the booklet includes full text and English translation. Soloists are Ruth Holton (soprano), Michael Chance (counter-tenor), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor) and Stephen Varcoe (bass). For what it's worth I found 140 slightly more enjoyable although 147 has the more famous tune. There's something elegant and civilised about this type of music.
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on 11 July 2012
Knowing and highly valuing Gardiner's B Minor Mass, initially I found this disappointing. The sound seems undernourished and occasionally hasty, unlike the wonderful sense of rhythmic drive on the Mass, and the sopranos (boys?) in the opening chorus to my ear sounded shrill and even unpleasant. Likewise although I appreciate her purity the soprano soloist sets my teeth on edge! But, as I've listened to it several times I've begun to appreciate some very beautiful passages, not least the concluding two choruses of the two parts of the second cantata, which flow with the usual Gardiner vitality. So I think it just deserves 4 stars (if you can cope with the soprano!), but it doesn't match the Mass or Gardiner's superlative Beethoven/Mendelssohn violin concertos where his control of a unified vision seems to me beyond criticism.
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on 30 January 2005
Few of Bach's cantatas are better known than these, thanks to excerpts becoming well known. But there's much, much more to them than that. BWV140 is an absolute gem, and BWV147 has a lot more to offer than "Jesu, joy of man's desiring", the chorale made famous by Dame Myra Hess's piano transcription. These were released as part of Gardiner's 2000 Cantata Pilgrimage, although they were recorded long ago. They remain the best versions I've heard - although now that Gardiner has started to release the live recordings made during the pilgrimage on his own SDG (Soli Deo Gloria, and not Sod Deutsche Grammophon) label, I may have to change my mind (the first live recordings are excellent).
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on 7 June 2011
The Cantata 147 is a perfect piece of music written by a master composer for performance in the church of St. Thomas in Leipzig. The instrumental and vocal invention, both in terms of colour and melody, is quite astonishing (it would have been completed within 1 week if my music history is correct). Gardiner thinks he can improve on this by an unyielding dynamic overload more suited to the Classical period (Mozart, Beethoven, etc.). This intrusive and, in my view, incorrect approach renders the work irritable to listen to (which is the opposite to what it should be). As far as I am aware, dynamics in the Baroque period (Vivaldi, Bach, etc.) were restricted to soft and loud (over a short or lengthy passage). There is no deference to this here.
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VINE VOICEon 25 October 2007
Of the two cantatas on offer on this disc the first, "Wachet Auf", has become hugely well known through innumerable alternative versions of its central movement, in which the choral melody is accompanied by an utterly charming string obbligato. As a whole work, however, it is not well represented in recordings, and does not often receive live performances. A brief survey of other discs currently available returned only the old Helmut Rilling recording from the 1960s, a more recent version by Harnoncourt, and some other sessions by ensembles I had never heard of. It has not yet appeared on Gardiner's beautifully packaged new versions, and Suzuki's Bach Collegium Japan have also neglected it thus far.

In all honesty, I must admit that their decisions seem justified when one engages with the music itself, as this is not Bach's finest hour. True, there are some moments of sublime inspiration, but much of "Wachet Auf" seems distinctly workmanlike: the opening chorus, for example, wears very thin very quickly, and the two duets between soprano and bass (representing the soul and Christ) seem fidgety and almost slightly rushed. The second cantata ("Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben") is a more ambitious and overall much more successful affair, with much more variety in its writing for chorus, and the solo arias offer the sort of quality one expects of Bach.

Given the lack of other options (at least ones recorded within the last decade), this disc would seem to be the best possible choice. However, there are some caveats. The performance overall is very polished and professional, and the chorus singing is excellent (if a little monochromatic), but it feels a little like a rushed job. The acoustic of St Andrew's Church in Fontmell Magna is dry (it is not a large building) and while this makes for a very "present" sound, in which every detail comes through, at times any unevenness is very difficult to disguise (such as the oboe obbligato in "Wachet Auf"). Moreover, there are points when the echo is nothing if not a little "bathroomy": one need only listen to the soprano aria "Bereite dir, Jesu" to hear a reverberation that would not be out of place in a railway waiting room. The soloists are a good team, but Ruth Holton is too straight for my taste, sounding too much like a treble and not really colouring the music in a way that conveys the text. Similarly, Stephen Varcoe (whom normally I rate very highly indeed) comes across as strangely underpowered and lacking in warmth.

Can I recommend this recording? I would say at the time of writing (October 2007), yes, as it is the best of a pretty average bunch, but I would suggest waiting until Suzuki and Gardiner have released newer versions before going for this one.
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on 8 March 2007
The performance found on this CD is the best I've heard so far.

My favourite part is the openning choral, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" which starts with a breathtaking dialogue between strings and winds.

Choir and instruments are well balanced and allow for a very pleasant listening experience.

These are probably the most famous choral works from Bach, and they are a good starting point for anyone wanting to know his work.
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In the year 2000 John Eliot Gardiner, together with his colleagues here the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, to say nothing of some distinguished solo performers both vocal and instrumental, famously pursued what they call a Cantata Pilgrimage in which they recorded all Bach's surviving cantatas in various churches round the world on the liturgical dates for which the music was intended. On the back of the record box here you will see a logo `Bach Cantata Pilgrimage'. On the front you will see imaginative photography suggesting travel, along with Bach's picture. The first page of the liner leaflet consists of two things - a short statement by Gardiner written in 1999 and laying stress on the significance for Bach of the millennium year, and an editorial note saying that `Gardiner...will perform all the surviving church cantatas during...2000'. If you happen to look in less prominent places you will discover that these performances have, er - NOTHING TO DO with the year 2000 or with what we normally think of as the Cantata Pilgrimage that has been so successful. They were actually recorded in 1990 and issued by DG in 1992.

In reviewing any classical cd I normally expect to be concerned with the performance and recording above all else. Moreover I have reviewed several issues from the authentic Pilgrimage series with unalloyed enthusiasm. However in the last resort I believe that a reviewer has to be concerned with the production in toto, and I disapprove so strongly of this kind of marketing that I am prepared to scale down my evaluation drastically, despite the distinguished musicianship. Here we find two of the best known of the cantatas - Wachet Auf (`Sleepers Awake') and the top favourite of them all, no 147 with the chorale often called in English `Jesu joy'. In fact even if this had been part of the real Pilgrimage series it would not have been my favourite. I adore the cantatas themselves, the singing and playing are of a high and consistent quality (and the countertenor is the one whose tone I like better than all others' combined, Michael Chance), and the disc gives fair value in terms of quantity with 55 minutes of music. I think my reservations pertain really to the recording. It is `good', it is `faithful', but it is rather lifeless and there are definitely one or two signs of strain in the higher registers, for example in the first chorus. For performances given in the more severe style of interpretation, using authentic instruments and favouring for the most part brisk tempi, this kind of sound is not the best or most appropriate. `Jesu joy', to take the most obvious case, is charmless here, which should never be so under any circumstances or at any speed.

I take no pleasure whatsoever in submitting an unfavourable notice when the performers are musicians I admire sincerely and they are performing (I guess) well up to standard. However I prefer to be dealt with in a more open and straightforward manner by the producers and editors, I feel strongly that the way in which the production and editing have been done is almost certain to create a false impression in many quarters, and on top of that I am unravished by the recorded sound. However these two cantatas must either have been already issued or be slated for issue before long in the Pilgrimage series proper, and I look forward in due course to being able to recommend those performances and recordings as warmly as I have already recommended those among their companions that I know so far.
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on 22 August 2013
This is a lovely, spirited recording. John Eliot Gardiner and all his forces on great form. I especially loved the opening of 'Wachet auf' - sleepers will definitely awake. It was all sung and played with great feeling. Highly recommended.
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on 6 March 2015
Not what I expected.......from listening to one of the tracks on classic radio.....did not sound the same............disappointed.
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on 23 November 2014
Almost impossible to wrong with a John Eliot Gardiner performance of Bach!
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