This is the third disc in what is proving to be an impressive series - cantatas for each of the principal church festivals of the year, recorded in Bach's own church by the choir of St. Thomas's and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester directed by Thomaskantor, Georg Christoph Biller. The first CD in the series, Das Kirchenjahr mit Johann Sebastian Bach, Vol. 10 - Reformation / Michaelistag, consisted of works for the Feast of St. Michael and for Reformation Day, and very fine it is too. The present disc brings us three cantatas for Pentecost: BWV 34, "O ewiges Feuer"; BWV 74, "Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten"; and BWV 172, "Erschallet, ihr Lieder".
Each cantata is preceded by a short hymn. The opening chorus of BWV 172 is then taken at a moderate tempo, and it's characteristic of this series so far that the music moves along at a natural pace and is never rushed. The choir, which of course consists of boy trebles and altos in the upper parts, sound both secure and committed, and the orchestra, including fine-sounding trumpets, do an equally fine job. The duet "Komm, lass mich nicht" is most beautifully sung by treble and alto boys; and in the closing chorale the choir sound at their very best - here accompanied by the upper strings with Bach's beautiful descant. BWV 74 begins with a favourite choral movement, its catchy, springing gait superbly pointed here by choir and players. Especially fine in this work is the aria for alto, "Nichts kann mich erretten", with the boy alto delivering an absolutely lovely performance of this colourful and demanding piece.
Yet another richly orchestrated favourite concludes the programme - BWV 34 opening with a superb chorus, the choir sounding the long-held notes of "ewig" in fine style. The alto soloist, a different one this time, gives an expressive rendering of the aria "Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen", and at the end of the work the word "Friede" brings an outbreak of joy from choir and orchestra, leading into the exuberant final chorus.
Leipzig and the Thomaskirche represent an illustrious tradition in European music, personified of course in the supreme genius of JSB but enhanced also by the 800-year-old Thomanerchor as well as by many other fine musicians and distinguished cantors. This tradition has survived and overcome many setbacks, including world wars, the Hitler years and, more recently, the hostility of the less musical elements in the GDR's ruling socialist unity party - and then the almost equally difficult commercial and cultural pressures of the years of freedom that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. So it is all the more inspiring to find the Leipzig tradition, in the form of this already very promising series of recordings, still flourishing today. As with the previous issue of Reformation and Michaelmas cantatas, the recordings on the present disc are again in more-or-less traditional style, very different from the historically informed performance manner that has been a feature of other cantata series in recent years. But, as already mentioned in a review of that first disc, these Leipzig performances bring their own kind of authenticity, with the very considerable asset of St. Thomas's marvellous choir. They are further enhanced by fine solo and orchestral work, on modern instruments, and by Georg Christoph Biller's inspired training and direction.
The booklet information, notes and illustrations are excellent, and all texts and translations are given. The recording, too, makes the most of the fine Thomaskirche acoustic. These, then, are engaging, forthright, no-nonsense performances of some of Bach's more familiar cantatas, and for me they represent Leipzig music-making at its very best.