on 28 March 2014
Kuijken has recorded BWV 9 before, five years before he began this Bach Cantata series. But that 1999 DHM disc began his single-voice performances of Bach, so duplicating the cantata now is a puzzle. There are very few changes; forces are much the same (three people take part in both recordings), so are tempi and phrasing. True, there is no 8-foot instrument in the 2012 version (in 1999 a double-bass played along with two (upright) cellos) but an organ thickens the bass line in both versions, limiting the difference.
There are some changes of mood but these hardly indicate progress. The engineers are partly responsible. In 1999 (a recording "based on" a concert) they recessed the band, making it sound bigger than it was, and highlighted the singers. The 2012 recording is much more "in your face": though made in a church in Louvain, it sounds like a studio recording. Everyone is on equal terms and the singers frequently disappear into the "concerto" texture. I think this is all to the good. Bach himself usually called his cantatas "concertos", and BWV 9 could easily be transformed into an engaging flute-and-oboe double concerto.
Less pleasingly, the close recording magnifies scrawny violin sound, and Kuijken's own rather lumpy cello-da-spalla playing - though it may be that the 2012 iteration of La Petite Bande is more purist about period technique than the 1999 group. Also less pleasing is the slight but telling loss of impetus in the lovely trio-sonata-like duet "Herr, du siehst statt" since 1999 (when the second voice was Magdalena Kozená, no less, though one would not guess it). The tenor aria "Die welt kann ihre lust" is unsatisfactory in both recordings - it cries out to go more gracefully and smoothly, but here Kuijken puts verbal text before musical, and makes it dull and apparently interminable.
BWV 70 "Wachet! betet!" has trumpets, but is dramatic rather than ceremonial in character. Kuijken uses the first, Weimar, version, to suit his forces. His performance has, to my ears, a toy-box feel; for once I would like a touch of Gardiner - but it's my ears that need adjustment. Jan Van der Crabben is a problem. He does not have the weight or agility for the operatic scena Bach wrote. The Weimar court must have had a star bass - or a visiting opera troupe.
BWV 182 "Himmelskönig, sei willkommen" is a much-recorded favourite. The spalla works well in the light chamber-style writing of the "chorus" numbers, and Kuijken gets the complicated pitch-relationships just right (high-pitch organ, low-pitch winds) but the overall feel is dutiful rather than joyful - for a better sense of what can be done with an OVPP performance one needs to revisit Joshua Rifkin's 2001 Dorian CD, an account with a real swing to it, in a much more realistic church acoustic.
I am sorry to say that my overall verdict on this whole series of 64 cantatas (this is definitely the last disc, according to Accent themselves) is similarly guarded. Listening to it has been a learning experience, but actual enjoyment was sporadic.
In 2004 Kuijken demanded close attention to the verbal texts of Bach's "cantatas" (in an introductory booklet reprinted without change for all 18 volumes - anyone who wants 17 spare copies is welcome to mine). In practice his recordings have been evidence of the instrumental character of works which Bach himself called "church concertos" - because Kuijken's players have been generally excellent but his singers no more than competent (as indeed must have been the case for Bach).
The choice of works has been a disappointment. We were promised a cantata for each Sunday of the liturgical year but this was too vague a strategy, making for purely pragmatic choices to suit available forces, and for much tiresome duplication with other OVPP recordings. It would have been far more interesting (and instructive) to record a complete Leipzig "jahrgang". In the end Kuijken abandoned the Kalendar altogether and made this final disc a showcase for his spalla obsession. I believe in the spalla (at least in the case of the cello suites, the few cantata obbligatos and Brandenburg 3) but Kuijken makes too much of a good thing. Indeed, the whole project probably became a burden before the end - as was the case with the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt complete cantata series. The concluding volumes have a distinctly through-gritted-teeth feel to them. Kuijken has been occupied with other things; Passion recordings, new versions of the main "orchestral" works, his spalla, and, not least, an ongoing funding crisis.
Those few who, like me, have followed the whole series, will no doubt want this final volume. Some will wait for Accent to market it as a set , but they may wait in vain - the label tends not to produce collected editions. I hope they will publish a few CD's of highlights - say for Christmas or Easter - because for all my reservations I think this has been an interesting effort, which made many more Bach cantatas available in OVPP versions, and for which Kuijken deserves our thanks.