If you get your idea of a Bach cantata from John Eliot Gardiner's SDG live set, then listening to these recordings from Sigiswald Kuijken may give you a quiet shock.
Gardiner's performance method is dominated by an expert, energetic chorus, exploding with sibilants and consonants in the best English choir tradition. His choir is backed up by a powerful band and solos generally taken by well-known concert or opera singers. All is pazazz - or extreme pathos. The audience must be grabbed by the throat; that seems to be Gardiner's guiding principle, and "fair enough" you may say - after all, he wants to sell records.
Sigi Kuijken is more concerned with Bach's own intentions and practices in church music. His performances are dominated by the band, around which the text is hung by single voices - in the "chorus" movements, as well as the "solo" movements. You might suppose this results in inaudible "choruses" but this is not so; four voices together can make a lot of noise (indeed acoustic theory tells us that Gardiner's 32 singers will only be twice as loud as Kuijken's 4). What changes is the way we listen to the voices; instead of hearing a choir accompanied by an orchestra in a mini-oratorio, we now hear a sort of texted concerto; and it comes as less of a surprise to learn that Bach himself did not call his church-pieces "cantatas", but often referred to them as "concertos".
Kuijken pushes this approach to its extreme by his choice of performers. His "Petite Bande" in its current, youthful, iteration is wonderfully expert in a slightly reticent way (look for their "Brandenburg" performances on YouTube), but is deployed one-to-a-part without any 16' instrument; the singers, though equally expert, are period specialists who would struggle to be heard in (say) the Barbican or the Festival Hall. The result is a chamber style of performance that (helped by a good recording in a church acoustic) works well on speakers (in all formats - CD, SACD, and surround) but leaves us asking questions about its resemblance to Bach's own performances in the Thomaskirche, where he did use single voices, but generally had a bigger band, and probably used the big organ for continuo - not the ice-cream hand-cart size job typical these days.
Kuijken's latest volume gives us Cantatas for the Pentecost season; full-scale works for Whitsun and Trinity Sunday with trumpets and drums, and quieter, chamber-scale numbers for the Whit Monday and Tuesday, the latter based on existing secular works whose instrumental parts Bach re-used. These reworked Cothen cantatas are especially delightful.
Warmly recommended to any previous listeners to the series - not that they'll need my recommendation from me - and a good introduction to Kuijken's performance style.
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.
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