- BWV 86
- BWV 87
- BWV 97
- BWV 44
- BWV 150
- BWV 183
This volume of Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgimage takes the EBS to Dresden and Sherborne to record. I have not been actively reviewing my purchases of Bach Kantaten because there are already so many good resources available online, such as the Bach Cantatas website. This website is rich with a number of contributions that I have found invaluable; it’s an old school social network for those interested in Bach’s oeuvre of church cantatas.
My principal purchases in building my collection of Bach Cantatas is now clearly focused on:
There are others to be sure, but these are the foundation, as each conductor has set out to record the lot. As a general rule, Gardiner doesn’t always have the most polished versions, but his tend to be more theatrical and daring in some cases; I can imagine this has something to do with the live nature of the recordings.
The first piece I’ll comment on in this set is BWV 150, which is one of Bach’s earliest known cantatas, one with which I have taken great pleasure with the recording using 1-per-part by Akademia. Under this French ensemble, I’ve found a very sublime treasure.
Gardiner has recorded it twice in the cycle; this go around he’s using a fuller chorus which makes for a very different sound. The choir is intense, and has an athletic sound to them. This is amplified by the very airy space in which they recorded the work. The air is palpable and believable in the recording, given the fast pace Gardiner takes in Zedern müseen von den Winden. Like the use of a multi-voiced choir, the EBS use multiple strings per part, too. I like having this alternative rendition of the work.
But I prefer the one-per-part version by Akademia.
BWV 183 is less familiar to me, and opens up with a choir of double reeds and a vocal soloist (bass). Again, the sound captured at Sherborne is exquisite; with headphones, it’s almost like surround sound. The following tenor solo features tenor, but I think it is too stretched in terms of timing. At 10:30, it’s the longest single track on the recording. Despite the length, it’s a beautiful aria featuring solo cello.
Suzuki also recorded this work in his volume 39. His take on the aria clocks-in at 7:54, and I like the pace much better. Yet, Gardiner wins with a far-more sensual sound. The recording engineers on the Gardiner project were first rate.
BWV 86 opens the recording, performed in Dresden. Gardiner mentions the trouble recording there, questioning the acoustics of the space in one of Dresden’s surviving churches. Koopman records this in volume 9 of his series, which I own. I prefer Gardiner’s opening tempo to Koopman’s. The second aria gives special attention to a violin solo. Both Koopman and Gardiner’s players keep up a good show in that solo, however, Gardiner wins with his light-on-his-toes male alto, and again, that gorgeous recorded sound.
BWV 87 opens in a darker sound world, with a minor moded opening aria. I have Suzuki performing this one in his 35th edition; Gardiner again wins again for a more aggressive take, at least in the opening. The recorded sound in this case is more on-par between the versions, but Gardiner is simply putting out more energy. If there’s an edge, it would be with Gardiner, due the clarity in the recorded sound. The acoustics in Dresden may not have favored the conductor in his position, but the recorded result wasn’t so bad, after all.
I currently don’t have anything against which to compare BWV 97. The opening is a leisurely overture-style sinfonia. The next number, Nichts its es spät und früe for bass solo has such a strong “flavor,” the opening line later taken up by bassoon. It may not be one of Bach’s best solo arias from the Kantaten, but there’s a very strong flavor to this number. The EBS don’t own this one yet, but it’s still a keeper.
They take more comfort in the next aria for (female) alto, Leg ich much späte nieder.
If I take a favorite, however, it’s in the opening to BWV 44, Sie warden each in den Bann tun for tenor and bass. The tenor part is owned, let me say… the balance favors these two singers over the orchestra. Luckily harpsichord is used in the continuo to keep a regular “twang” pushing the rhythm forward.
This piece is also recorded by Suzuki in volume 20 of the Bach Collegium Japan’s series. There’s has a brighter sound to the orchestra, with a far more fluid and smooth rendition in the opening duet. I would have told you the BCJ had a masterwork on record, but the EBS again top Suzuki’s rendition with more extrovert performers and a more clearly-recorded sound.
In the end when I’ve compared this 25th edition of Gardiner’s series with some of the competition, he almost every time comes ahead. Many times it is for the sheer benefit in sound quality and sonics from the recording. But so much of it is equally due to the conductor’s interpretation, such as his tempo choices, or the energy he pulls from both his instrumentalists and soloists.
If you’re a collector of Bach’s cantatas, you probably already know about the different available series. I think each one has some stand-out superlatives to be identified. However, the high regards Gardiner’s series has been receiving isn’t unfounded… his sometimes unpolished renditions sometimes convey a rustic quality, or raw energy. He’s not always the last word, so I always find having multiple versions (especially of my favorite cantatas) a benefit.
This edition is to be well-recommended. If you’re not collecting the entire lot by Bach, you’d still do well with this release, given the artful cantatas 44 and 150 represented here.