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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cantatas, Volume 15

For the Third Day of Christmas

  • Selig ist der Mann, BWV 57
  • Sehet, welch eine Liebe, BWV 64
  • Ich freue mich in dir, BWV 133
  • Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, BWV 151
Katherine Fuge, soprano
Gillian Keith, soprano
Joanne Lunn, soprano
William Towers, countertenor
Robin Tyson, countertenor
James Gilchrist, tenor
Peter Harvey, bass
The Monteverdi Choir
The English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria Records SDG127
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Of the three projected cycles of the complete Bach church cantatas (those by Masaaki Suzuki on Bis, Ton Koopman on Challenge and Gardiner now on his own label, Soli Deo Gloria) the latter is arguably the most consistent and exciting – perhaps because of the circumstances under which the cycle was recorded… somewhat hurriedly, with all the vicissitudes of an ever-changing location and as part of an enterprise without a precedent. If the other two cycles had to be summed up each in one word, that word might be 'subtlety' for Koopman and 'vigor' for Suzuki. For this cycle? 'Vitality'.

There's something to be said for owning examples of all three styles of music-making. If only two were possible, it'd be Gardiner then Koopman – though the Bach Collegium Japan series is not to be dismissed!

This single CD contains four cantatas for the days immediately after Christmas, BWV 57, 64, 133 and 151. It must be said straight away that the performances are as good as any in the Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Gardiner series. As is well known, these musicians set out on Christmas Day 1999 in celebration of the Millennium and 250th anniversary of Bach's death to perform all the extant cantatas on the corresponding liturgical occasions for which they were written. This fifteenth volume (they are not being issued in chronological order) is taken from a concert given at the very end of the pilgrimage – just after Christmas (December 27th) 2000 in St. Bartholomew's New York. Yet the freshness and energy of the soloists, choir and players are remarkable. Again, one explanation for this – apart from the ability of Gardiner to elicit the best from his forces – is probably that each week everyone came to the next selection of masterpieces with open minds and ears. It shows.

'Sehet, welch eine Liebe' (BWV 64) is that blend typical of Bach of the sacred and… the less sacred: several dance-inspired movements. Their combined effect is sheer joy; the controlled pulse of opening choral motet sets the tone for the entire CD. In his excellent and illuminating – if a little hard to read: small white lettering on black – notes Gardiner draws attention to the aptness of the short bass recitative (#6) looking forward to shunning earthly life and reveling in the heavenly one, not only for the time of year (what really matters at this high and holy season), but for the end of their huge undertaking. The articulation, too, of the aria 'Von Der Welt Verlang Ich Nichts' by Robin Tyson is typical of the control and unself-serving way in which this music must first have been sung.

'Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt' (BWV 151) is unusual in that it begins with a long, slow soprano aria. Gardiner muses in his notes that it is redolent of Near Eastern or Basque melody and prefigures Gluck, even Brahms. Putting that aside, but not Gillian Keith's exquisite singing, this is a cantata full of beauty and tenderness, the kind of tenderness in which Baroque representations of the Protestant Nativity are anyway rich. The gentle, rocking, cradle song may stay with you long after the CD has finished.

'Selig ist der Mann, der die Anfechtung erdulet' (BWV 57) is a somber dialog between Christ and the soul for St. Stephen's (the martyr) Day. This performance has outstanding bass singing by Peter Harvey. He and Joanne Lunn, soprano, meditate on vulnerability and death with the sparsest of instrumentation – strings and reeds – yet at times with operatic impact. As one has a right to expect, Gardiner and his soloists steer as far from self-pity and indulgence (three of the arias are in minor keys) as can be. 'Strict' would not be the word. 'Disciplined' – particularly in terms of tempo – would.

'Ich freue mich in dir' (BWV 133) also contains a springing, joyful opening celebration of Christmas. First performed on December 27th 1724, it was also probably learnt and played then by musicians likely to be tired. Despite the adjustments Bach made to ensure it went well, the material is fresh and the attack and devotion never less than total. Gardiner and his forces reflect this – with some uninhibited and lovely singing from soprano Katharine Fuge.

Bring one thing away from this disc and it may well be Bach's genius in responding to this season in multiple ways; none of them maudlin – even to our perhaps jaded sensibilities about it. We as listeners could not in turn respond to that response were it not for the outstanding musicianship and conviction of these probably weary but still utterly inspired musicians. If you're collecting the SDG series, don't hesitate; if you have these cantatas in either of the other sets, you won't be disappointed at the vigor and control of these four performances.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey