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Recordings of Bach Cantatas
General Discussions - Part 1: 1996

Vocal works book

Tyler Pierce wrote (October 4, 1996):
I know lots about Bach's instrumental works, but almost nothing about his vocal works. Is there a good book to show me the highlights of the latter? Most of the cantatas seem terribly dull, but I'd like to be sure I'd heard any interesting bits.

Archimedes wrote (October 4, 1996):
(To Tyler Pierce) You want a book, huh? You must be a music student. Anyways, I'd like to know, too. I'm sort of having the same problem; some of those cantatas are certainly dull.

What I have done is begun collecting the Ton Koopman complete cantatas. I have volumes I and II, and they are mostly OK (mainly because the choruses redeem some of the duller cantatas).

I want to make clear at the outset that IMHO Bach's better arias are wonderful. If you check out the arias in the B minor mass and the st. Matthew passion (and indeed the St. John passion), there is hardly a weak one among them. It is really a shock, after being used to hearing those, to encounter some of the arias in the cantatas which, though workmanlike, are by no means all of them great art. (Pax all you Bach fans out there; this man wrote more than 4000 individual movements, not all of them can be of the same quality.)

So that's my advice; the Mass and the Passions give you some sure-fire hit arias.

I am, at the moment, in the privileged position of having in my possession the Bach Werke Verzeichnis (of BWV fame) by Schmeider--which I must return by the end of the week. Guess what I am doing? Checking out the cantatas. This is a great book. It has about the first 8 bars of every single Bach piece or movement. If the first 8 bars is all you need, this is where to look (Breitkopf and Hartel, Weisbaden 1992 (I think)).

P.S.: One of my favourite records in my childhood was Bach and Handel Arias by Kathleen Ferrier, a wonderful British contralto of the 40s and 50s. I was overjoyed to be able to buy a CD re-issue of this very collection last Christmas. It has 3 wonderful Bach arias: "Qui Sedes Ad Dextram Patris" from the B minor Mass (BWV 232), "Buss und Reu" from the St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244), and "It is Finished" from the St. John Passion (BWV 245).

Cynthia A. Bussiere wrote (October 5, 1996):
My name is Cynthia Bussiere, and I'm a new subscriber to this list.

Bach's vocal works are my first musical love. I went to college and law school at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. Consequently, I had the privilege of attending the Oregon Bach Festival for several summers running. It was Helmuth Rilling's magnificent conducting and programming there that first brought me to Bach's oratorio.

I am by no means an expert on the music of Bach. Nor, Tyler, can I refer you to a comprehensive publication of the vocal works. However, I think I can point you toward some cantatas that may have what you're looking for. Let me preface my suggestions by noting that one reason you may find the cantatas dull is because you've probably been listening to the ones dealing almost exclusively with sin, death, punishment, and eternal suffering (jeez, I'm depressed already). Because of the solemn subject matter, you're probably not going to find the more "operatc," virtuoso arias in these cantatas.

So, try some of these (with the exception of one of the wedding cantatas, I don't think I've duplicated any of Harry's selections):

(1) Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme -- BWV 140
This is a work for three soloists (STB), chorus, and orchestra, written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity. The two soprano-bass duets, "Wann kommst du, mein Heil" and "Mein Freund ist mein" are terrific. The oboe accompaniment in the latter is sensational.

(2) Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott -- BWV 80
This is a work for four soloists (SATB), chorus, and orchestra, written for the Festival of the Reformation. The alto-tenor duet, "Wie selig sind doch die" is superb.

(3) Weichet nur, betruebte Schatten -- BWV 202
This is a work for solo soprano, oboe, and strings, a wedding cantata with a text by an unknown poet. It just shimmers with beauty throughout.

Due to a recent shoulder injury, I'm currently flying with only one wing. Because I've banged this out with one hand, it's necessarily skimpy. Let me know if you want more info.

 

Bach cantatas

Harry Collier wrote (October 8, 1996):
Yes, it's a real problem getting to grips with works where there are hundreds to choose from -- the same kind of problem as with Haydn piano sonatas, Scarlatti keyboard sonatas, Donizetti operas.

There are over 200 Bach cantatas; some are marvellous, some have marvellous bits in them; many are roughly performed and under-rehearsed or stylistically gauche.

I find I now have 157 Bach cantata recordings -- starting in 1956 when I took a deep breath and bought an LP of BWV 82 and BWV 56. I would suggest that anyone wanting to make a start on the INCREDIBLE corpus of works takes a deep breath and buys a good CD containing some of the more approachable cantatas. I append my personal list below, resisting any temptation to make it too long (since newcomers again become confused). Happy listening!

1. HMC 901328. Ich hatte viel Bekummernis BWV 21 (with BWV 42). Philippe Herreweghe.

2. HMC 901365. Ich habe genug BWV 82 (with BWV 82 and BWV 158. Phippe Herreweghe.

3. ACC 9395. Ich habe genug BWV 82 (with BWV 58 and BWV 49). Sigiswald Kuijken.

4. HMC 901270. Trauer-Ode BWV 198 (with BWV 78). Philippe Herreweghe.

5. Gottes Zeit BWV 106 -- various combinations and re-issues, with Gustav Leonhardt (cheap issue in France on 242 602).

6. DOR 90207. O Holder Tag BWV 210 (with BWV 204). Dorothea Roschmann and Les violons du Roy. Two of Bach's best wedding cantatas.

Archimedes wrote (October 8, 1996):
Harry Collier wrote:
< 5. Gottes Zeit BWV 106 -- various combinations and re-issues, with Gustav Leonhardt (cheap issue in France on 242 602).
6. DOR 90207. O Holder Tag
BWV 210 (with BWV 204). Dorothea Roschmann and Les violons du Roy. Two of Bach's best wedding cantatas. >
I wish I had read your post just 4 hours ago! I had with me (as I must have said a couple of times already) the Schmeider catalog, and I was looking through the Cantatas wondering which ones are "important" or interesting! Luckily I had copied down the information about "Gottes Zeit" (BWV 106), but I had forgotten about the Trauer Ode. Your post is very valuable, since most of my friends are reluctant to make particular selections from among the cantatas. "listen to them all" is all I ever hear.

Ulrich Faigle wrote (October 9, 1996):
Archimedes wrote:
< I wish I had read your post just 4 hours ago! I had with me (as I must have said a couple of times already) the Schmeider catalog, and I was looking through the Cantatas wondering which ones are "important" or interesting! Luckily I had copied down the information about "Gottes Zeit", but I had forgotten about the Trauer Ode. Your post is very valuable, since most of my friends are reluctant to make particular selections from among the cantatas. "listen to them all" is all I ever hear. >
I think you have good friends who give you sound advice. Follow it!

However, since it appears that many people don't want to listen to music before they have been told by someone on the internet thatcertain pieces are good, better or best (and hence no waste of time), I would like to point to a www-site with a lot of information on Bach cantatas. The convenient feature of that site is that it comes complete with ratings! So you do not have to make up your own mind about what you hear. What more can one ask?

Here it is: http://www.classical.net/music/comp.lst/works/bachjs/cantindx.html

(come to think of it: looking up that site might even save you the trouble of having to actually listen to any of the cantatas.)

Archimedes wrote (October 9, 1996):
Ulrich Faigle wrote:
< However, since it appears that many people don't want to listen to music before they have been told by someone on the internet that certain pieces are good, better or best (and hence no waste of time), I would like to point to a www-site with a lot of information on Bach cantatas. The convenient feature of that site is that it comes complete with ratings! So you do not have to make up your own mind about what you hear. What more can one ask? >
Perhaps it was the unfortunate phrasing of my comment that aroused Mr. Faigle's indignation. But there is no doubt that some of Bach's cantatas are a lot less effective than others. I know; I have listened to several. Perhaps I hit the less immediately attractive ones first. If I didn't know for certain that more interesting ones were coming along I would be definitely discouraged.

It is one thing to denounce the intention of someone to only listen to the highest-rated Bach Cantatas. It is quite another to condemn someone who wants to listen to the most likely cantata prospects first. I hope you're not implying that anyone who is not willing to work their way through the entire set of Cantatas from beginning to end is not worth the ineffable joy of discovering the gems that are hidden there! IMHO it is not a good idea to suggest that Bach is for the few, the bold, the cantata marines :-)

Ulrich Faigle wrote (October 9, 1996):
[To Archimedes] I don't want to carry on a discussion on the habit of ratings in front of the whole Bach List. It might be boring. But I am quite willing to explain at length to anyone interested why I feel that buying a Bach cantata is different from buying a microwave oven (for which I would consult a consumer's report as well, I guess). Just e-mail to me directly if you care.

But be it as it may, Arch, I certainly do not want to ruin (or ridicule) your interest in the cantatas. I hope you will enjoy them.

 

Cantatas

Jay Fahey wrote (December 18, 1996):
Soonjak Kwon wrote:
< By the way, I'm now seriously considering to buy complete cantatas set from Teldec ($600), big money. >
VERY big money. I, too, want all the cantatas, but have hesitated to buy them; it is a big $$$$$ committment. Could we have some discussion about which versions of the cantatas we should look for? Any suggestions?

Ken Nielsen wrote (December 19, 1996):
Jay Fahey wrote:
< Could we have some discussion about which versions of the cantatas we should look for? Any suggestions? >
Difficult question. I started with the Koopman set of which I now have three boxes. I've also bought some of the Harnoncourt set and mostly I prefer them. Not sure why..the orch seems richer and choir better tho' I do like the Koopman soloists. Also, there is a new set from Suzuki on BIS. I've one of those and love it. Aside from cost, I don't think I want to get all in one lot. I'd rather discover the Cantatas one by one. By the way, there are a couple of very good Cantata Web sites. I don't have the URL's because my computer fell in a heap and I lost my bookmarks. They are linked thru the PIPE site on Tile.net. A search would find them. Enjoy the Cantatas..they are magic. Sometimes I think I won't bother to listen to anything else. Then I put on a late Beethoven Qt. Also, Koopmam performs the Cantatas in Europe twice a year before each recording session. The next is in april and we hope to catch them in Amsterdam and Birmingham. Details are on the ABO Web site: http://www.tonkoopman.nl/index.htm
(I remember that one)

Sean Womack (Cadence Devane) wrote (December 18, 1996):
[To Jay] It's funny how you bring up the complete cantatas...I am online searching the sets I don't have on tower records online when I suddenly get a message from the bach list...from you, that is.

I, too, am trying to get the complete set. (Harnoncourt)

I'm working on completing my collection of it... What a coincidence! :)

Kirk McElhearn wrote (December 19, 1996):
< By the way, I'm now seriously considering to buy >complete cantatas set from Teldec ($600), big money. >
Definately worth it.

Although I must say that for once something was cheaper in France; I bought it for about 2100FF, a little more than $400. This is quite the opposite of normal prices here. I would suggest that you shop the web if you are going to buy it; you might find it cheaper.

Archimedes wrote (December 19, 1996):
Jay Fahey wrote:
<< By the way, I'm now seriously considering to buy complete cantatas set from Teldec($600), big money. >>
< VERY big money. I, too, want all the cantatas, but have hesitated to buy them; it is a big $$$$$ committment. Could we have some discussion about which versions of the cantatas we should look for? Any suggestions? >
I have vols 1 and 2 of the Koopman set also. The total number of cantatas contained in both volumes (6 CDs altogether) is relatively small, because Koopman includes appendices of later versions (or alternative versions) of catatas whenever they exist. I'm holding off on vol 3 until I have a little more money.

The Teldec set is by Harnoncourt, one of my favorite Bach people. Koopman's performances are by a mixed choir, and more polished than some of Harnoncourt's recordings I have heard. In contrast, Harnoncourt often (or even exclusively, for Bach) uses boy's choirs.

J.E.Gardiner's soloists are usually wonderful, but he tends to speed up arias a little too much for my taste. (The solos with Harnoncourt are done well, even if the soloists are boys.) I don't know if Gardiner has undertaken a full Cantata cycle; in fact, I'm fairly sure he has not.

To change the subject slightly, I recently bought a copy of the Christmas Oratorio by Harry Christophers and The Sixteen choir and orchestra. It was very good. They even included a Theorbo in the continuo, which surprised me (but I don't know a lot about that kind of technical thing), and I must report that the Theorbo sounded great in the famous Pastorale. The performance is, if not completely HIP, at least semi-HIP.

 

Cantatas info

Arthur Schlissel wrote (December 23, 1996):
I'd like to listen/learn about Bach's cantatas. Can anyone recommend several cantatas, of secular nature, that would be instructive for a beginner.

Patricia R Maimone wrote (December 23, 1996):
[To Arthur Schlissel) Start with Bach's Coffee Cantata. He really did have a good sense of humor! There are also two wedding cantatas and a Birthday cantata which features the famous aria "Sheep May Safely Graze" for soprano, two recorders and continuo.

Jay Fahey wrote (December 23, 1996):
[To Arthur Schlissel] I share Arthur's interest in cantatas, and would love to see a discussion of both secular and sacred cantatas. This is all new to me, and I'd love some recommendations!

 

The Cantatas

Ken Nielsen wrote (December 31, 1996):
I'd be interested to hear from someone with a deeper knowledge of Bach than I have with a comparison between the various versions on CD of the Cantatas. Not "Which is best?" but a comparison of qualities and styles. I started with the Koopman work in progress but have now bought a few of the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt recordings. I prefer K's soloists and his female sopranos to H/L's boys. There is also something "richer" about the orchestras in H/L but I don't know enough to identify the reason. (or to be sure it's not my imagination) Nevertheless, the K works are music of great joy that lift the soul in a way that almost nothing else does. The Suzuki version is interesting. I'veonly heard #1 which I thought "soared" on the first few listenings but is now starting to pall. Again, I'm not sure if the is just my ears. Any other more informed commentators following the list at the time of year?

 

Continue on Part 2: Year 1998

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Last update: ýMarch 13, 2012 ý09:04:19