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Bach: Cantatas Bwv 29, 61, 140 / Harnoncourt, Vienna Concentus Musicus

Release Date: 12/08/2009 
Label:  Sony   Catalog #: 756794   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Concentus Musicus
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Cantatas: 140; 1,4 61; 2,5 29 3,6 (two versions each) Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cond); Concentus musicus Wien; Arnold Schoenberg Ch; 1,2,3 Tölzer Knabenchor; 4,5 Wiener Sängerknaben; 6 Julia Kleiter, 1 Read more class="ARIAL12"> Christine Schäfer 2,3 (sop); Alan Bergius, 4 Seppi Kronwitter, 5 Soloist of the Wiener Sängerknaben 6 (treble); Bernarda Fink 3 (alt); Paul Esswood 6 (ct); Kurt Streit, 1 Werner Güra, 2,3 Kurt Equiluz 4,5,6 (ten); Christian Gerhaher 3 (bar); Anton Scharinger, 1 Gerald Finley, 2 Thomas Hampson, 4 Ruud van der Meer, 5 Max van Egmond 6 (bs) DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 88697567942 (2 CDs: 130:14 Text and Translation)

It would be virtually impossible to exaggerate the excitement generated by the initial releases of the Bach cantata series on Telefunken (now Teldec)—or, for that matter, the anguish when shipments to the U.S. of later volumes were temporarily halted due to a contretemps between the German label and its American distributor. The prospect of a complete set of Bach’s sacred cantatas was itself a dream destined to come true, not even counting the promise of the very latest in musicological research and lavish packaging (with miniature scores, no less). In the end Helmuth Rilling, working under the radar, beat Teldec’s team of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt to the finish line. The transition from vinyl to CD eliminated the scores. The novelty of boy sopranos lost some of its appeal. And there was a vague sense, fair or not, that Harnoncourt and Leonhardt began to lose a little steam toward the end of the project. Eventually their monumental achievement was eclipsed by newer entries from Ton Koopman and Maasaki Suzuki, with John Eliot Gardiner in the wings.

Two decades after putting the finishing touches on the Teldec series Harnoncourt has revisited three of the cantatas. The original versions, on disc 2 of this two-disc set, were recorded in BWV order: Cantata 29 in 1973/74, BWV 61 in 1976, and BWV 140 in 1984. The 2009 remakes, on disc 1, have an entirely new cast of singers, with a new slate of seven soloists and Harnoncourt’s currently favored chorus, the Arnold Schoenberg Choir, replacing the Tölzer Knabenchor and the Wiener Sängerknaben. There have been changes in the roster of Concentus Musicus, as well, mostly among the wind players. The core string players are still around, but there is one notable addition: Peter Schoberwalter Jr. has joined Peter Schoberwalter Sr. in the violin section. Time marches on!

Listening to disc 2 is a reminder of what the fuss was all about. These are terrific performances. There somehow arose a perception that Harnoncourt’s way with Bach was overly academic and even a little stiff—“Bach with footnotes.” But there’s no sign of that here; Harnoncourt’s interpretations are as emotionally satisfying as they are intellectually stimulating. The question always lurking in the background, of course, is whether the boy sopranos were up to the task. It stands to reason that Harnoncourt would have chosen recordings in which they sang well, and, in fact, it would be hard to find fault with any of them. (Note to future musicologists: Will anyone ever uncover the identity of the “Soloist(s) of the Wiener Sängerknaben”?)

For the new recordings Harnoncourt has opted for a mixed chorus and adult female soloists. He explains this change of heart in the accompanying notes. Since their voices now break at a much earlier age than in the past, it has become increasingly difficult to find boys who are sufficiently mature to grasp the full meaning of Bach’s music. I have to say that while we are fortunate to have been afforded the opportunity to hear the boys in the original set, the three women he has used for the remakes offer ample justification for their selection. The tenor and bass replacements are excellent, too, as were their earlier counterparts.

The new versions tend to be a little more brisk than the old ones, but not appreciably different interpretively, at least in Cantatas 140 and 61. Cantata 29 has been spruced up a bit with arias that are significantly quicker and livelier than before, but its concluding chorale is much more expansive, with marked pauses at the fermatas—seemingly a throwback to the style that prevailed a half-century or so ago—before period instruments and historically informed practice became the norm. Incidentally, in case you hadn’t noticed, I might point out that in rethinking these cantatas Harnoncourt has not chosen to cast his lot with the Rifkinites.

An interesting concept; incomparable, albeit redundant, content; excellent performances. Well worth investigating.

FANFARE: George Chien
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Works on This Recording

Wir danken dir, Gott, BWV 29 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Concentus Musicus
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1731; Leipzig, Germany 
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Concentus Musicus
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1714; Cöthen, Germany 
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor:  Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Vienna Concentus Musicus
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1731; Leipzig, Germany 

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