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Ricercar Consort, soloists.

by Mark Gooley

Buy Deutsche Barock Kantaten
Buy Deutsche Barock Kantaten
(different parts of the collection)

The modern listener is likely to be put off by cantatas like these, or even those of J. S. Bach. Even the term "sacred music" seems to raise hackles, and the particular brand of Protestantism associated with their creation, an early Lutheranism with Pietist influences, is not quite like anything extant today: Christians of almost any stripe can also find something that annoys. The cantata texts, unless Biblical, are usually doggerel or little better: often one can take a perverse enjoyment in how bad the text is and how great the music, marvel at a composer's desperate efforts to make the dullest theological exposition interesting, or revel in the careful embodiment in music of a ludicrous metaphor; these are guilty pleasures, but perhaps the only ones to be had here -- apart from the sheer beauty of the music.

This collection is marked "10 CD's for the price of 6. Special offer - Limited edition." It appears to have been available in the U. S. for at least the past year. (Some of the recordings date from 1985, yet as far as I know they have not been listed individually in the Schwann Classical catalog or in Opus, its successor: unless there's a good local shop specializing in classical music or one resorts to mail-order, such discs might as well not exist.) These are sacred cantatas in German or Latin, ranging from solos to duets to choral works with or without solo "numbers," and almost all are by neglected composers, or neglected works by composers better known nowadays for instrumental music, notably Dietrich Buxtehude.

Disc 1 is solo cantatas for alto voice, here a counter-tenor (Henri Ledroit). There are two cantatas by Buxtehude, one by his father- in-law Franz Tunder, one by Heinrich Schuetz, and six others by lesser-known composers. The performances are disappointing: Ledroit has a small voice, or is using one; perhaps he is holding or being held to some notion of authentic style of performance. The Buxtehude and Schuetz works here are not markedly more interesting than those of the lesser men. The disc's booklet is sketchy, trilingual as are the others', and gives no libretti (unlike the others').

Disc 2 is all Buxtehude, and much more interesting. "Herr, ich lasse dich nicht," Jacob (tenor) and the Angel (bass) after their wrestling match, is dramatic, with martial figures on the trumpet, Jacob properly brash and the Angel weighty with authority as if gathering up the shreds of his dignity, finally joining in singing an "Alleluia." The other spectacular work is "Ich suchte des Nachts," a setting of a text adapted from verses from the Song of Songs. A tenor-bass duet singing the words of the Bride may seem absurd at first, but a series of contrasting sections captures her shifting feelings beautifully: loss, determination, near-despair, sorrow, penitence. The joyful final section concludes with a sudden poignant shift into a minor key. The other cantatas here are pleasant, but not as compelling. The booklet gives libretti this time, a detailed analysis of "Ich suchte des Nachts," and interesting speculation on what Bach might have learned during his famous stay with Buxtehude, apart from how to antagonize an employer (spend months away after asking for weeks) and why not to inherit Buxtehude's post (the need to marry his daughter, as Buxtehude had married Tunder's; Handel wouldn't marry her either).

Disc 3 is more solo cantatas, this time for one or two sopranos, settings of Scripture (mostly Psalms), or chorale texts, by Tunder, Buxtehude, Johann-Hermann Schein, and an unknown composer. A stickler for "authentic" performances might have recorded boy sopranos, as in the Leonhardt and Harnoncourt Teldec set of Bach cantatas: that would have been a mistake here as I believe it was there. The boys on those recordings tend to sound like automata, and the rather simple Tunder cantatas are interesting largely because of a good performance by Greta de Reyghere. Three of the Buxtehude cantatas are solo, and two of those (the other is a lament) convey something peculiar to Buxtehude, something beyond or beneath Bach: naive, almost crude exultation. Here, as often, it's conveyed in a vocal line soaring over continuo, sometimes in dialogue with an instrument. I can't recall having heard quite the same thing from any other composer.

On the next two discs, marked "IV", are the complete cantatas of Nicolaus Bruhns (1665-97); before buying this set I had never heard of him. My loss. The first cantata on the first disc, "Hemmt eure Thraenenflut," is a nine-part madrigal on a near-doggerel text about the Resurrection: engaging and constantly interesting right up to an "Amen" based on the tune "Christ lag' in Todesbanden." The four-part cantatas tend to be more interesting than the solos and duets, but nothing is dull, though whether from the enthusiasm of the performers (the booklets make clear that recording all of Bruhns' cantatas was a labor of love) or a certain rude vigor (or more than that) in the music itself I can't say. Using one singer to a part is perhaps questionable, but the surviving manuscript, not even in Bruhns' own hand, doesn't show whether Bruhns meant the four-part cantatas to be performed by a choir. If this was done for economy, the result doesn't seem to have suffered.

Disc 6 is accordingly marked "V": Chirstmas cantatas by Andreas Hammerschmidt, Schein, Schuetz, and Tunder, with one each by three more-obscure composers. The Hammerschmidt works are festive and pleasant, and most of Schein's intimate and based on Christmas carols of his day. Schuetz's "Ave Maria" is not the familiar prayer but the entire dialogue between Mary and the Angel at the Annunciation, again quiet and intimate, not in the style of his "Weinachtshistorie," or that of his other cantata here, "Der Engel sprach zu den Hirten," with four trombones.

Disc 7, or "VI," is funeral cantatas: Telemann, Boxberg, Riedel, and J. S. Bach. Some years ago a friend assured me that Telemann had written a vast number of cantatas, few of them worth hearing: the booklet gives the number at 31 complete yearly cycles -- over 1400 -- plus others including twelve other funeral cantatas. (Bach wrote perhaps three hundred; about two hundred survive.) "Du aber Daniel, gehe hin," is reminiscent of a mediocre Bach cantata; as the booklet notes, the opening resembles that of Bach's BWV 21, and the sixth number, an aria for soprano, has a familiar tune (the tenor aria in BVW 8 is similar). Riedel's cantata is in the style of Buxtehude, and Boxberg's "Bestelle dein Haus" shows what a lesser composer of the day did with material similar to that of the Bach cantata here, BWV 106, "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit." Again the choruses are sung one voice to a part -- economizing again? -- which gives this funeral cantata the feel of a madrigal. The tempi are slightly fast, and I would prefer a weightier bass than Max van Egmond, though the countertenor James Bowman is excellent as usual. Not a bad performance but not a desert-island choice (the Archiv, please, the one with Fischer-Dieskau despite the peculiar way he pronounces words).

Disc 8, "VII," is Buxtehude again, solo cantatas (one singer or several) rather than choral. "Mein Herz ist bereit" left me with mixed feelings. This is one of my favorite cantatas by anyone, with Buxtehude in his best mode of exultation, but it was written "for very deep bass," as one edition of the score (if not Buxtehude himself) says. If memory serves, that means a solid F below the stave. Here it's performed transposed, again with van Egmond, and I much prefer the old recording with Staempfli conducted by Helmuth Rilling, released on vinyl in the U. S. on the Nonesuch label but in Germany originally on Cantate, I think. (The same disk had a good "Ich suchte des nachts" and "Herr, ich lasse dich nichts" with Staempfli and Theo Altmeyer, as well as a solo cantata for soprano, "O Gottes Stadt" [Helen Donath], which I have never seen recorded elsewhere.) I prefer Rilling's slower tempi and Staempfli's deeper, more-substantial voice: that performance brings out the swift changes in the mood of the music, the awe in "denn deine Guete ist so weit der Himmel ist." With van Egmond that's missing. "Ich bin eine Blume zu Saron," also for bass despite the opening text, is a lesser work in the same spirit, and gets similar treatment. The other cantatas don't stand out. "An Filius non est Dei" gets a better performance on the Erato set of Buxtehude cantatas conducted by Koopman (ECD 75374; few cantatas are in both sets). "Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott" would seem to be based on a chorale, and the instrumental parts are where the interest lies.

The last two discs are of cantatas derived from Psalm 130, the De Profundis: settings of the Latin or German text, or arrangements of chorales derived from it: Bach (BWV 38 and 131), Schuetz, Schein, Sweelinck, and various lesser-known composers. For some of these, there's a choir (the Capella Sancti Michaelis, apparently a Belgian choir, and competent): this would have been welcome on some of the other discs. Bowman is again the counter-tenor, and excellent; van Egmond again the bass, and once more too much the light baritone for my tastes, though very sound technically. The Bach cantatas are the only ones on these disks that I'm familiar with. BWV 38 gets the full choir for the choral numbers, but BWV 131, perhaps the oldest of the surviving Bach cantatas, again gets only one singer to a part; both performances are good, however, if not strikingly so. The other cantatas -- most more in the style of motets -- are pleasant but not of remarkably interest, and the repetition of words and themes makes it better not to listen to these disks in one sitting.

On the whole this is a set worth having if one likes cantatas of the period. Recently I've seen individual discs offered -- for all I know they've been available in Europe for years -- but the lower price of the set makes it attractive. Some of the Buxtehude cantatas may not be available readily or at all elsewhere, and the Bruhns set is very good. The other discs are probably not worth buying on their own.

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