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Bach in good hands

BIS  CD-991
harmonia mundi  HMC 901694

Record Box

Living today, particularly in zones vulnerable to extreme weather disasters, and the feverish pace of living which oppresses large cities, forces millions of individuals to a stark existence deprived of the qualities capable of transforming lives through beauty created by artists of whatever discipline.

'Actus Tragicus' (c) 2000 harmonia mundi sa Bach Collegium Japan (c) 1998 Grammofon AB BIS Two CDs of Bach cantatas dropped into my life recently, which in itself is not a reason for my opening paragraph. I focus on the qualities revealed in both music and performance. This dimension of beauty needs our constant replenishment, especially when it is under threat from Man's intolerance and violence, not to mention Nature's growing unpredictability.

In music we have such a wealth of qualities capable of drawing out our most treasured feelings. Bach's illustration of grief, for instance, touches a nerve in listeners capable of a deep sympathetic reaction. Only can this come about through performances recreating music as though new, without shadow of staleness.

A new release of four cantatas for their ongoing Bach series by Bach Collegium Japan and a CD of four cantatas from Cantus Cölln induce our undivided attention as we succumb to Bach performed by a medium-sized group (with soloists) and five singers respectively. Nothing is perfect, yet this is music treated with absolute dedication and care for authenticity, therefore silencing minor quibbles.

With four cantatas apiece, the two records embrace Cantatas 4, 12, 46, 95, 106, 136, 138, and 196. The earliest - Christ lag in Todes Banden - is one of Bach's most adventurous sets of chorale variations, and the smaller group perform it to a comparable standard of virtuosity. This glorious cantata has always had a secure place in my musical treasure chest. The other seven cantatas could easily become 'also rans' - excepting the fact that Bach's gems are liberally strewn and glitter in unexpected places.

I easily give way to the temptation of highlighting some of the best movements, for what better inducement than Bach's sudden surges of inspiration? Cantata 4 (which is a long 'surge'), and the Actus tragicus cantata apart, the passacaglia chorus from Cantata 12, the chorus Schauet doch und schet from Cantata 46, the soprano chorale Valet will ich dir geben from Cantata 95, the alto aria Es kommt ein Tag, and the bass aria Auf Gott steht meine Zuversicht from Cantata 138, all stand out an inch or so taller.

The circumstances under which Bach toiled with composition and copying parts, often weekly for the following Sunday, almost defies belief, except on the premise that utter dedication can shatter any presumed limitation.

Both these records contain performances of which Bach would probably have listened entranced. Maybe some of the tempi would have raised his eyebrows, but who can tell?


Copyright © 5 April 2000 Basil Ramsey, Eastwood, Essex, UK




Record Box is Music & Vision's regular Wednesday series of shorter CD reviews