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John Eliot Gardiner & Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists
Ascension Cantatas
Cantatas BWV 11, 37, 43, 128


J.S. Bach: Ascension Cantatas


Cantatas BWV 11 [28:13], BWV 37 [15:30], BWV 43 [18:02], BWV 128 [16:30]

John Eliot Gardiner

Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists

Soprano: Nancy Argenta; Counter-tenors: Michael Chance & Robin Blaze [BWV 128]; Tenors: Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Christoph Genz [BWV 128]; Basses: Stephen Varcoe & Reinhard Hagen [BWV 128]

Archiv Produktion 463583

Oct 1993
Apr 1999 (BWV 128)

CD / TT: 78:30

Recorded at All Saints Church, Tooting & St. John's, Smith Square, London, England (BWV 128).
1st recording of Cantata BWV 11 by J.E. Gardiner.
1st recording of Cantata BWV 37 by J.E. Gardiner.
1st recording of Cantata BWV 43 by J.E. Gardiner.
1st recording of Cantata BWV 128 by J.E. Gardiner.
See: Cantatas BWV 11, 37, 43, 128 - conducted by John Eliot Gardiner
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Bach Cantatas For Ascension Day From Gardiner, Part 1

Donald Satz wrote (September 2, 2000):
John Eliot Gardiner's Ascension Day disc (Archiv 463583) contains three cantatas and an oratorio: BWV 37, BWV 43, BWV 128, and BWV 11). BWV 11 is the Oratorio for Ascension day and easily the most well known of the four works. Of course, the connection among the works is that each revolves around the rising of Christ. Gardiner's vocal soloists are Nancy Argenta, Michael Chance, Robin Blaze, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Christoph Genz, Stephen Varcoe, and Reinhard Hagen. My recollections from other recordings are that Argenta, Chance, and Varcoe can be problematic. Blaze has a beautiful voice, but emotion tends to be rather neutral. Johnson has been an outstanding Bach performer.

When Bach wrote BWV 11, he was trying to absorb the deaths of a few of his children. It must have been very difficult to compose glorious, triumphant, and optimistic music under those conditions. One of the interesting aspects of BWV 11 is to try to notice if the tragedies in Bach's life did take hold in the work.

For comparison, I'm using Andrew Parrott on EMI 49959 and Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi 901479. I believe that both versions are now available at reduced price under different catalog numbers. Herreweghe uses a full chorus; Parrott is solidly in the one voice per part camp.

BWV 11 opens with a rousing chorus of great joy and ceremony. Parrott's version is excellent with crisp sound, great pacing, super trumpets, and four vocal soloists who blend very well together. After Parrott, Herreweghe sounds bloated with trumpets not crisp and the chorus not highly distinct; joy is also at a minimum. Gardiner offers everything Parrott provides with an additional sharpness from the trumpets and the best choral work of the three.

A tenor recitative, bass recitative, and alto aria follow. Their common theme is one that I rarely have thought of - how dismayed and abandoned Christ's followers must have felt when he left them. This is not a good series for Parrott. His tenor and bass, Wilfried Jochens and Stephen Charlesworth, are not particularly effective or of fine voice. Also, Parrott is quick in the aria and doesn't convey the gravity of the text; this is not the time for Bach "Lite". The vocalist, Margaret Cable, is an improvement on her two compatriots but not excellent. Both Herreweghe and Gardiner are outstanding. They know the environment is hard and sorrowful. Their vocal soloists are very good. Although I was a little surprised, Varcoe and Chance, for Gardiner, are in top form. Herreweghe's Christoph Pregardien and Peter Kooy are formidable singers, and Catherine Patriasz, whom I am not familiar with, delivers a strong and lovely performance.

With the next tenor recitative and a choral, the mood changes from abandonment to a deep recognition that Christ and the world has triumphed through his ascension. I feel the choral needs to display a very strong sense of triumph, and Herreweghe does just that; it's a superb performance. Gardiner has his chorus in nearly hushed tones at the beginning, then has them really belt it out at the end. I'm not enamored of the approach. Parrott is not competitive at all as he is again quick and too light; also, his vocal quartet sounds undernourished.

A tenor/bass recitative, a very short alto recitative, another tenor recitative, and an aria for soprano are next. The tenor and bass, in white apparel, comment that although Christ is now gone, he will return as he departed. The alto, somewhat desperately, implores Christ to return soon; while he is gone, life will be loathsome. Then the tenor returns to erase the alto's mood and revel in the joy of ascension and eventual return. The sporano aria is one of great hope and comfort in the belief that Christ will return.

The Parrott and Herreweghe recitatives are highly effective. However, Gardiner's tneor/bass recitative is too quick and rather combative; there is little affinity toward the text. Herreweghe's soprano aria sung by Barbara Schlick is excellent. His pacing and sense of hope and comfort are superb; Schlick, although not of outstanding vocal beauty, effectively displays the music's theme. Parrott's Emma Kirby is excellent and Gardiner's Nancy Argenta is fine, but neither conductor digs deeply into the music; each is more playful than hopeful.

BWV 11 concludes with an energetic and rousing chorale where the prevalent theme surrounds just when Jesus will return and the great desire for him to return. Herreweghe and Parrott certainly are rousing; Parrott uses five vocal soloists (two sopranos), and their weight is sufficient. Gardiner is not really rousing; his tempo is a little slower than advantageous and the chorale tends to drag some.

Summary of BWV 11:

Gardiner's version is just a little less enjoyable than Herreweghe's. His vocal soloists do very well, and the opening chorus and alto aria are superb. However, Gardiner does make some interpretive decisions which are less than appealing; his concluding chorale is too slow, and he is not serious enough in the soprano aria.

Herreweghe's version is the best of the three. Except for the opening chorus, the performance is very strong with excellent vocal support, particularly from the male soloists. It's a shame that the opening chorus is not at the same high level.

Parrott has significant problems. Sometimes, his interpretations are not sufficiently deep and the one voice per part approach not sufficiently weighty and powerful. Also, his alto, tenor, and bass soloists do not stack up well with the other two versions. Parrott has done much better work in other Bach choral compositions where the weight is full and there are no signs of undernourishment. Nobody's perfect.

So, Herreweghe and Gardiner are the versions to look for. Parrott is superfluous in this company.

Bach Cantatas For Ascension Day From Gardiner, Part 2

Donald Satz wrote (September 4, 2000):
BWV 43 was composed by Bach in 1726, about a decade earlier than BWV 11. Unlike the tragic period Bach was experiencing for BWV 11, in 1726 he was basking in the glow of a "just" salary compensation he had recently received. It certainly didn't hurt his composition skills as BWV 43 consists of four outstanding arias and two superb choral movements. This is Bach at close to his best, and I remain perplexed as to why the work is not performed and recorded more fr. A lover of Bach cantatas would reasonably consider BWV 43 a treasureable choral composition. For comparison purposes, I am using the same Herreweghe recording as for BWV 11. A look at the timings reveal that Gardiner is faster in each aria, chorus, and most of the recitatives.

The Cantata's chorus opens with moderately paced instrumental theme that must have come from the heavens; its beauty and urgency are supreme. Then a glorious trumpet enters, the pace quickens, the chorus emerges, and the power of the universe takes hold. Gardiner's pacing in the beginning is a little suspect, his trumpet is triumphant, and the chorus is not very clear. Koopman's beginning is superb, and his chorus is a significant advantage over Gardiner's; the trumpet is not as crisp as Gardiner's. Koopman's version is rather special; Gardiner's is not.

The tenor aria has an infectious swagger and fantastic instrumental contributions featuring the violin; the tenor needs to be assertive. Unfortunately, neither Johnson for Gardiner nor Pregardien for Herreweghe get it right. Johnson has a pleading quality to his interpretation, and Pregardien sounds combative and not very pleasant to listen to. What Herreweghe gets right is the orchestral presentation, providing a superlative performance. Gardiner has the disadvantage of a first violin which has a piercing quality to it; this significantly reduced my enjoyment. Although Herreweghe is better, there's substantial room for improvement from the solo vocalist.

The aria for soprano is dramatic, urgent, and lovely music. Herreweghe is very effective and Barbara Schlick has a deliciously vulnerable delivery, although her tonal beauty is thin. Gardiner is quick and sounds hurried; urgency and drama are reduced. Nancy Argenta's voice is small and not expressive.

The fast paced bass aria opens with a trumpet singing out stunningly; the bass swaggers boastfully. One main difference between the two versions is the singing. Stephen Varcoe has the swagger right, but his voice has little allure. Peter Kooy has a great and deep voice, but there's little swagger from it. Gardiner's faster tempo is advantageous, and his trumpet more incisive. I'll go with Gardiner in the bass aria.

My favorite aria of the Cantata is the one for alto. It has delightfully swaying oboes and great urgency combined with a lightness and delicacy that add up to one of Bach's greatest arias. Herreweghe's oboes are dream-like and Catherine Patriasz has full and very expressive voice. Gardiner's tempo is a little too quick, and Michael Chance's voice is unappealing.

The concluding Choral is one of great beauty and dignity. Herreweghe provides these quality in full measure - outstanding. Gardiner is lighter in texture with reduced dignity.

In BWV 43, Gardiner is not competitive with Herreweghe. His faster tempos are generally not effective, the atmosphere tends to be too light, and the vocal soloists are not excellent or anywhere near it. Herreweghe's version is the one to seek out. Anyone who collects Bach cantata discs would do well to have at least one version of this superb cantata, and Herreweghe is the best one I've heard.

Bach Cantatas For Ascension Day From Gardiner, Part 3

Donald Satz wrote (September 5, 2000):
Bach wrote BWV 37 in 1724; it was his first Ascension Day Cantata in Leipzig. Bach's life was going very well at the time, and the cantata displays a full joy of life. My comparison recording comes from Volume 9 of Koopman's Bach Cantata Series on Erato; the catalog number is 3984-27315. Koopman's vocal soloists are soprano Sibylla Rubens, alto Bernhard Landauer, tenor Christoph Pregardien, and bass Klaus Mertens.

BWV 37 begins with a joyous chorus of strong forward momentum and galloping pace. The instrumental sinfonia of the chorus brings great pleasure which only increases with the entry of the singers accompanied by obbligato instruments. The tempos of each version make quite a difference; Gardiner clocks in at 2'17', Koopman at 2'40". Every time I played Gardiner first, Koopman would initally seem too slow, and vice versa. Ultimately, I favor the Gardiner for its greater excitement and galloping feature. Also, his faster speed does not reduce the grandeur of the music. Both choral groups do very well.

The second movement is a moderate-paced tenor aria conveying great beauty and a serene satisfaction. The instrumental beginning features a delectable and pungent violin which provides both edge and satisfaction in abundance. Gardiner is leagues ahead of Koopman on this piece of music. Gardiner's violin is perfect, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson is superb in conveying the satisfaction and hope inherent in the music.

Koopman has "reconstructed" the violin part, and he's made a relatively unmusical mess of it; I can't imagine what was going through his mind. Also, Christoph Pregardien, although an excellent vocalist, doesn't come close to Johnson's level; his deeper voice conveys little satisfaction or anything else I could detect.

The third movement gives us a bouncy and playful Chorale for soprano and alto. Gardiner has the right amount of bounce and vitality; Koopman is a little too somber for my tastes. Also, although Koopman's Rubens is the best of the four vocal soloists, Bernhard Landauer doesn't sound very good and they are a poor match. Argenta and Chance aren't much on tonal beauty, but they blend together very well. Although this Chorale does not approach the mastery of the tenor aria, it has much to offer which Koopman's version does not find.

As I was listening to the bass recitative, bass aria, and concluding chorale, I was thinking how Bach has such a talent for writing music which expresses so deeply his religious and spiritual beliefs and his sense of universal order. Klaus Mertens is the bass for Herreweghe, and he has a strong voice, perhaps too strong in the aria. Stephen Varcoe, of weaker voice, is at his best in the aria and better integrated with the orchestra. Also, Gardiner has preferable pacing. Both versions have excellent chorales.

Overall, Gardiner has a strong advantage over Koopman. His vocal soloists are quite good, and Gardiner routinely has the measure of the cantata's musical conception. Koopman version is not at a very high level: the alto is weak, Pregardien is not at his best, Koopman's tempos and pacing could have been much better, and he is overly somber for the type of music.

For BWV 128, Chance/Johnson/Varcoe are replaced by Robin Blaze, Christoph Genz, and Rheinhard Hagen. It's like tag-team wrestling, and the replacements are highly worthy. BWV 128 is a short cantata with some very arresting music. For me, the highlight is the duet for countertenor and tenor; it is lovely music of depth. Blaze is superb, and he blends excellently with Genz. I don't have any comparison versions, but I'm confident that Gardiner gives a fine performance.

Don's Conclusion: This is a well-filled disc with three excellent performances and one that's not very good (BWV 43). The vocal soloists are much better than I would have expected, and Gardiner delivers readings which are typical of his style: quick/advantageous tempos, excellent instrumental support, crisp choral forces, and an occasional lightness which reduces the music's impact. This may well be the best disc in Gardiner's series to date. I give it a strong general recommendation; for Gardiner fans, this is an essential addition to your libraries.

John Eliot Gardiner: Short Biography | Monteverdi Choir | English Baroque Soloists
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Newsletters
Cantatas BWV 106, 118b, 198 | Cantatas BWV 140, 147 | Cantatas BWV 11, 37, 43, 128 | Cantatas BWV 6, 66 | Cantatas BWV 72, 73, 111, 156 | Cantatas BWV 82, 83, 125, 200
Bach Cantata Pilgrimage:
BCP - Vols 1&8 | BCP - Vol. 14 | BCP - Vol. 15 | BCP - Vol. 21 | BCP - Vol. 22 | BCP - Vol. 23 | BCP - Vol. 24 | BCP - Vol. 26 | Bach Cantata Pilgrimage DVD | DVD John Eliot Gardiner in Rehearsal
Other Vocal Works:
BWV 232 - Gardiner | BWV 244 - Gardiner | BWV 245 - Gardiner | BWV 248 - Gardiner | BWV 1127 - Gardiner
Table of recordings by BWV Number

Conductors of Vocal Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z | Singers & Instrumentalists


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