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Recordings of Bach Cantatas
General Discussions - Part 3: 1999

Continue from Part 2: Year 1998

Fave cantata discs

Richard Adams wrote (January 1, 1999):
Todd Michael Billeci:
< Completely debunks the "scratchy baroque strings" myth >
I don't know about the scratchy myth you refer to. Have always thought the performances of "name" fiddlers with big, orchestral, romantic backgrounds excessive and heavily colored beyond the intent of scope of the sound Bach wrote to produce. It goes without saying that anyone who would play the Bach Sonatas/Partitas with a violin tuned at A=440 simply hasn't found the track to run on yet. Monica Hugget plays her Amati at low pitch (A=415) and gets the acoustic frame that Bach knew.

There's a school of Baroque performance that uses only gut, no metal or metal- wound strings, and I guess that's the school I go to. I even knew one player years ago who wore plastic surgical gloves when he played on his baroque violin, to keep the oils of his skin from weakening the gut! It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Ms. Huggett uses only gut strings.

The Bach cantata performances I referred to are as follows:

Stunningly sung solo cantata: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51: Edita Gruberova, soprano, Deutsche Backsoloisten, Helmut Winschermann, Laserlight 14 135 Digital Stereo.

Listen to Gruberova's phrasing and breathing in her breakneck performance of the title aria, in which she throws off the runs as if they were given to her as a birthright! My twin daughters and I heard this performance over a Chicago classical music station one night in the car en route home. Katie had gone to sleep, and I thought they were both out of it--they were about six at the time. But when Edita sang the last note of the cantata, I turned off the radio with a sigh of satisfaction and Sarah said breathlessly from the back seat: "Wonderful!"

The disk also contains a Gruberova performance of Cantata BWV 199, Mein Herz schwimmt im Blut, the dark side of her voice being just as rich and absorbing as the bright. Even as a special order, I paid only $4.99 for this disk! Such a treasure!

Likewise incredible performance, but this time by a bass. Ich habe genug, BWV 82, William Sharp, bass, American Bach Soloists, Jeffrey Thomas, dir., John Abberger, oboe, Koch International Classics 3-7138-2HT. Played on period instruments at low pitch.

Note the liquid feeling of the strings in the opening bars, almost like rippling waves of water at the edge of a pond, washing the soul. The text ("I have enough: I have my savior, the hope of the faithful...") is relentlessly beautiful. Sharp's diction is impeccable throughout, and I've not heard a warmer Bach cantata performance. The long intermediate aria, "Schlummert ein," is famously restful and resigned and accepting of death, and goes on forever!

But the closing movement, "Ich freue mich auf meinen Todt!" contains a dance of the soul with the Heiland that is sublime in concept, and which Sharp executes with verve, especially the hemiola at the concluding bars of each section. He just tosses off these difficult consonant/vowel combinations as if born to it. I had a chance to talk with him through one of his students, and he signed my copy of the program book that accompanies this disk performance. An approachable, humble performer who teaches at Boston Univ. Note the warmth and cunning of the oboe obbligato throughout. Abberger is just as brilliant in his way, as Sharp! The rest of the disk contains performances less notable; Julianne Baird is not my favorite, although her timorous style has achieved an apparent vogue among the cognoscenti. Eludes me.

Jeffrey Thomas, the musical director of the performances on Koch with the American Bach Soloists, has now issued at least six volumes of favorite cantatas, and I find the musicianship of these recordings quite something. I mentioned the oboe playing of Abberger, but the flute playing by Kathleen Kraft is likewise breathtaking. These are well-informed period performance masterpieces, in my humble view.

Next are some wonderful performances by Nancy Argenta, a soprano who takes as her point of departure a diminutive stance akin to Baird's, but adds to it impeccable diction, strength when needed, and a direct style that is superb and winsome at once. Two of these recordings are on Veritas, a Virgin subsidiary, with Monica Huggett and the Ensemble Sonnerie, superlative string playing, again on period instruments at low pitch. The first of these, Veritas CDC 5 45038 2, contains BWV 82a, Ich habe genug recast in a key for soprano. An entirely different approach from Sharp's, but nonetheless wonderful. Also contains BWV 199 and BWV 51 (Jauchzet Gott), a different reading from Gruberova's but again, wonderful! This performance, compared to Sharp's, shows the effect of key on coloration in a piece. The sonorities are made totally different by the twin switches of tessitura and key. Theother Argenta (doesn't argenta mean "silver?" How apt!) Veritas is CDC 5 45059 2, which contains BWV 84 and BWV 209, but also the sublime BWV 202, Weichet Nur, betrśbte Schatten, almost twenty minutes of pure bliss.

Nancy Argenta's other performance of note is with another favorite, John Eliot Gardner, on Archiv 429 782-2 Digital Stereo, BWV 106 Actus Tragicus: Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit; The motet BWV 118b O Jesu Christ, mein Lebens Licht, and cantata BWV 198, Lass, Furstin, lass noch ein en Strahl. It's been awhile since I listened to these performances, but my recollection is that they're all wonderful, especially the transparent motet sung with few singers, an effect I've always enjoyed, a precursor to the quartet at the aft end of Beethoven's Ninth.

Finally, I have several recordings of Sigiswald Kuijken with La Petite Bande, a Dutch outfit that performs on original instruments at low pitch. I enjoy their Magnificat, (BWV 243) which disk also contains Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21). Nice readings, but nothing to get excited about.

I haven't yet checked into John Eliot Gardiner's cantata project, but if he does that half as well as he did the complete Beeethoven Symphonies, I can hardly wait! His stature grows and grows.

That's it for now on cantata performances. I'm not familiar with Cantata BWV 150; I'll have to check it out.

But I must tell you about the Dover publications of Bach Cantatas, cheap collections of a number of cantata scores, lifted from the Bach Gesellschaft Edition. Traditional use is made of the tenor-clef for several vocal parts and some instruments, but the bass is in F-clef, and the treble instruments are in G-clef, so it's good following, if a bit hard to sing along with on anything but bass. These are Dover ISBNs 0-486-24950-6, Bach, Seven Great Sacred Cantatas, and 0-486-23268-9, Bach, Eleven Great Cantatas. The first costs $10.95, the second, $13.95. Hard to go wrong at these prices!


Bach Cantata Top Ten

Darryl Clemmons wrote (January 29, 1999):
It is an American tradition to determine college sport champions by a poll or vote. Therefore, I recommend we select a Bach Cantata Top Ten by popular election. In order to be democratic, I suggest anyone can enter. It would be nice if a brief word about why for each selection was included. After an appropriate time, I will talley the results using a weight scheme similar to those used in American sports polls.

My votes:

1. BWV 21 - This is a very early work( probably around 1714 ), but every movement is outstanding. Also, it is a fairly long work - 40+ minutes. The thing which probably clinched it for me was the final choral movement. The theme for the fuguin this movement is what I consider a perfect theme for a fugue. The working out of the fugue is masterfull.

2. BWV 140 - This is an older chorale cantata (probably around 1714). The melodic invention in this work is astounding. The counterpoint to the tenor aria is one of Bach's most famous melodies. Couple the melodic invention with superlative technique and you have a masterpiece.

3. BWV 106 - This is an early funeral cantata (1707 or 1711). This cantata flows like a sacred motet - there are no recitatives. If the 1707 date is correct, one can only marvel at the 22 Bach's obvious potential.

4. BWV 11 - This is the ascension oratorio. The work is framed by two magnificent choruses. It also contains music that has a common source from the B minor mass.

5. BWV 80 - This is the "A Mighty Fortress" cantata. The only question is whether Willian Freidmann added timpani and horns to the original score. It is great either way. A magnificent and impressive work.

6. BWV 82 - This is the only solo cantata in my list. As expected, the arias in this work are incredible. The middle aria is one of Bach's most famous.

7. BWV 34 - This is a short cantata. The opening chorus is great and the only aria is possibly Bach's most beautiful aria (in my opinion).

8. BWV 104 - This is pastorale cantata. The bass aria in this canata is very famous.

9. BWV 105 - I am running out of superlatives! Anyway this is a very fine work. Every movement is outstanding. The final tenor aria is a particularly impressive piece and "puts in into" my list.

10. BWV 66 - This is a relatively unknown cantata. However, every movement is a treat to hear. I am particularly fond of the bass aria. The final duet is also particularly attractive.

I am certain everyone is probably thinking: What about cantata BWV 78 or BWV 51 or BWV 4 or (insert your favorite here)... Well, this is what polls are all about. I don't think this list is anything more than my opinion. As with sports these things change every week. Next week my list might look different. However for the sake of this poll, I will let these stand.

Your input is welcome!

Ray Bayles (John Brown) wrote (February 1, 1999):
My Top ten Bach Cantata's:

#1 BWV 78
#2 BWV 21
#3 BWV 62
#4 BWV 131
#5 BWV 106
#6 BWV 80
#7 BWV 104
#8 BWV 82
#9 BWV 34
10 BWV 11

Next 16 and how can you leave them out?

11 BWV 4
12 BWV 127
13 BWV 5
14 BWV 119
15 BWV 20
16 BWV 105
17 BWV 32
18 BWV 84
19 BWV 41
20 BWV 83
21 BWV 44
22 BWV 68
23 BWV 65
24 BWV 49
25 BWV 61
26 BWV 56
27 BWV 51

And more and more to make it really complete.


Bach Meisterwerke

Wim Huisjes wrote (March 21, 1999):
Jane Newble asks for reccomendations in the Meisterwerke set. We need some ground rules first, as I don't know anything about your collection or your preferences. Personally, if I had only a few Bach recordings, browsing around would be my first priority. That doesn't have to be expensive.

There's a lot of excellent Bach between super budget and mid-price: DG/ARCHIV Galleria, DG Masters, DG Rouge et Noir (DG France), Philips Classics, Decca (Ovation a.o), some smaller German labels like DSB with their Berlin Classics series, containing a lot of cantatas by Schreier (complete secular cantatas, only available singly), Rotzsch, Thomas, a.o. And look into EMI: CZS series, Forte, Spiritualis. The new trend of boxed sets (no jewel cases, but a carton box with CD's in an envelope) offers a lot of bargains. So do the double CD's: Philips DUO and what used to be called Double Decca or DG Double. In The Netherlands all these sell for around $ 7 - 10 per CD. Mostly they offer performances varying from good to excellent. Try NAXOS for either a fine performance, or just to get acquinted with a work.

Don't be too concerned about period or non-period performances. That war will still be raging on a hundred years from now. Anybody who claims that Bach should only be performed on period instruments implies that people in the sixties and seventies were fools to enjoy Bach recordings or live concerts. That's an absolutely ridiculous notion. Try Mengelberg's St. Matthews Passion (BWV 244) (1939): yes, a historic document, but also an impressive performance. I have no intention to discard my extensive LP collection, 50 % of which consists of cherished Bach recordings from the sixties and seventies.

If you're relatively new in the world of Bach recordings, I wouldn't buy complete cantata cycles or "Complete Bach" recordings: for an awful lot of money you're stuck with one conductor's idea's. I have the complete cantatas (and more) by Rilling, L&H and look forward to the next Koopman release. To also start with Suzuki seems too much of a good thing and financially too much of a burden.

But I can't bear the thought of having to miss all those single issues, with a wide spectrum of different styles and a beauty that Rilling, L&H, Koopman, each on their own cannot match. And don't worry: Rilling, Koopman, L&H and Suzuki will still be on the map several years from now. After all, Richter and Mnchinger have been available for some 40 years now. So, if I understand your situation rightly, my advice would be: SHOP AROUND !!!

A few pointer's for the cantatas:

- Münchinger issues on Decca (try BWV 10 + Easter Oratorium (BWV 249))
- 5 boxes, containing all 74 cantatas Richter recorded for ARCHIV, or some single CD's on DG and ARCHIV Galleria
- a 5 CD PHILIPS box containing 13 cantatas by Winschermann, with Ameling, Hamari, Equiluz, Prey a.o.
- BWV 104 in an ERATO double by Fritz Werner
- Soprano cantatas (NAXOS, Friederike Wagner)
- Gönnenwein and Thamm in various EMI (re-releases)
- BWV 182 + BWV 24 by Gerard Akkerhuis (ERASMUS WVH152)
- BERLIN CLASSICS: single issues by Hans-Joachim Rotzsch and Kurt Thomas; single issues of all secular cantatas by Schreier
- Koopman sampler
- Christophe Coin on Auvidis Astrée (mid-price on the continent
- BWV 56, BWV 82 by Brüggen/van Egmond on SONY -SEON (super-budget!)
- Joshua Rifkin on DECCA Double
- Marriner's BWV 170, BWV 82, BWV 159 on DECCA
- Jürgens re-issues on TELDEC's Das Alte Werk
- Magnificat (BWV 243) by Münchinger on DECCA (+ two cantatas by Ernest Ansermet: BWV 67, BWV 130). Or pick Richter's Magnificat (with BWV 140 on DG Galleria)
- Some single issues from the L&H cycle

At full-price:

- Herreweghe single issues on Harmonia Mundi France (some at mid-price in special offers, two CD's on VIRGIN at mid-price)
- Gardiner issues on ARCHIV (or some older performances at mid-price on ERATO, ithe motets)

Just suggestions. With good value for money you can get an idea of what it's all about. Everybody out there: don't send e-mails about what I included or left out!

For orchestral and chamber music, my advise would be the same: shop around first, before you commit yourself to one group of performers. SONY - SEON for example offers Leonhardt's French and English Suites at super-budget price, also the Musical Offering (brothers Kuijken, Leonhardt) for around $ 5 per CD!! ERATO offers the complete cembalo concerto's by Koopman at mid-price.

Collect catalogues. Don't take no for an answer: they actually exist!! Buy a copy of the Gramophone, or better: subscribe. Every month the last few pages contain a list of recommended recordings, changing every month. The listing includes a price indication.

Also useful are the following books with reviews: "The Penguin Guide to Bargain Compact Discs" and "The Gramophone Good CD Guide". They shouldn't be hard to get in the UK. The Gramophone Catalogue is too expensive for my taste, but you could try to get the "Bielefelder Katalog" with listings (all classical CD's and LP's) by composer, work and label of everything available in Germany. Some dutch outlets manage to get anything you can find in this catalogue. Especially some small German labels are quite interesting. It appears twice a year. I have a subscription through an Amsterdam store: around $ 27,- per issue.

My answer to your question is becoming quite elaborate, so to return to the Meisterwerke: my problem with this set is the unbalance in the whole thing (Karajan and Koopman ?) and the fragmentation. If I buy a complete cycle (i.g. all cantatas by L&H and/or Rilling), I think twice. If I want the Brandenburgers, I want them all: not # 2 in combination with Albinoni's Adagio. That excludes i.g. the CD with 4 harpsichord concertos. If you follow that route than sooner or later you end up with all sorts of doublings, you don't want.

If you want a taste of Richter's cantatas and you go for part two (BWV 56, BWV 106, BWV 147), you have one advantage and two disadvantages: Fischer-Dieskau reads poems (and does so excellently in BWV 56), but does not sing. Go for Hermann Prey (EMI, Berlin Classics or INTERCORD), John Shirley-Quirk (DECCA) or Peter Kooy (HARM. MUNDI FRANCE). The DG CD contains BWV 147 in an excellent performance, but if you go on buying single cantata issues, before you know it you have 5 performances of BWV 147. I ended up with about 10! That's the problem with the really popular cantatas. On the other hand, if you buy this CD, you become the prowd owner of the most beautiful performance of BWV 106 ever recorded !

If you buy # 22, you get an excellent performance of 3 cello suites. In that case, I'd rather buy (which I did) all six suites by Fournier on a DG double CD.

Ignoring those problems (only you can solve those), my comments on the set are:

- Karajan and Bach are a "no, no". That excludes # 1 and 8 (SMP (BWV 232) and Magnificat (BWV 243)).
- Richter's orchestral works were my first experiences with Bach's Concertos. Setting aside my prejudices because of this, I'd buy others now.
- Richter's vocal performances are excellent.

So (more or less limiting it to DGG/ARCHIV):

# 1: absolutely not
# 2: buy the whole thing (full price), or buy the complete SJP by Richter on a mid-price DG double.
# 3: the complete performance by Richter (1965) is timeless. Go for the 3 CD'set
# 4: Richter's Mass in b (BWV 232) is, in my humble opinion, a "must" in a Bach collection. Go for it. Be sure to get this one and not the live performance around 1967.
# 5,6,7 : Try out some of the cantatas. But remember what I said before.
# 8 : Absolutely not.
# 9, 10: I learned a lot from these, but not my current choice (try Leonhardt or Brüggen: budget price, if still available)
# 11,12: Pinnock is too straightforward and gets boring after a while.
# 13 : See comments about Richter's orchestral works and fragmentation.
# 14, 15, 16: Fine performances. Fragmentation!!
# 17, 18, 19: I once saw an LP with the comment: the pianist tried to imitate the sound of a harpsichord as close as she could. For heavens's sake: play a harpsichord then!!
# 20: Fine. Fragmented. A two CD-set exists.
# 21, 22, 23: Fine performances, but much fragmentation. Try to decide if you want just a taste to try it out, or whether you want the whole thing.
# 24, 25 : Fine, but cheaper alternatives exist (SONY - SEON)

Apparently I have dificculties to give you a straightforward answer. Let's try this: if didn't have most of it , I would buy the following:

- Richter's Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) (the complete version)
- Richter's Mass in b (BWV 232) (a must, be sure to get the right one)
- Richter's cantatas (all three CD's). After listening I'm sure you'll want all 74! Alternative: a DG Double with BWV 4, BWV 51, BWV 56, BWV 140, BWV 147 and a delightful BWV 202 by Maria Stader.
- Richter's Brandenburgers (sentimental reasons, you can do better)
- Fournier's cello suites (but then the complete thing on a DG Double)
- Yepes' lute works.

Avoid Karajan and piano's (definetely not worthwhile). The rest is interesting for browsing, but (apart from fragmentation) hardly worthwhile. Your pun of Koopman being a fellow countryman is well-taken. I try to be objective though. I'm being blessed with living quite near Amsterdam and can hear Koopman, Leonhardt and Harnoncourt relatively often. The only problem is to obtain tickets. The holy chambers of the Concertgebouw undoubtedly influence my opinion, but that doesn't completely destroy my objectivity, I hope.

Koopman, for example is very analytic. In his cantatas he does not always realise that these are religious works. Suzuki (student of Koopman) has the same problem. The student has not yet surpassed his teacher. Maybe in the future....

I understand the whole thing can be confusing. I hope the above helps a little. Please don't hesitate with any questions you might want to ask.

Wim Huisjes wrote (March 21, 1999):
<<<< Wim Huisjes wrote on 20 March 1999: For those who can't get the information, a condensed list of the Meisterwerke follows. .........
# 1: St. Matthew's Passion (
BWV 244) (highlights) /Karajan
# 2: St. John's Passion (
BWV 245) (highlights) /Gardiner
# 8: Magnificat (
BWV 243) (Karajan), Motets BWV 225, BWV 226, BWV 227 (Schneidt) >>>>
<<< Mike Flemmer wrote: Are you sure about Karajan? >>>
<< Wim Huisjes wrote: That's what DG's leaflet says!! Karajan, BP (sic!), Tomowa-Sintow, Baltsa, Schreier, Luxon and the chorus of the Berliner Staatsoper. Must be good for a lot of noise. I don't know this performance and don't feel the need to get to know it. I've never seen it before either, but then, I haven't been looking. DG still has a lot of Karajan hidden away (according to his wishes), so more surprises may turn up. If you want a non-period performance go for Richter (DG) or Münchinger (Decca). Glad to help, >>
< Mike Flemmer wrote: I have not heard Karajan's Magnificat (
BWV 243) on LP or CD, but I do have Karajan's Magnificat live in concert on Sony video-"New Year's Eve Concert 1984". I am very pleased with this production of the Magnifcat in D. This is an artistically superb performance! The musicians are world class, if not the best in Europe. Solo vocalists are excellent including bass Robert Holl, who, in my opinion, has one of the most incredible voices in the world. Yes, the Karajan Brandenburg's (from the 1960's?) are to be avoided as they have tempo problems and other groups specializing in Bach are far better. But, I was quite surprised in this video - a superior Bach concert by all standards. Plus, it also has Bach's Violin Concerto No 2 in E featuring none other than Anne-Sophie Mutter. She is great. Guess what Karajan's doing? Playing the harpsichord! And not bad at all! Surprise! >
An iron clad cast does not guarantee a good performance. I can give you excellent cantata performances with names you've never heard of. Sure, Robert Holl and Mutter are performers who deserve respect and admiration. But what's new ? That Holl can sing and Mutter can play the violin ? We knew that. What surprises me is that you are apparently impressed by the fact that His Majesty von Karajan actually stooped so low, that he took place behind the harpsichord. The latest review I read (in a reputable magazine) about Karajan's Bach performances contains (the irony/sarcasm may get lost in my translation): "von Karajan , the world's first Kappellmeister by the grace of God and big bucks, is just a curiosity. His Bach performances are a mix of interpretations that nobody understands. His SMP (BWV 244) is just a great big mess"

Personnally I think this goes too far. I admire his Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and other romantic works. But somehow any combination between Bach and Karajan is lost to me. That has nothing to do with "romantic performances" of, say Bach's SMP.

Try Mengelberg (1939) or Klemperer (1962): old fashioned, but coherent and impressive performances. It can be done!! Karajan just does'nt have it. Sorry !!

I'm prejudiced, but I don't feel any inclination to do something about it it. If you are happy with your Sony-video: please enjoy it. I'm sure I couldn't.


Cantatas: Koopman vs. Suzuki

Bob McDonald wrote (March 27, 1999):
This is my first e-mail to this discussion. I'm sorry if this has been discussed before; I tried going through the archives but didn't find much to go on as far as a direct comparison (the search engine also seemed to be very slow; is there something I should know?). I am certainly overstating my question in the subject line -- I'm not interested in a battle of the cantatas. However, I have just begun to gain an interest in the Bach cantatas and am wondering what people would recommend for a complete set. I have listened to Vol.3 of Koopman and Vol.5 of Suzuki. At this point I prefer the Suzuki, but also see some advantages to the Koopman performances. My question is what opinions others with more experience and knowledge than I have regarding these two performances of the cantatas and what other recommendations people might have.

As for my casual reflections thus far on the two performances:

The Koopman cantatas are miked more closely, giving a more chamber-like atmosphere. This allows the counterpoint to come through with amazing clarity. The balance between voices and instruments seems very well placed for an analytical enjoyment of the cantatas. On the other hand, Suzuki's recording projects the church ambience with everything slightly washed by the church space -- It projects more of a solemn, sacred ocassion. This does not, however, blur the counterpoint but it is also not as clearly etched as in the Koopman recording.

I think that Suzuki has singers whose voices are more immediately beautiful (I am pleased with all singers on Vol.5). I don't know that they give a more characterful reading, but they seem to be unstrained in everything (even though Suzuki, like Koopman, pitch everything higher than is customary). The soprano and alto sound more youthful and "boyish" than Koopman's singers.

The tempi seem to be largely the same, as is the size of the chorus. I haven't been able to hear great differences in the instrumental virtuosity or general interpretation. I sometimes think that Suzuki's interpretation conveys more of the religious significance and context of the cantatas but this could be influenced by what I've read elsewhere and by the recorded sound.

A final note, one not entirely insignificant for those not proficient in German, I do prefer the English translations that accompany the Suzuki recordings. They are literal without being sterile and unliterary. For instance, the first aria of Cantata BWV 161: "Komm du süße Todesstunde/Da mein Geist/Honig speist/Aus des Löwens Munde" is reasonably translated as "Come, thou sweet death's hour,/When my spirit/Will eat honey/From the lion's mouth." This conveys the gorgeous and startling catachresis of the line. While in the Koopman translation we get: "Come, sweet death,/Thou blessed Healer,/Welcome rest, perfect peace,/Quiet everlasting." That's a horrible abuse of translation.

Thanks for any help you can give me. I do think that I am ineluctably venturing into the purchase of a complete cantata set and I would like to make an informed choice.

Thanks again,


Passions and cantatas

Sam Frederick wrote (May 1, 1999):
I'm new to this list (an excellent idea!) and am hoping some veterans can help me out. I'm trying to find the best recordings of both the passions and the cantatas. Here's what I have and what I don't like about them:

I started with Klemperer's Matthew-Passion, which is really moving and terrifically sung, etc, but just not to my tastes. I prefer a scaled down orchestra and "smaller" voices: ie historically informed. So I bought Gardener's recording. It is really a lot better. I like most of the voices, with the exception of B. Bonney, and the chorus sounds excellent. And although the speeds are better than Klemperer's (who as you know takes things VERY slowly), it is a bit too fast at times. My favourite aria (probably of all of Bach's arias) is "Können Traenen meiner Wangen," which is sung wonderfully by Anne Sofie von Otter but is WAY too fast. All the emotion is stripped from it! So I'm desperate to find a better recording of this superlative piece of music. I prefer historically informed performances with clear, strong voices (please no wavery Bonney). Counter-tenor is a must. Where should I look next? What about Herreweghe's recording? The speed is important here, especially with arias such as "Können Traenen..."

And now the inevitable cantata question: what to buy?! I have the first two 6-CD sets of Harnoncourt/Leonhard on Teldec which are wonderful at times but I just can't stand the boy soprano nor the alto. Gardiner's BWV 140 is excellent which is what led me to pick up his Matthew Passion (BWV 244). I bought Koopman's Vol. 4 but was very displeased with some of the soloists, especially the alto. What other sets are worth looking into? I hear that Suzuki is good. Does he use a counter-tenor or mezzo?

Any advice would be welcome.


Buying Cantata CD's

Russ Weber wrote:
Here's my typical dilemma.

I have a tape of cantatas BWV 130, BWV 67, and excerpts from BWV 101. The artists are Elly Ameling, Helen Watts, Werner Krenn, and Tom Krause. I dearly love that tape and never tire of hearing it. All my Bach tapes are about 30 years old. I would like to get CD's of those cantatas but I'm reluctant to buy complete works because I'm afraid that I'll be disappointed.

When I first learned about the existence of Bach cantatas, and started to tape from rental records and from the radio, the first 3 cantatas I taped were BWV 1, BWV 4, and BWV 51. So when I found the first of the Harnoncourt collection (1 through16) I was able to compare BWV 1 and BWV 4. It was a shocking experience for me. The Harnwere simply not as enjoyable for me as the performances by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Edith Mathis, Ernst Haefliger, and Karl Richter's chorus & orchestra.

In fact, I suspect that any effort to do a Complete Works, no matter how worthy or admirable, cannot do the individual cantatas as well as the oldies of the sixties. I know that I am not knowledgeable enough to make such a sweeping statement, and I have read (on this newsgroup) that the Harnoncourts should be appreciated for being able to duplicate the instruments and the level of singer's quality that Bach himself probably encountered. But I prefer to think that Bach would surely have been thrilled to hear his works performed by modern instruments and singers.

Matthew Westphal wrote (June 3, 1999):
Please, please, DON'T judge period-instrument Bach by Harnoncourt -- especially by the early issues in his complete cantatas set, which were recorded more than twenty years ago. Harnoncourt's musicians just weren't anywhere near as proficient on period back then as players are now. Also, Bach's boy sopranos and altos (especially his soloists) were likely 14 or 15 years old, not 9 or 10 like the Vienna Choir Boys Harnoncourt used. (Boys' voices break much earlier now than in the 17th and 18th centuries; most period-instrument groups today use women with "boy-like" voices.) Finally, for all his importance as period-instrument pioneer, Harnoncourt as a conductor of Bach can be a bit... idiosyncratic.

Period-instrument specialists are now at least as proficient in Bach as modern-instrument players and singers -- probably more so. (This is most likely why record companies continue to record Bach on period instruments and people continue to buy those recordings. Except for the works for solo keyboard or unaccompanied solo violin or cello, Bach is not commonly recorded on modern instruments these days.)

I can well understand that you're reluctant to buy Complete Works or Complete Cantatas you think you might not like -- especially since they so often come in more expensive two-or-three-disc sets.

So here's a list of suggestions for period-instrument Bach cantatas. I've included several different conductors and ensembles, so you can get an idea of what different groups sound like. Each is a single disc, so you're not risking a lot of money. Each has sound clips at's site, so you can listen to them on-line and get an idea of what they sound like. (Disclaimer: you'll also find reviews I've written of some of them for Amazon.) I personally like all of them quite a lot.

Bach: Cantatas, vol. 1
Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki conductor.
BIS 751

(Suzuki and the BCJ are in fact doing a complete cantata series that's quite good on the whole. In addition to three full cantatas, the disc has excerpts from several later volumes in the series as a teaser. And it costs about $5, so you're risking very little.)

Bach: Cantatas, vol. 6
Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki conductor.
BIS 851

Bach: Cantatas, vol. 7
Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki conductor.
BIS 881

Bach: Cantatas for Holy Week
American Bach Soloists/J. Thomas conductor.
Koch International Classics 7235

Bach: Favorite Cantatas
American Bach Soloists/J. Thomas conductor.
Koch International Classics 7245

Bach: Weihnachts Kantaten (Christmas Cantatas)
Collegium Vocale/Herreweghe conductor.
Harmonia Mundi 901594

Bach: Mit Fried und Freud (cantatas)
Collegium Vocale/Herreweghe conductor.
Harmonia Mundi 901659

(You should also check out Herreweghe's Mass in B Minor - Harmonia Mundi 901614)

Bach: Christ Lag in Todesbanden; Easter Oratorio
Taverner Consort & Players/Parrott conductor.
Virgin Classics 45011

Bach: Easter Oratorio; Magnificat
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir/Koopman conductor.
Erato 23416

Check some of these out and let us know what you think!


Blaze and pronunciation (reply)

Mike Flemmer wrote (June 28, 1999):
Ryan Michero wrote:
< As I have said before, we cantata-lovers live in an exciting time... >
We certainly must! Because of the cantata enthusiasim on this list, I became interested in them and I've just starting to listen to them. I've heard a little bit of Münchinger, Richter, Rilling, Harnoncourt, Koopman, and Gardiner. Koopman is certainly the most appealing HIP, but I do sense something missing at times from Koopman - maybe call it spiritual depth. The other non-HIPers, like Rilling and Münchinger fill the gap here, and I like them too. Everyone has a different approch, which is OK with me, but now I see why the search for the perfect cantata interpretation never seems to end.

I also just listened to Gardiner today for the first time and something interesting happened - I got two Gardiner cantata CD's from the library. I just happened to listen to the Erato recording from 1982 first and I thought to myself "what's so great about this?". It was OK, but nothing great. Then, I listened to Gardiner on Archiv from 1990, cantatas BWV 106, BWV 198 and Motet BWV 118. Wow! What a difference! Everything is better - the orchestra, singers, audio. I am very impressed. Are all the Gardiner Archiv recordings this high level of quality? Avoid early Gardiner on Erato?

Ryan Michero wrote (June 28, 1999):
Mike Flemmer wrote:
< I've heard a little bit of Münchinger, Richter, Rilling, Harnoncourt, Koopman, and Gardiner. Koopman is certainly the most appealing HIP, but I do sense something missing at times from Koopman - maybe call it spiritual depth. The other non-HIPers, like Rilling and Munchinger fill the gap here, and I like them too. >
As far as the more "spiritual" HIP conductors, Suzuki and Herreweghe are tops. I would strongly suggest you sample them.

< I got two Gardiner cantata CD's from the library. I just happened to listen to the Erato recording from 1982 first and I thought to myself "what's so great about this?". It was ok, but nothing great. Then, I listened to Gardiner on Archiv from 1990, cantatas BWV 106, BWV 198 and Motet BWV 118. Wow! What a difference! Everything is better- the orchestra, singers, audio. I am very impressed. Are all the Gardiner Archiv recordings this high level of quality? Avoid early Gardiner on Erato? >
Basically, yes and yes. I do like his motet recordings on Erato, but I've heard to avoid his recording of BWV 4 and BWV 131 on Erato due to bad sound quality and roughness of ensemble. On the other hand, his Archiv recordings are technically top-notch. If you can hear his B-Minor Mass (BWV 232), I would say this recording shows Gardiner at his best.

I'm glad we've converted you to the cantata cause. Happy listening!


Steven Langley Guy's dream recording

Steven Langley Guy wrote (October 15, 1999):
I'd love to see a recording that featured BWV 106 with the motet movement - BWV 118, BWV 53 and BWV 131.

D. D. Wickford wrote (October 16, 1999):
An interesting idea, and daring, because BWV 53 is now known not to be by Bach but rather by Melchior Hoffmann, who also wrote BWV 189 and the so-called "Little Magnificat".

Steven Langley Guy wrote (October 16, 1999):
I am aware of this and I have a recording made by the late great Henri Ledroit on Ricercar - still it does fit in nicely with my theme and I know that Bach, like other Baroque composers, featured music of other composers in his musical activities. My general idea was a collection of funeral music. (but very uplifting, of course)

Incidentally, I was not trying to damn earlier 20th Century performances of Bach by referring to their (frequent) "funereal" tempi. I was merely trying to point out how the performance of Bach's music has evolved (or, at least, 'changed' - for all those wpresume that the term 'evolved' has an implicit value judgement). I was trying to commend modern HIP recordings that take a more moderate approach to tempi. I recently listened to a radio broadcast of the St Matthew conducted many years ago by Gönnenwein. It was moving and heart felt but it did come from a time when it was the fashion to make music 'obviously' emotional. As I have commented before, future generations may wonder what we thought was so great about Koopman, Gardiner or Herreweghe? (No flames please - I do like these conductors!)

I do try to listen to older recordings of Bach on the radio - they are interesting, but I am on a budget and I am happy with my three modern B minor Masses, two modern St Matthews and three modern St. Johns.

Robert Sherman wrote (October 21, 1999):
Which are they and how would you compare them?


Cantatas Galore

Ryan Michero wrote (November 4, 1999):
Jan Hanford wrote:
< I plan to continue with the Koopman series and have both. >
Donald Satz wrote:
< That's a good plan. I'm also going to continue getting the Suzuki volumes on BIS. >
Here's my plan: I already have the Bach 2000 set (which, sorry, I haven't commented on until now: it's marvelous!) and all of the Koopman and Suzuki volumes. I plan to get each volume of both Koopman and Suzuki sets as they come out. I also plan to get both bargain boxes of Herreweghe cantatas on Harmonia Mundi as they come out (the first box is released this coming Tuesday!). And I plan to get all of the Gardiner volumes as they're released as well. How's that for cantata addiction!

I will have the material to create quite a review archive soon. I just need to find the time to listen to them all!

My last experience, reviewing Suzuki's Vol.10 and comparing it with sundry other recordings of the same cantatas, was very enlightening. I'll do the same with Vol. 11 when I can buy it, but this time I'll have an impressive comparison section!

Aryeh Oron wrote (November 4, 1999):
You seem to be quite pleased with your cantatas collection. But don't you feel that you miss something by not having the complete cantata set By Rilling (Hänssler) and the upcoming Complete cantata set from Kruidvat (I do not know who are the performers)? Without them your cantata addiction is missing something!

Donald Satz wrote (November 4, 1999):
Personally, I much prefer period string instruments to their modern counterparts in Baroque music. Given all the choices for Bach cantatas on period instruments, I've been passing on the Rilling series. That might also help my checking account balance. It is great that there's so much selection for both period instrument and modern instrument recordings of the cantatas. A middle-income person could go broke on just the cantatas.

Ryan Michero wrote (November 4, 1999):
(Period string instruments/Rilling series) I agree, but I would add that I prefer period wind, brass, and percussion too! This is why I am passing on the Rilling set and others. It is just a personal preference--I'm not denigrating these performers. However, I just feel like every time I listen to modern instrument cantata recordings I think, "This is fine, but it would be much better with period instruments!"

(A middle-income person could go broke on just the cantatas.) Indeed! I must set limits somewhere, so I have excluded most modern instrument and one-voice-per-part cantata recordings, although I have a few (I often enjoy Richter and Parrott recordings).

Harry J. Steinman wrote (November 4, 1999):
Only hope for you to enjoy all the music you've cited is to get several CD players and stereos and play 'em all simultaneously. Probably will run into some tricky business as Suzuki's tempi tend to be brisk, Gardiner's faster, and Koopman slower. Guess you could attach a rheostat to each CD player to let less electricity into the device, thereby slowing it down (I do not know; it works that way for turntables and I'm hoping, for your sake, that CD players will slow down also if the juice is reduced).

It might take you a while to synchronize all of the CD players but in the long run, it will be worth it. Way I figure it, if there are 200 surviving cantatas, and each one averages, say, 20 minutes, then you've got 66 hours of cantata listening alone. Factor in the Passions, Oratorios, Motets etc. and you definitely need either a very long incarceration in solitary confinement with your Bach, or several extra sets of ears.

But I think it would be easier to get an electrical engineer to sync up all the CD players and listen to 'em all at once. I think it's a good idea. Let us know how it works out.

Carl Burmeister wrote (November 5, 1999):
Alas it's not that easy. I used to like to play along with my favorite European recordings (at a=435, while my instruments were all 440). I'd just use the turntable speed adjust to speed things up a bit. Do they still make turntables with that adjustment on them? How to drive your friends with perfect pitch crazy.

However, it doesn't work that what with CD's. Slowing down the rotational speed of the device will just drive the error correction circuitry crazy.

You can however load them all into wav files and edit them with your PC. Got a few Millennia with nothing else to do?

Harry Steinman wrote (November 5, 1999):
Wow! I meant to be silly! I guess frivolity is a stern taskmaster! (Sometimes, you can give and give and give, and Fun still asks for more. Sometimes you just have to get tough with Fun!)

If you can't slow down the CD rotation and thus lower the pitch, maybe you could stretch out the cones in your speakers? (Please, I am NOT being serious! Don't try it at home.)

Simon Crouch wrote (November 5, 1999):
This reminds me of how I first listened to the Teldec cantata set (which I bought in one lump). My wife does exam marking for schools (KS3, GCSE and "A" levels) and I help her out with clerical checking. This particular year she had a large lot of marking arrive at once, so we spent a whole week doing just this. In the background (sorry!) we had the cantatas - five days, twelve hours a day. Didn't put me off!

After that digression, I feel obliged to say something about recordings: Since we're on cantatas, let me put in a word for the secular cantatas that are coming out as part of the Hänssler Edition. We've discussed the merits and demerits of Rilling's sacred set a number of times here but I don't recall much debate about his newer secular recordings. I've been collecting them as they come out and I have to say that I'm delighted - Rilling seems to have got a new lease of oomph, has chosen his soloists well and is producing recordings that should satisfy all but those dedicated to period performance.

In fact, many of the new Hänssler recordings seem to be setting very high standards. In fact, of the new recordings, only the flute works and one or two of the organ releases disappoint.

Luis Villalba wrote (November 5, 1999):
Great minds think alike!

I also enjoyed very much the secular cantatas in Hänssler. One should also mention that Behringer's harpsichord realization in Amore Traditore is quite impressive. As for the flute, please see my recent message.

I can imagine that your disappointment with some of the organ recordings probably came from the very heavy instrument played by Lucker. Unfortunately he is entrusted with some of the most important works. As I said before, I will soon comment on these and the harpsichord CD's.


Advice for start a cantata collection

Juan Jimenez A. wrote (November 8, 1999):
Hi, this is my first post here, and I have a probably a very dumb problem.

I have recently decided to start a collection of the Bach cantatas. Currently I own only two discs: BWV 21 and BWV 42 by Herreweghe and BWV 106, BWV 198 by Gardiner.

The problem is that I do not pretend to buy a complete cantata set for the moment. So, what cantata discs you can recommend for a non-complete collection of cantatas? I do not know if it has any relevance, but I have a light preference for HIP and of ttwo discs I already own, I prefer Herreweghe.

Finally, sorry for the English.

Pascal Bedaton wrote (November 9, 1999):
Just to help you, I started by Herreweghe from the beginning (Virgin recordings) and I am still happy. More than this, when I decided some months ago to look for buying the complete cantatas and as I was very happy with the complete Herreweghe Cantatas recordings I previously bought, I decided to take them as a "reference" and to start with the same Cantatas in another collection to compare.

Believe me, in starting with the Herreweghe Cantatas you won't be disappointed, even if you can find some better recordings in the other collections.

Simon Crouch wrote (November 9, 1999):
Juan, not a dumb problem at all! Finding your way through the cantatas is challenging. Some straightforward advice is to continue collecting Herreweghe's performances. Harmonia Mundi are re-releasing his recordings at mid-price as part of their Bach edition for year 2000, so they're good value at the moment. You could also dip into Suzuki's ongoing complete cycle on BIS - of the "complete" or "going-to-be-complete" sets, this is the one that I find most satisfying. It's also being released one disc at a time, so is suitable for sampling. If you'd like to try the secular cantatas, how about Jacobs' recording of BWV 201, 205 and 213 on Harmonia-Mundi again? Very fine and also to be re-released at mid-price.

If you'd like to navigate your way through the "great cantatas" then try looking at my cantata pages at for advice on which cantatas to sample first.

Harry J. Steinman wrote (November 9, 1999):
I looked for two things: Singers I liked and affordability. I chose the Koopman cantata series because I like the singers, even though I like Suzuki (and other's) orchestration better. I'm building my cantata collection mostly with Koopman, and buying other's recordings from time to time to enjoy another interpretation. I've found the Koopman series, on BMG, to run about $20 for each 3-volume set.

Sounds like we're starting to tell you to consider a conductor and learn the cantatas that way rather than selecting one or another cantata and building a collection by purchasing cantatas you'll like the most first. By purchasing a conductor's series, you'll always have nice surprises to look forward to. I'd be afraid that if I started with the 'best' (or most popular) works, that each subsequent acquisition would be less attractive!

Whatever you do, you're at the beginning of a journey to the end of the rainbow. Enjoy the trip.


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