Saturday, 23 December 2017

Sigiswald Kuijken's Bach Cantatas

I have 38 recordings of different cantatas by J.S. Bach directed by Sigiswald Kuijken and his Petite Bande. I am in the process of listening to them all. I also have major sets directed by Philippe Herreweghe, John Eliot Gardiner, and Masaaki Suzuki, plus sundry others. For the moment, it is Sigiswald, and his Belgian Bachists; others will follow in 2018.

Kuijken is “Bach-lite”, so you don't get a chorus, just the four soloists singing together. Which may have been what Bach expected, even though when he wrote the music he probably heard in his head a heavenly choir singing. “That is in my head”, Bach would have muttered. “Tomorrow morning it will be the same sorry crew singing.” In the chorus movements, I miss the chorus. In the chorales, the four soloists are acceptable. While it is true that recording technology can boost the sound of four voices, the choruses still sound weak, more madrigal than chorus. In the context of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, four voices would have sounded very weedy.

Bach's music varies from “cantate du jour”, to remarkable music. The (many) remarkable cantatas possibly reflect the arrival of important visitors, or the boss's family, where Johann Sebastian needed to make a special effort, even above his exalted normal; BWV 144 is a case in point (Nimm, was dein ist). Kuijken's soloist line-up (typically Siri Thornhill, Petra Noskaiova, Christoph Genz, Jan van der Crabben, with many variations over the years) is variable, with some noticeably weak tenors on occasions. The alto, Petra Noskaiova, (female, thank heavens) seems to have been a favourite of Kuijken, and features often. The tenor, Christoph Genz, features in 21 of the cantatas; he was obviously more to Kuijken's taste than he is to mine.

The big advantage of the Kuijken performances is the clarity of texture (very important in Bach), the expertise of the orchestra, and the fine balance of the recordings. Plus Kuijken's feelings for Bach, and for Bach's rhythm, and tempo. None of that PDQ Bach here. I can never remember having to mutter “speed it up a bit” or “slow down!” when listening to these particular 38 cantata recordings which continue to give me a great deal of pleasure, despite the occasional weak soloist, and the lack of body in the choral movements. I have 30 Bach cantatas directed by Masaaki Suzuki with, as I recall, a small choir and a band of soloists who are usually superior to Kuijken's. Suzuki is probably now a project for 2018.

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