Bach: Cantatas: Actus tragicus, BWV 106; O Jesu Christ, mein’s Lebens Licht, BWV 118/231; Trauer Ode, BWV 198

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WORKS: Cantatas: Actus tragicus, BWV 106; O Jesu Christ, mein’s Lebens Licht, BWV 118/231; Trauer Ode, BWV 198
PERFORMER: Nancy Argenta (soprano), Michael Chance (countertenor), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Stephen Varcoe (bass); Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: 463 581-2 Reissue (1989)
The astonishing variety of Bach’s cantatas is brilliantly illustrated by these CDs. Vol. 12 of Masaaki Suzuki’s ongoing cycle features a pair of extended, two-part cantatas: BWV 147, best-known for its lovely chorale (aka ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’), and BWV 21, described by Nicholas Anderson as having ‘a dramatic intensity hardly inferior… to that of the two great Passions’. Both cantatas have their origins in Bach’s Weimar period but are presented here in their later, Leipzig versions. As is to be expected from Suzuki, the performances are meticulous and sensitive, and he brings out each cantata’s different emotional character with quiet authority. BWV 21 is particularly impressive, his team breathing vivid life into Bach’s portrayal of the Soul’s journey from darkest night to heavenly bliss.


In contrast to this spiritual introspection, Philippe Herreweghe’s excellent disc features three cantatas Bach wrote for the annual inauguration of the Leipzig town council. This is public-event music, ablaze with ceremonial splendour: the earliest cantata, 1723’s BWV 119, begins with a French overture and is among the most richly scored of all the cantatas. The other two follow suit, jubilant choruses and brass fanfares proclaiming civic pride, though Bach takes care to balance this pomp with more delicate colours in the arias.

Funeral music, yet another facet of the Cantor’s output, is explored on John Eliot Gardiner’s newly reissued 1989 recording. The deft vocal interweavings of the Actus tragicus and the Trauer Ode’s lavish salute to the Electress Christiane are adeptly handled by Gardiner, whose (relatively) small forces give the music a rapt, devotional air.


In this company, Stephen Cleobury’s King’s College double seems lacklustre. The programme, which mixes major works with miniatures and extracts, is cluttered, the latter pieces merely distractions. Performances, while good, rarely match the precisely focused, sharply etched flair so evident on the Herreweghe and Suzuki discs.