JS Bach: Cantatas, BWV 1, 4, 6, 7, 11, 23, 28, 30, 31, 32, 34, 39, 40, 43, 57, 61, 65, 67, 68, 72, 76, 82, 85, 87, 92, 103, 104, 110, 182 & 249; Cantatas, BWV 8, 10, 19, 21, 26, 50, 51, 53, 56, 70, 78, 79, 80, 85, 90, 98, 102, 104, 105, 106, 119, 130, 131

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Erato
WORKS: Cantatas, BWV 1, 4, 6, 7, 11, 23, 28, 30, 31, 32, 34, 39, 40, 43, 57, 61, 65, 67, 68, 72, 76, 82, 85, 87, 92, 103, 104, 110, 182 & 249; Cantatas, BWV 8, 10, 19, 21, 26, 50, 51, 53, 56, 70, 78, 79, 80, 85, 90, 98, 102, 104, 105, 106, 119, 130, 131, 137, 14
PERFORMER: Soloists; Heinrich Schütz Choir, Heilbronn; Pforzheim CO, Württemberg CO/Fritz Werner
CATALOGUE NO: 2564-61401-2, 2564-61402-2
Fritz Werner directed one of the first major recording projects of Bach cantatas, from 1957 to 1972. Sixty-six cantatas reappear here on 20 discs on the inspired initiative of Nicholas Anderson; his booklet provides a fascinating account of Werner, an extraordinary man whose visionary work revealed a repertoire then barely known. Over nearly 50 years, Bach performance practice has undergone dramatic changes. Mostly the process has been gradual, though Joshua Rifkin’s one-to-a-part recordings in the early 1980s were a giant stride, still controversial today. A single leap backwards throws the changes into high relief. Most striking are tempo, articulation, timbre and density. Even crude measures reveal attitudes to tempo: Koopman takes under 19 minutes for Christ lag in Todes Banden (BWV 4); Werner tops 28 minutes. Research into other fields has influenced Bach performance: we now take stately, dotted French overtures much faster, so Werner’s opening of BWV 110 seems intolerably laborious, though his Heinrich Schütz Choir expresses wonderfully light-hearted ‘laughter’ in the second section. Elsewhere, tempos are splendidly exuberant: nothing can stop the concerto drive of BWV 11 (the ‘Ascension oratorio’), and Der Himmel lacht (BWV 31) sets off at a cracking pace with Maurice André’s unblemished trumpet scaling near-impossible heights – thrilling stuff still. He’s wonderfully polished, too, in Jauchzet Gott (BWV 51), with soprano Emiko Iiyama from 1972, making a fascinating comparison with a 1957 (mono) performance where stodgy strings struggle to match the articulation of trumpeter Walter Gleissle and soprano Ingeborg Reichelt. Occasionally the inherent dance character of Bach’s music suffers: the wind naturally tongue relatively lightly, but string articulation – notably when conscientiously giving notes their full value – can become gluey. Not inevitably, though: Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot (BWV 39), opens with a charmingly light texture as recorders, oboes and then violins toss a two-note figure between them, wind phrasing providing a model for strings. There’s fine horn-playing too, especially from Hermann Baumann and Willy Rutten (BWV 40 and elsewhere), with wide stereo separation reflecting engineers’ delight in this relatively new addition to their sound spectrum. The single most striking difference from today’s conventions is the size and scale of choir and orchestral strings. Their density affects both textural clarity and tempo: such weighty forces simply cannot achieve the litheness of chamber-scale numbers. Of other timbral changes, the cloying quality of constant string vibrato seems oppressive in slow, legato lines (if also a touch nostalgic). Wind vibrate less; the opening of Ich Hatte viel Bekummernis (BWV 21) a 1962 Grand Prix winner, has gloriously unfettered oboe duetting with vibrato-laden violin, heartfelt though both are in this remarkable Sinfonia. A violently intrusive sound is a harpsichord with added four-foot octave rank, a metallic clang completely at variance with today’s discreet continuo support. Anderson’s notes draw justifiable attention to several fine singers: Agnes Giebel, Reichelt and Friederike Sailer survive 40-odd years unscathed, as do tenor Helmut Krebs and the bass Barry McDaniel. Try Giebel and McDaniel in the ‘Dialogo’ of BWV 57. Anderson describes the contrast between Werner’s generation and today’s as ‘thought-provoking and frequently satisfying’ – and so it is. George Pratt

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