JS Bach: Cantatas, BWV 34, 59, 68, 74, 172, 173, 174

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COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Soli Deo Gloria
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: Cantatas, BWV 34, 59, 68, 74, 172, 173, 174
PERFORMER: Lisa Larsson (soprano), Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto), Derek Lee Ragin (countertenor), Christoph Genz (tenor), Panajotis Iconomou (bass); Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
CATALOGUE NO: SDG 121
Parody, or creating a new piece based on the music of another was, as often as not, a Baroque composer’s stock-in-trade. Bach and Handel were consummate masters of the art and this new release in John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series reveals three strikingly contrasting examples of the German composer’s ingenuity in arranging and parodying pre-existing material. Providing an instance of the first is the sinfonia to BWV 174 which is a newly fashioned version of the opening movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. To its purely string texture in nine strands Bach added a pair of horns, three oboes and a bassoon to create an extended and splendidly colourful introduction to a Whit Monday piece. Here, the playing of the English Baroque Soloists is all that one could wish for.

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The soprano and bass arias of

BWV 68, also for Whit Monday, hark back to a Weimar birthday offering (BWV 208). Bach’s handling of the soprano aria is particularly interesting, for here he superimposes an entirely new melody upon a catchy ostinato bass which conforms with the original in all but one small, telling adjustment. Lisa Larsson and former Tölz Boy chorister, Panajotis Iconomou, are on strong form and Gardiner’s brisk tempo in the bass aria captures its spirit wonderfully.

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The seven cantatas assembled here provide a breathtaking array of styles, expressive ranges and music whose variety is seemingly infinite. Gardiner directs all with affection and assurance; nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening chorus of BWV 68 where his relaxed tempo and gentle inflections put him in the lead of most if not all of the competition. Some other tempos strike me as too brisk, leading in one or two instances to instrumental insecurity. The strongest solo contributions come from Lisa Larsson and Christoph Genz. There are minor blemishes, certainly – Gardiner refreshingly, if sometimes imprudently throws caution to the winds – but the performances pulsate with energy and are likely to disappoint only those in search of perfection, whatever that is. Nicholas Anderson