musica Dei donum
Bach (JS): Sacred cantatas (complete)
Ruth Holton, Marjon Strijk (soprano), Sytse Buwalda (alto), Marcel Beekman, Nico van der Meel, Knut Schoch (tenor), Bas Ramselaar (bass)
Holland Boys Choir, Netherlands Bach Collegium
Dir: Pieter Jan Leusink
rec: 1999/2000, Elburg (Neth), Grote of St Nicolaaskerk
Brilliant Classics - 99363, 99364, 99367, 99368, 99370, 99371, 99373, 99374, 99377, 99378, 99379, 99380 (60 CDs in 12 boxes)
The year 2000 was Bach year. That has resulted in a large number of releases of
recordings of his music, some of them re-issues of old recordings, others new. The
recording of all Bach's sacred cantatas on Brilliant Classics belongs to the last
category. It took place within a period of 12 months, which must be a
record in the history of the recording industry.
Most performers will be unknown to people outside the Netherlands, with the exception
of the British soprano Ruth Holton, of course. Some of the soloists are at the
beginning of their careers, in particular Marjon Strijk and Marcel Beekman. Others
are quite experienced, like Sytse Buwalda and Nico van der Meel. Knut Schoch and Bas
Ramselaar may be not well-known yet as soloists, they have worked in reputed early
music ensembles like Weser-Renaissance and Musica Fiata.
The choir has developed into one of the best of its kind in the Netherlands. In the
90's it has made some fine recordings, in particular of works by Handel: both Messiah
and the Coronation Anthems. The latter was conducted by none other than Sir David
The Netherlands Bach Collegium, using period instruments, consists of players who are
regularly playing with Dutch and international baroque orchestras. Among them are
John Wilson Meyer and Pieter Affourtit (violin), Kristin Linde (oboe), Anneke Boeke
(recorder), Susan Williams (trumpet), Kate Clark and Marion Moonen (flute), Teunis
van der Zwart and Erwin Wieringa (horn) and Margaret Urquhart (violone).
On paper this looks quite promising. But in reality the recording project has turned
out to be pretty disastrous.
There are a number of reasons for that, but the most important are a lack of time
and a lack of vision.
Recording all Bach's sacred cantatas within 12 months is madness, even for seasoned
performers who sing and play them regularly. There are so many aspects which need to
be taken care of that it is impossible to give even a reasonably convincing
performance without extensive preparation. And although a number of the performers
involved are not that experienced, they are good enough to make me think that with a
considerably larger amount of time available, the results would have been much better.
Things like a bad German pronunciation - a problem of Ruth Holton in particular -
could and should have been corrected. Even more serious - and showing the lack of
preparation - is the fact that usually the right scores were not at hand.
Mostly the performers used the scores they had on their shelf - and one can only
guess that some of them must be considered corrupt according to the latest
scientific research, which resulted in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA). I don't
think it is too much to ask that at least the conductor is familiar with the NBA.
Therefore there are a number of differences, both in the music and the texts, between
the recording and the scores of the NBA. But what sense does it make to use
"authentic" instruments, if you don't use an "authentic" score?
The other basic problem is the lack of vision. After having listened to the complete
recording I still don't have a clue what the concept behind this interpretation is.
I'm afraid there is none. It is true, some choruses or arias are done very well, and
sometimes the content comes across convincingly. But that seems to be nothing more
than a coincident, because on other occasions the interpretation is superficial or
completely misses the point. And if the conductor doesn't have a clue, how could he
assist soloists who seem not to know what they are doing?
And that is another problem: some singers indeed show not to know what they are
singing. Marjon Strijk and Marcel Beekman - to start with the least experienced -
have nice voices, but they haven't much more to offer: their interpretations are too
superficial. Surprisingly enough an experienced singer like Ruth Holton not only has
great trouble in pronouncing German, but also lacks any insight into the character
of Bach's music. How on earth can someone completely ignore the different 'Affekte'
in Cantata 199, like she does? Knut Schoch is German, so he doesn't have a problem
with the pronunciation. But he seems to think that singing expressively means
shouting and screaming as loudly as possible. The way he sings some recitatives is
embarrassing. He should take some lessons from Kurt Equiluz - or at least listen to
his interpretation of recitatives in the Teldec-recording by Harnoncourt and
Leonhardt. Nico van der Meel and Bas Ramselaar have shown clear progress during the
project. Van der Meel on the whole often disappoints, in particular if one remembers
his performances as Evangelist in Bach's Passions. I am sure that with another
conductor and under different circumstances he would have been a lot better. Bas
Ramselaar now and then shows that he can sing expressively, but the conductor not
always allows him. And I can't understand why three tenors have been used, whereas
Bas Ramselaar had to take all the bass parts himself. Using another singer could
have taken the weight off his shoulders a little and given him more time to reflect
and to prepare for what he had to sing. Basically only Sytse Buwalda has given the
impression right from the start that he knows what he is doing. His voice may be not
to everyone's taste, and his diction isn't always perfect, but in his interpretations
he is more profound than his colleagues.
The choir is modelled after British cathedral and college choirs. That is not the
best basis for an idiomatic interpretation of Bach's choral parts. It produces more
sound than words, and there is a lack of articulation and understanding of the text.
It also sounds stressed, in particular in the treble section.
The orchestra may consist of experienced and good players, the playing is often bland,
sometimes even lacklustre. The concept of music as 'speech' ('Klangrede', to use the
word Nikolaus Harnoncourt used in the original title of his influential book) should
result in performances of the instrumental parts which take the text into account.
Studying and interpreting the text isn't just a task of singers, but of players as
well. A thorough knowledge of the text and its meaning will have a strong influence
on things like phrasing, articulation and dynamics.
It is here where the recordings by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt (Teldec) are
ahead of all other, including more recent recordings: the concept of baroque
music as 'speech' and the dominance of the text over anything else. But without a
clear concept any recording is doomed to fail - like this one.
Johan van Veen (© 2000)