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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 Willcocks.
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)

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