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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Cantatas"

Andreas Scholl, alto
Kammerorchester Basel
Dir: Julia Schröder

rec: Jan 23 - 28, 2011, Convent of Les Dominicains de Haute-Alsace
Decca - 478 2733 (© 2011) (63'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH: Bekennen will ich deinen Namen (BWV 200); Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169); Ich habe genug (BWV 82); Komm, du süße Todesstunde (BWV 161) (Der Schluß ist schon gemacht, rec); Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (BWV 150) (sinfonia); Melchior HOFFMANN (c1679-1715) (attr): Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde ("BWV 53")

Today the most interesting discs as far as the repertoire is concerned are from smaller labels. The major record companies only release discs with big names and mainstream repertoire. Therefore this disc with cantatas by Bach with Andreas Scholl can't come as a surprise. The company doesn't fail to tell us that Scholl is "proclaimed by many as the world's greatest countertenor", as if we wouldn't know that by now. But: the view of many isn't necessarily true and a great name doesn't guarantee great performances. The focus of the company on big names is reflected by this recording. It is telling that the booklet doesn't even mention the names of the two instrumentalists who play a major role in two of the cantatas: the oboist in Cantata 82 and the organist in Cantata 169.

The whole performance concentrates on Andreas Scholl, and that is at odds with the character of Bach's cantatas. In his liner-notes Clifford Bartlett points out that Bach mostly used the word Concerto for his sacred cantatas: "a piece for voices and instruments in the concertato style, i.e. soloists and instruments performing together as a small group." In this recording there is too little ensemble as Scholl seems to move miles above the orchestra's carpet of sound. It goes wrong right from the start, in the very first aria at this disc, 'Ich habe genug'. As I have already said the oboe plays a major role in this cantata, but there is never a real dialogue between voice and oboe. Scholl also sings to instrumentally, with long legato lines, and very little differentation between notes and little dynamic shading. The playing of the orchestra is generally rather flat.

The recitatives don't come off very well, because they are rhythmically too strict, and there is too little text expression. The disc ends with Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde, a cantata which is included in the Schmieder catalogue, but is generally considered not authentic. It is assumed that it was composed by Melchior Hoffmann. But thanks to the attribution to Bach it has become pretty well-known and recorded several times. That is a matter of good fortune as it is a beautiful and expressive piece. Its character is not fully explored here. The piece is dominated by imitation of a knell, not only through the inclusion of a bell in the scoring, but also through the string parts and even the vocal part. The strings don't make much of that as they hold most notes too long. The bell part seems - from what I hear - to be played by a triangle. That is not the most appropriate choice, producing a sound which is too feeble. Scholl's singing is alright, but his few ornaments are a bit inconsistent and not well-chosen.

This cantata - in fact a single aria - is preceded by the recitative 'Der Schluß ist schon gemacht' from Cantata 161, Komm, du süße Todesstunde. As far as the text is concerned, this is a good choice as it ends with the line "so schlage doch, du letzter Stundenschlag", and Hoffmann's aria begins with the words "Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde". But it is hardly in line with Scholl's own notes in the booklet, in which he states that singing Bach arias out of their context is very difficult. As one may assume that is even more the case with recitatives the inclusion of a single recitative from a cantata is rather odd.

There is no doubt that Scholl cares very much about the text. He really wants to communicate a cantata's content to an audience, and to that end he considers what the composer might have had in mind, as he writes in the booklet. But in this case he fails to communicate the content of the cantatas on this disc, at least to me. Others may have different experiences. That said, I really believe that what is offered here is not the way to interpret Bach's cantatas.

To my surprise this is Scholl's first recording of Cantata 169. Here I prefer Robin Blaze with the Bach Collegium Japan (vol. 37 of the cantata project). For Cantata 82 and Hoffmann René Jacobs is first choice (Harmonia mundi, 1987).

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Kammerorchester Basel

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