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New Interpretations of Neglected Bach

January 09, 1994|HERBERT GLASS | Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar.

It might seem ridiculous to regard as neglected a composer who is one of the Three B's and whose discography fills more than 30 pages of the Schwann Opus catalogue, second only to Mozart.

Yet, new recordings of music by Johann Sebastian Bach are hardly numerous, many of those Schwann pages being devoted to re-releases.

Papa Bach suffered even in the heady days of the Baroque Craze of the 1950s and '60s at the hands of Vivaldi, whose simpler, more visceral music was first being "discovered" by a mass audience. He has been subverted more recently by the worldwide appreciation of Handel ignited by his tricentennial in 1985.

Bach was regarded as conservative in his own time and is taken for granted today, his name being so familiar that it would seem not to need boosting.

In the area of Bach's cantatas, of which there are more than 200, help is particularly needed. Much of what the catalogue contains dates back a quarter-century: the Harnoncourt recordings, made at a time when the period movement was just beginning and its practitioners were sure neither of their instruments nor their stylistic parameters; and the accomplished but rather staid, non-period interpretations of Helmuth Rilling.

Thus, it's newsworthy when the best of today's antiquarians set their sights on Bach, as in the handsome Harmonia Mundi release (901479) that has Philippe Herreweghe leading his superb Collegium Vocale, in fact a Ghent (Belgium)-based vocal and instrumental ensemble, and a strong solo quartet, anchored by the sturdy basso of Peter Kooy, in the Cantata BWV 11, the so-called "Ascension" Oratorio.

The wonder of such a work as this is in Bach's ability to shift so easily from the celebratory, trumpets-and-drums rhythmic style to his most profoundly meditative, lyrical vein.

In addition, the generous program offers the lesser-known but decidedly worthwhile cantatas BWV 43, "Gott fahret auf mit Jauchzen," and BWV 44, "Sie werden euch in Bann tun," in equally well-crafted readings.

This in contrast to a trio of cantatas from Bach at his most intimate and reflective, which means at his most harmonically daring, played and sung by the Bay Area-based American Bach Soloists under Jeffrey Thomas' direction (Koch 7164).

Included are two of Bach's loftiest inspirations, the darkly hypnotic BWV 106, "Gottes Zeit," with its striking dissonances, and the blissfully soothing "Komm, du susse Todesstunde."

Thomas' leadership is, alas, soporific. The pacing is lethargic, and the singing of the principal vocalist, Drew Minter, the possessor of a matchlessly agile, buttery countertenor, is inexpressive. Thomas' own strained tenor hardly helps.

Baritone William Sharp offers a measure of compensation with his alertly dramatic solo work in BWV 152, "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn." On the whole, however, a major disappointment.


The Paris-based American harpsichordist Skip Sempe offers cutting-edge Bach style in a new recording with his Capriccio Stravagante ensemble (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi/BMG 77222).

Sempe launches the program with a thrilling keyboard solo, his own flamboyantly inventive improvisation on the familiar Chaconne for solo violin, and proceeds to an immensely vital, highly decorated (this is, after all Baroque music) D-major Partita.

The remainder of Sempe's program is likewise for the adventurous listener: One-instrument-to-a-part, precariously bold--in their rhythmic freedom and incisiveness of articulation--performances of the harpsichord concertos in D and A, BWV 1054 and 1055.

A no-less-historically informed, if more sober scholarly, viewpoint is offered by Germany's Camerata Koln: a fascinating collection of concerto reconstructions featuring the solo oboe and oboe d'amore of Hans-Peter Westermann, highlighted by the purported original of the A-major Harpsichord Concerto and a wonderfully lean, yet by no means chill reading of the Concerto for Oboe and Violin, after the C-minor concerto for two harpsichords, BWV 1060. Violinist Mary Utiger is Westermann's skilled partner here (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi/BMG 77290).

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