Much of Bach's music is abstract enough that it can easily be arranged for new instrumental combinations, and often was by the composer himself. The music for unaccompanied violin and for unaccompanied cello forms an exceptional case; the sonatas and partitas for solo violin were part of a long tradition of virtuoso violin music to which Bach was making a conscious contribution, and the six suites for solo cello were written as extensions of the ideas in the violin pieces. Transferring the cello suites to a solo recorder, which is incapable of executing many details of the cello scores, is thus something Bach probably wouldn't have countenanced. ..
Two things distinguished Thomas Hengelbrock's 1996 recording of Bach's B minor Mass from the many other historically informed performances of the work released in the early digital era. Where many other conductors used small mixed choirs, Hengelbrock not only used the 26-voice Bathasar-Neumann-Chor, he drew his soloists from it. And where most other conductors tended exclusively toward quick tempos, Hengelbrock mixed things up, favoring fast tempos in joyful movements and slow tempos for painful movements.
The Ensemble Pygmalion directed by Raphaël Pichon commences its collaboration with Harmonia Mundi with this new recording of J.S. Bach’s lost music to the Köthener Trauermusik (Cöthen funeral music), BWV 244a. Founded in 2006 at the European Bach Festival, Ensemble Pygmalion is a combination of choir and orchestra - all young performers with experience of authentic instruments and period-informed performance. Its repertoire concentrates primarily on Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Although Bach's sacred cantatas span a huge expressive range and display a striking stylistic diversity, they were all composed for performance during a church service. In the case of the secular cantatas, on the other hand, their respective purpose is as varied as their subject matter and emotional content. They were usually commissions intended for occasions such as weddings, funerals and birthdays. As such they were sometimes performed in churches, and some of them have religious texts, but as the works gathered here exemplify, they were not related to the particular theme of the church service on a certain day.
Continuing their exploration of Bach’s vocal music, Bach Collegium Japan and Masaaki Suzuki have now reached the fifth volume of secular cantatas, with the previous instalment being ‘urgently recommended’ by the reviewer in Fanfare, and its contents described as ‘unusually colourful and vivid performances, even by the standards so far set by Suzuki’s Collegium Japan’ (International Record Review). Both cantatas on the present disc were first performed in 1733 by Bach and his Collegium Musicum at public concerts in Leipzig.
The two works on this disc perfectly illustrate a particular type of secular cantata, the so-called ‘dramma per musica’. In such works the libretto is constructed dramatically, and the singers embody various roles, such as gods and other characters from antiquity, and allegorical figures. The parallel with opera is apparent, although the ‘drammi per musica’ do without any scenic element. Bach primarily used the form in works intended for princely tributes or academic festivities: educated audiences could be expected to recognize the characters and literary traditions involved. Both cantatas recorded here are ‘academic’ cantatas, composed in honour of eminent members of the faculty at the University of Leipzig.
Just over twenty secular cantatas by JS Bach have survived, and we know of almost thirty other cantatas that are now lost. The secular cantatas were almost all composed for some important, festive event in a family or in public, academic or political life. The present disc includes one of the most regularly performed of these works, the Coffee Cantata. This was written around 1734, probably for a performance at the Zimmermann Coffee House in Leipzig.
The disc opens with O holder Tag, a wedding cantata for solo soprano dated, in the version here performed, to 1741. (The piece was actually used in more or less modified form by Bach on at least five different occasions, from as early on as 1729.) The solo soprano, in her first BIS recording, is Carolyn Sampson who is one of the most exciting performers in her field today. A stunning introduction to the world of Bach's cantatas and to the incomparable Bach Collegium Japan directed by Masaaki Suzuki.