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Bach Cantata BWV 4 "Christ lag in Todes Banden"

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 Hugh
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The June edition of Gramophone magazine includes a fairly lengthy review comparing some of the available recordings of BWV 4. This was one of the cantatas which @Jen included in a "short shortlist" of Bach cantatas in the dying days of Primephonic and I very much enjoyed getting to know it. It was composed early in Bach's career and, as with the cantata that I know best (BWV 106 composed at about the same time), I like its relative austerity, the directness of its expression.
 
One of the recordings that I heard was the Suzuki version, which is selected in the review as "the perfect choice":  the reviewer praises almost every aspect of it but asks "is it too beautiful?" Another version I heard was by Philippe Pierlot and the Ricercar Ensemble. This is one of the few One Voice Per Part (OVPP) versions discussed by the reviewer who admired "the deeply marinated ideas about how detail can serve imagery" but felt that "there is no sense of community to performances like this and therefore just not enough Martin Luther (or even J S Bach) in them."
 
The first version I found when exploring the work is based around a small group of instrumentalists: The Purcell Quartet  This is also OVPP and I love it. I like the clean sound and enjoy the way the different voices can take turns to come to the fore in the choruses. It's a bit like the interplay of instruments in chamber music. I feel that OVPP particularly suits the earlier cantatas. And I love the soprano/alto duets sung by Emma Kirkby and Michael Chance.
 
 
The Purcell Quartet version is not one of the 22 recordings mentioned in the Gramophone review. The other recommendations (apart from Suzuki) are:
Karl Richter ("the historic choice")
John Eliot Gardiner (live recording from 2000) ("the dramatic choice")
Thomas Hengelbrock ("the top choice" which "wins for delivering the sense of community vital for any Bach cantata.") 
 
(One aspect of the Hengelbrock recording that surprised me was that one of the lovely duets is performed by all the sopranos and altos in unison. Apparently Gardiner does this in all the solos and duets, and the reviewer approves, saying that "Bach would surely not have used solo voices" in the movements assigned to one or two "voice parts".)

   
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 Jen
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Oh wow, thankyou Hugh!

I’d not been aware of the Purcell Quartet recording of BWV4 until your post, and it’s quite unlike any other performance I’ve heard.

It’s a surprise to hear the first chorus sung OVPP.  On first listening I’m not sure I like it, and might be agreeing with the Gramophone reviewer…

… but that delicious, poignant soprano/alto duet has to be sung with individual voices.  I want to hear every nuance of the way the voices lean into each other.  Kirkby and Chance absolutely nail it; the intimacy, the fragility of their singing brought me to tears.

And by the end of this performance of BWV4, I’m convinced OVPP works superbly, at least for this cantata.  Listening again, even the first chorus works!

I wonder why this recording didn’t make the cut of 22 in the Gramophone review?

This recording was strangely elusive on Idagio so, for anyone who might be looking, here’s the link:

https://app.idagio.com/albums/bach-j-s-early-cantatas-vol-1-bwv-4-106-131-196

[Probably BWV 131 was also on that short shortlist?  In my view OVPP does not work as well in this cantata - now I do want to hear a “sense of community” 😊 ]


   
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 Hugh
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Posted by: @jen

Probably BWV 131 was also on that short shortlist

Yes, indeed. My cryptic listening notes say "131 1707-08 (Aus der Tiefen) (hope of redemption from sin) (early, like 106, no recitatives) love it all. Suzuki (choir quiet in 2 and 4), Rifkin, Harnoncourt". It seems that I didn't state a preference for any of these recordings. And there's no sign that I felt Rifkin's OVPP lacked sufficient community spirit! Which version would you recommend?

It was interesting that your list of 5 cantatas included two (4 and 131) from 1707-08, one (12 with a great opening chorus) from 1714 and one (198, a secular requiem, a funeral ode for a princess), leaving only one (78, which line BWV4 features a wonderful soprano/alto duet) from the numerous cantatas composed for the church year in Leipzig.

Also, I noted a great emphasis on death and suffering: 4 (Easter day - Christ's victory over death - Hallelujah), 12 (Weeping, lamentation, worry, despair) (the affliction that christians have to pass), 78 (christian cleansed by Christ's Passion), 131 (hope of redemption from sin), 198 (for a funeral).  I felt that I had been thoroughly immersed in Lutheran thinking about death and redemption from sin. Not entirely jolly therefore, but in fact I found a great deal of optimism and even jubilation in the music.

 

As to why the Purcell Quartet didn't make the cut, the bach-cantatas website lists 158 recordings, quite a few of which are probably still available, so I guess the article had to be ruthlessly selective. And the reviewer made sure to include some from each era of performance practice. One omission that surprised me was Herreweghe, since I think you and/or others in the Primephonic discussion mentioned that you/they prefer his recordings of the cantatas.


   
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 Jen
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I’m much enjoying reading your analysis!  Even by Bach’s exalted standards, the cantatas are such a consistently great body of works that I guess any one person’s shortlist will simply reflect their taste.  I hadn’t realised my taste was so macabre 😂

As to a preferred recording of BWV 131, I’ve not made a detailed study, and never quite get round to keeping a note of anything, but my go-to conductors are: Harnoncourt/Leonhardt (their complete cycle still sounds fresh to my ears almost 40 years later, even if the trebles are sometimes overly enthusiastic 😊); Ton Koopman; Masaaki Suzuki; and, always, Philippe Herreweghe.  I’m listening to Herreweghe now and it’s a splendid performance!


   
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