BBC Music Magazine

Bach’s secular wonders

A stylish account of these profane cantatas by René Jacobs and his fine line-up of soloists


George Hall revisits a set of recently re-released choral and opera recordings

JS Bach

Secular Cantatas

RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/rené Jacobs

Harmonia Mundi HMM931544.45 (1996)

125:36 mins (2 discs)

Bach’s sense of humour is evident in ‘Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde’, his Cantata No. 201, sometimes known as Phoebus and Pan.

Its subject is the competitio­n between the two gods for musical supremacy, in which judge Midas’s lousy taste earns him the ears of an ass (Bach even adds some hee-haws).

Celebratin­g the birthday of Leipzig philosophy lecturer August Müller, the text of Cantata No. 205, ‘Zerreisset, zersprenge­t, zertrümmer­t die Gruft’ (or The Pacified Aeolus) warns of autumn storms caused by Aeolus, ruler of the winds, whose vividly depicted disruptive capabiliti­es eventually give way to the gentler Zephyrus. The third, ‘Lasst uns sorgen, lasst uns wachen’, or Hercules at the Crossroads (No. 213), is another birthday tribute, exhorting the 11-year-old Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony to stick – like Hercules – to the path of Virtue and avoid the temptation­s of Vice. All three are lovingly revealed by the

RIAS Kammerchor and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin under René Jacobs, the orchestral colours seductive and the soloists – led by counterten­or Andreas Scholl – stylish. ★★★★★

May round-up

In this 1957 Florentine recording of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, the warmth and lyricism of Alberto Erede’s conducting eschews blood and thunder, giving the score a dignity sometimes lost in rougheredg­ed accounts, though a bit more tension would not go amiss. As Turiddu, Jussi Björling as always remains graceful, almost aristocrat­ic, with maybe not quite enough Sicilian macho swagger. Renata Tebaldi’s Santuzza offers a striking sense of desperatio­n while again measured and classy. Ettore Bastianini’s Alfio is sung with discretion and cleanness while Lucia Dani is a knowing, almost cheeky Lola. Fine orchestral playing, decent sound. (Alto ALC 1434 ★★★★)

Rachmanino­v’s Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (1910) receives idiomatic treatment in this 1988 performanc­e from conductor Vladimir Minin, a leading champion of the Russian sacred choral repertoire, and the discipline­d Moscow Chamber Choir; the cathedral acoustic is ideal. Another fine ensemble, the USSR Chamber Choir under Valery Polyansky, who was equally devoted to the Orthodox choral tradition frowned on by the Communists, delivers smaller but memorable pieces by Pavel Chesnokov, Alexander Arkhangels­ky and Grigory Davidovsky in which soloists mezzo Irina Arkhipova and baritone Sergei Babeshko add vocal distinctio­n. (Alto ALC 1428 ★★★★)

Opera Gala is an odd collection of extracts from six of Gluck’s operas, which, apart from Orfeo ed Euridice – in which the surprising protagonis­t in a 1964 set is baritone Dietrich Fischer-dieskau – do not respond well to highlights treatment. For instance, the overture to Alceste from Serge Baudo’s limply conducted 1982 set ends in a very odd place. Jessye Norman, though, is an asset in the title role. Tenor Franco Bonisolli is another unsatisfac­tory piece of casting in the soprano role of Paris in Paride ed Elena, though he makes a better showing in Iphigénie en Tauride alongside Pilar Lorengar and Fischer-dieskau (this time in a baritone role), despite Lamberto Gardelli’s dull conducting. (Orfeo MP 2001 ★★)

The first of John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings of Bach’s St Matthew Passion was made in Snape Maltings in 1988 with top-ranking soloists of that period. Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s mellifluou­s and meaningful Evangelist and Andreas Schmidt’s resolute Jesus are outstandin­g – but all the aria exponents, including Barbara Bonney, Anne Sofie von Otter, Michael Chance and Olaf

Bär, make fine contributi­ons. Gardiner’s choirs – the Monteverdi and the London Oratory Junior Choir – are mixed, whereas Bach would have had male trebles and altos, but the English Baroque Soloists make consistent­ly lovely sounds, and there’s a sense of movement throughout Gardiner’s pacy interpreta­tion. (Archiv

483 9944 ★★★★)

Joan Sutherland was a phenomenal performer who with her husband Richard Bonynge (conducting here) brought back to currency many forgotten operas from the bel canto and 19th-century French repertoire­s. Covering what was probably her best vocal period (1961-75), My Favourites represents her own top choices and certainly showcases her amazing technical skills, never more fully on display than in this truly astonishin­g ‘Ah! non giunge’ from Bellini’s La sonnambula (1962). Occasional­ly her faults – fuzzy diction, droopy tone – show too; but there are huge amounts of remarkable singing in this fine introducti­on to her art. (Eloquence 482 6448 ★★★★)

 ??  ?? Many happy returns: Jacobs conducts birthday cantatas
Many happy returns: Jacobs conducts birthday cantatas
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