BACH: Cantatas, No. 140 (rec. 2007, 1984); No. 61 (rec. 2006, 1976); No. 29 (rec. 2007, 1973/4) – Julia Kleiter, soprano/ Kurt Streit, tenor/ Anton Scharinger, bass/ Christine Schafer, soprano/ Bernarda Fink, alto/ Werner Gura, tenor/ Gerald Finley, bass/ Christian Gerhaher, baritone/ Alan Bergius, soprano/ Kurt Equiluz, tenor/ Thomas Hampson, bass/ Seppi kronwitter, soprano/ Ruud van der Meer, bass/ Paul Esswood, counter-tenor/ Soloist of the Wiener Sangerknaben, soprano/ Max van Egmond, bass/ Arnold Schoenberg Choir/ Tolzer Knabenchor/ Wiener Sangerknaben/ Concentus Musicus Wien/ Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor – Deutsche Harmonia mundi 88697567942 ( 2 CDs), 121:14 ***1/2:
As you hopefully will note in the heading, what the intrepid Mr. Harnoncourt has done is to revisit three of the cantatas from ages past (dated in said heading), and include the two versions of each in one set. There is an interesting but woefully incomplete interview with the conductor where he speaks of some of the reasons for this walk down memory lane, and how things have changed over the years in the HIP gang. All three cantatas are very well known, and it was illuminating to hear each aside the other, though be it known that the old ones are on a separate disc, so a CD changer helps greatly for comparison purposes. The thing that strikes you right away is the absence of boy sopranos on the newer recordings. Harnoncourt seems to blame it on societal influences; the kids, he states, are dropping their voices much earlier than only 40 years ago, and as a result the inclusion of modern boys on a recording sounds too much like immature children and not serious young singers with the capacity to understand what they are singing about.
I am not too sure how many adults even reflect on the sometimes sublime texts that Bach uses, nor am I completely convinced about the assertion that this phenomenon of early lowering of the voice is occurring in cities as opposed to the country—surely an interesting topic for a doctrinal thesis! What I am sure of is that two of the three pieces on this disc sound better in the earlier recordings vs. the new ones. I don’t know what Harnoncourt might think of this, and I am a bit surprised myself, as I am not a big fan of his complete Bach series from yesteryear. But there is something fresh and discovery-laden about the earlier recordings that sound too studied and presentation-oriented to me now. BWV 61 is the lone exception—here the conductor seems to have hit a resonant and powerful new means of expression lacking in the early recording.
So while all of this is very interesting I am not sure that these readings take the place of other modern recordings, and they are numerous. Suzuki and Gardiner continue to attract my allegiance, and while I respect Harnoncourt for his earlier achievement (and many other non-Bach things he has done) this seems more of a “my life with Bach to this point” demonstration than a considered replacement of previous recordings. But—the forces here do sound good, though I prefer what sounds like a bigger choral ensemble on the earlier recordings, and the contrast of a boy with Thomas Hampson’s bass in BWV 140 from years back is far more ingratiating that the typical soprano-baritone conversation on most recordings, even though I generally like a mixed choir better than an all-male one. Recommended with caveats, though I doubt anyone will feel cheated by the quality of the performances.
— Steven Ritter