BACH: Cantatas Vol. 17, BWV 186, “Fret the not, thou mortal soul”; BWV 168, “Make a reck’ning, Thund’rous word”; BWV 134, “The soul that knows Jesus is alive”; BWV 54, “Hold thou firm against all evil” – La Petite Bande/ Sigiswald Kuijken – Accent multichannel SACD 25316, 68:25 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Kuijken’s estimable series reaches volume 17 with this issue, though the releases have been staggered—these recordings are from 2005-2012. I have voiced my philosophical objections before to these one-to-a-part performances, yet the readings are so engaging that I find myself compelled to recommend them anyway, though not as a first choice.

Here we get cantatas for the seventh and ninth Sundays after Trinity, the third Sunday of Easter, and one early Weimar composition that may have been intended for the third Sunday of Lent, but more probably, according to the notes, also the seventh Sunday of Trinity, hence its inclusion here. In fact it cannot be said for certain which Sunday it was composed for, and probably served multiple purposes. But No. 54 has also been accused of being incomplete as well, on the general assumption that any work this short is either complete or its parts are lost. As is, this encouragement to resist sin stands as a solo cantata for alto.

No. 186 is the longest piece here, and originates from Bach’s first year in Leipzig, but in fact has its basis in an Advent Cantata from Weimar some seven years earlier. Both parts now have an opening and closing chorale, which signal the before and after the sermon sections of the service. No. 168, two Sundays later, has as its focus the idea that the believer must give an accounting before God, that his life is essentially “on loan” and that he must make the best use of it. The piece is serious and forthright, a fine illustration of the Sunday Gospel theme.

Finally, No. 134, an Easter parody of the 1719 New Year’s celebration for Prince Leopold, for whom Bach was employed 1717-23. Since the Prince was a Calvinist, the musical celebrations at court were limited, cantatas rarely called for, and instead a sort of semi-staged opera setting was involved, requiring the use of professional singers. Bach brought it out in 1724 as a remodeled full-fledged church work, and again in 1731, so the piece must have had some meaning for him. The work is also sans chorale and with only an alto and tenor, giving it an especial middle-range tonal feel.

Onward we go—Kuijken’s series continues ablaze, and this, like the others, is recommended.

—Steven Ritter