“Recreation for the Soul” = BACH: Jesu, der du meine Seele; Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich; Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben – Soloists/Magdalena Consort – Channel Classics

Recreation for the Soul = BACH: Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78; Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150; Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 – Elin Manahan Thomas, soprano/ Daniel Taylor, alto/ James Gilchrist, tenor/ Peter Harvey, bass & dir./ Magdalena Consort – Channel Classics multichannel SACD CCS SA 35214, 63:00 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (8/12/14) ****:

The titled umbrella for this collection of Bach cantatas seems to rely on the idea that the complexities and interwoven numerical and rhetorical symbolism that is found in his work—numerical representation of names, acrostics, these sorts of things—were simply “recreation” for him as the compositional process cost him little, if any, effort, something we really don’t know. Bach did say that “true music should be for the honor of God and the recreation of the soul”, something a little different than the initial construct given for the idea behind this release.

It’s easy to get lost in Bach’s many symbolisms, and it is easy to posit the idea that this is actually something important behind a collection of pieces that supposedly are rich in this complexity—it’s not. But there is no argument about the quality of these three works, even though one of them (BWV 150) could be his earliest cantata. This piece Lord, I long for you could have been written for the composer’s arrival in Muhlhausen in 1707, and it is delightful. The notes point out that there is an acrostic recently discovered among the two arias and final ciaconna (itself a very unusual device) that spells out the name “Doktor Conrad Meckbach”, the man who was Mayor of Muhlhausen and celebrated his 70th birthday in 1707, which could effectively date the work.

The other two pieces are super-standards that grace the collections of almost every lover of Bach. The haunting and highly penitential BWV 78 is the latest of these three, written for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, while the ubiquitous Heart and mouth and deed and life, an optimistic and rather bouncy work with its famous “Jesu, Joy of man’s desiring”, was initially composed for Advent, but then reworked in 1723 for the Feast of the Visitation, and the incarnate Christ is featured in both pieces textually. It endures as one of the most beloved works of any genre of all time.

The performances are all very good, the singing radiant if undernourished because of the one-to-a-part rigors in the “chorus”. I was wondering when someone might replace Joshua Rifkin’s old recordings of these two famous cantatas, and the wonderful surround sound coupled with the adept readings have accomplished this. Forces this small will never be a first choice with me, but what we get is very good indeed.

—Steven Ritter

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