‘Bach and before’ reviewed in Gramophone

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Lindsay Kemp reviewed our CD ‘Bach and before’ in Gramophone

As ever The Bach Players have devised a programme to get you listening with fresh ears, in this case to cantatas by four different holders of the post of Leipzig’s Thomaskantor, passing in chronological order from Johann Hermann Schein, through Johann Schelle and Johann Kuhnau and ending with JS Bach. (Two mid-17th-century incumbents, Tobias Michael and Sebastian Knüpfer, miss out.)

The trajectory is a clear one, from Schein’s tastefully decorated chorale melody to Schelle’s beautiful motet-style setting of Psalm 130, Kuhnau’s more sectional Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan – chorale-rooted but effectively varied (love the timorous short-note chords in the fifth verse) – and Bach’s Die Elenden sollen essen. Composed in 1723, this last was Bach’s inaugural cantata in Leipzig, from which his congregation would have deduced that their new man’s style was rather more modern-sounding than Kuhnau’s, clearly cast in the Italianate recitative-and-aria cantata mould and better able (as comparison of Bach’s and Kuhnau’s opening pages swiftly reveals) to conjure an immediate emotional state.

The Bach Players perform these works with style, expertise and collective purpose. The single strings make a light but firmly shaped sound, while also showing an elegant foot in a quick and quirky suite from Schein’s Banchetto musicale. The four singers, too, are strong, clear and well matched in ensemble, but balance between instruments and voices is not always so successful; while it is perfect in the Schelle, the oboes get pushed further away as the ensemble grows, so that by the time we arrive at the Bach they really seem to be out on the edge. Some of the solo singing is affected too; Robert Davies’s lowest notes are hard to hear, for instance. It is, I guess, intended as more of a ‘concert sound’ to reflect the programme’s origins, but is a little untidy, and I don’t see what harm there is in smartening up the studio version with a bit more focus here and there. An attractive and interesting disc nonetheless.

Gramophone, February 2018