Recording of March 1995: J.S. Bach: Secular Cantatas

J.S. BACH: Secular Cantatas
"Coffee Cantata," BWV 211; "Peasant Cantata," BWV 212; Durchlauchtster Leopold, BWV 173a
Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; Hugues Saint-Gelais, tenor; Kevin McMillan, baritone; Les Violons du Roy, Bernard Labadie
Dorian DOR-90199 (CD only). Craig D. Dory, eng.; Brian C. Peters, eng., prod. DDD. TT: 73:13

These secular cantatas show another side to the often severe, learned, and devout Bach. The "Coffee Cantata" is a piece of silliness about a gruff father and his clever daughter who is very devoted to the breakfest brew. In the "Peasant Cantata," which Bach called Cantate burlesque, two villagers discuss their new Lord of the Manor, then flirt, gossip, complain about taxes, and finally head off to the tavern!

Durchlauchtster Leopold, probably written in 1722, commemorates the birthday of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Given our present perspective of Bach's greatness and Leopold's insignificance, the text is embarrassingly obsequious. (Bach was later to arrange most of this music into what we know as Cantata 173, Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut).

Other than German-born Dorothea Röschmann, the performers here are Canadian. The three soloists are all very fine, though soprano Röschmann and baritone McMillan have fuller voices than we often hear in this repertory. They characterize quite well, though Röschmann is perhaps less "cute" than Elly Ameling (with Collegium Aureum on Editio Classica). McMillan is equally impressive, particularly in his wonderful aria from the "Peasant Cantata": "Dein Wachstum sei feste." The chamber orchestra, founded in 1984 by conductor Labadie, and based in Québec City, play modern instruments, but with period bows. Fortunately, none of the tempos sounds arbitrarily fast, and the interpretations are unmannered. It's just fine singing and alert playing, with nicely sprung rhythms and a faith that Bach can make the points without extra emphasis.

This recording is a good bet unless your higher allegiance goes to particular singers: Ameling in the soprano roles or Fischer-Dieskau (with Marriner on Philips) in the baritone parts. The pure, pristine versions of Emma Kirkby (with Hogwood) are currently deleted. Dorian's sonics are clear and well-balanced.—Paul L. Althouse

The sonics are more than well-balanced: I would suggest that this recording is a perfect example of both how to achieve a satisfying blend between the direct sounds and the hall ambience, and how to optimally balance voices against the orchestra. Urged on by singers and their managers, there always exists the temptation for engineers to make solo voices too loud, with the orchestra peeking around the singers' shoulders. Conversely, in live sound, you sometimes get the impression that the orchestra doesn't even know there are singers singing. In this recording, the balance is both natural and evenhanded. Vocal textures are also delightfully liquid.—John Atkinson

Paul L. Althouse wrote about Vol.II in the series in September 1995 (Vol.18. No.9):

J.S. BACH: Secular Cantatas, Vol.II
O Holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit, BWV 210; Ich bin in mir vergnügt, BWV 204
Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; Les Violons du Roy, Bernard Labadie
Dorian DOR-90207 (CD only). Brian C. Peters, prod., eng.; Craig D. Dory, eng. DDD. TT: 64:51

The first volume of secular cantatas from Labadie and his Canadian group was reviewed in March '95 (Vol.18 No.3), where JA and RL selected it as "Recording of the Month." These are very much in the same vein, so a short review will suffice.

The main difference here is that both pieces are solo cantatas for soprano, so a lot of weight falls to Dorothea Röschmann. As I noted earlier, her voice is fuller than we often hear in Bach, so the high writing (particularly in O holder Tag) is fairly intense. This is no straight-toned, girlish Emma Kirkby! If you wanted to be critical (I don't, particularly), you could say she makes the music sound more formidable and difficult than it should.

On the plus side, Röschmann's is a lovely voice, easily up to the passage work and accompanied by an intelligence that makes her singing always interesting.

As I noted with Vol.I, Bernard Labadie consistently finds tempos that sound just right: brisk, alert, and articulate without sounding arbitrary or mannered. His chamber group (strings 4-4-2-2-1) uses modern instruments (with period bows); they make a wonderful case for maintaining that tradition in the face of (often dreary) period-instrument versions.

As JA said for Vol.I, sonics are just about ideal. Balances between strings and harpsichord, between soloist and orchestra, and between dry clarity and warm reverberation are all excellently struck. Recommended!—Paul L. Althouse