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GRAMOPHONE (08/1996)
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Harmonia Mundi

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Reviewer: Nicholas Anderson


Three of Bach 's most extended secular cantatas are featured on this release. All of them are Leipzig pieces, the earliest being Der zufriedengest ellle AoIus (" Aolus pacified "). It was commissioned for nothing more than the name-day of August Friedrich Muller, a university lecturer in philosophy ; yet for this dramma per musica Bach fielded one of his largest orchestras for a performance on August 3rd, 1725. The pastoral tale, set on the slopes of Mount Helicon , is by Picander and we may at least suspect that the curious assortment of dramatis personae reflected the character of Muller and other of his learned friends. Certainly there is no shortage of bluster, hot and cold air among them .


Four years later, in 1729, followed Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan ("The Contest between Phoebus and Pan") . The occasion of its performance was probably the Collegium Musicum concerts which had been assigned to Bach's directorship that year. Picander's text , inspired by an account in Ovid 's Melamorphoses, concerns a singing contest between Phoebus (bass I) and Pan (bass 2); Timolus (tenor I) and Midas - he of the ears - (tenor 2) are the adjudicators, while Mercury (alto) and Momus (soprano) add further entertainment and mischief to the proceedings . Some writers have seen in Midas, the more stupid, conceited and musically incompetent of the judges, various of Bach's contemporaries who might have been on the composer's hit list. I t may have been so, but hard and fast evidence is lacking.


The latest of the three drammae , Hercules auf dem Scheide wege (" Hercules at the Crossroads") dates from 1733 when Bach performed it in honour of the birthday of Friedrich Christian, Prince Elector of Saxony. Musically speaking this piece is likely to be the most familiar to readers since all but the recitatives and the final chorus found their way into the Christmas Oratorio in the following year. The story, in which Hercules is faced with the choice between virtue and hedonism - he of course chooses the former - is not really very entertaining and, as ever when listening to it, I find myself longing for the later 'parody'. Items from the other two works were also subsequently plundered by Bach for other contexts but nothing like to the same extent as was the case in the Hercules piece.


Any longueurs in the drammae which may be felt by twentieth-century sensibilities pale into insignificance in the context of music which never falters and which , for the most part , is of superlative quality. It hardly needs to be said that the Hercules cantata is stuffed full of Bach's headiest vintage, but each of the remaining works, too , contains music that I shall never wish to be without. Pan's A major "Zu Tanzezu Sprunge" , which later found its way into the Peasant Cantata (No. 212) is one of them, and Mercury's E minor "Aufgeblasne Hitze" with two obbligato flutes is another. These two high watermarks of Phoebus and Pan are, however, comfortably matched by Aolus's robust A major "Wie will ich lustig lachen" and Pallas 's ravishing E major" Angeneluner Zephyrus", parodied by Bach in his New Year cantata, No. 171, four years later. And the opening choruses of all these drammae are pieces of colossal stature.


Rene Jacobs and his strong line-up of soloists enliven the drama in all sorts of ways, paying attention to textual subtlety, showing imagination in matters of ornament and pacing the music sensitively. Most of the tempos are effective, though I found the above-mentioned "Aufgeblasne Hitze" (No. 201) a shade too brisk for what is , in fact , a minuet with something of an elegiac character. The Berlin Academy of Ancient Music provide strong support as well as fielding several excellent obbligato players among whom I must highly commend two evenly matched flautists. The Berlin RIAS Choir sound lively too , though the acoustical ambience does them little favour. Indeed, to get the best out of this recorded sound it is necessary to turn one's equipment up a notch or two further than usual.


In summary, a stimulating release providing versions of Nos. 201 and 213 perhaps hitherto unrivalled on disc. Where No. 205 is concerned Nikolaus Harnoncourt offers strong competition with larger than life orchestral playing which comes across with greater impact than that provided by the Berlin group. An altogether rewarding project which will disappoint few.


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