Collectors of this series will have been eagerly awaiting the volume containing Bach’s great cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV21). Here it is, along with Die Himmel erzählen (BWV76), another spaciously proportioned piece which Bach first performed in May 1723, a couple of weeks after taking up his post as Leipzig’s Thomaskantor.
pIch hatte viel Bekümmernis invites us to consider the concept of Lutheran cantata as drama: its masterly organisation of musical ideas, cohesive strength and expressive intensity reveal a canvas hardly inferior, though on a smaller scale, to those of Bach’s Passions and the B minor Mass. Rich with imagery—of tears, mourning and suffering in the first part, transformed in the second part into joy and a hymn of praise—this vividly scored piece of theatre places both voices and a colourful instrumental group in urgent dialogue.
We are drawn into this right from the opening Sinfonia, delicately shaded by Katharina Arfken (oboe) and Maya Homburger (violin). The three soloists, Katharine Fuge, Vernon Kirk and Jonathan Brown, are equally outstanding. Among competing versions only Karl Richter (on Archiv) approaches Gardiner in his apposite sense of theatre, which reaches a climax in the radiant prelude and fugue that concludes the piece.
The remaining cantatas come over well, though in the alto aria of BWV2 I marginally prefer Ingeborg Danz in Philippe Herreweghe’s recording (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901791) to Daniel Taylor. In BWV135 Robin Tyson gives a poor account of the alto recitative which mars an otherwise satisfying performance. BWV 76, here placed alongside Schütz’s motet setting of a portion of the same text, fares well throughout.