One of my favorite parts of the classical canon is Bach’s sacred cantatas. These are vocal and instrumental works that Bach composed to be performed in church during services, as well as some which were written for secular occasions. Some feature a choir, others just solo singers, and most are based on texts from the bible and hymns. Many composers wrote cantatas, but the more than 200 cantatas that Bach composed are considered to be the finest.
Cantatas are generally small-scale works, unlike Bach’s passions, oratorios or masses. (Though the Christmas Oratorio is actually a group of six cantatas meant to be played on six consecutive days.) Bach didn’t have many musicians available, so these works feature generally no more than about 20 musicians, and a choir that can vary according to the performance style. The smallest number of singers can be four – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – in what is called “one voice per part” performance, where these four soloists make up the choir. Other performances may have a choir of 30 or more singers, depending on how the conductor wishes to present the works. The OVPP approach, which is controversial, was first advocated by conductor Joshua Rifkin. The texture of these performances is interesting, but while evidence can be presented for its use in Bach’s time, it has not been universally adopted.
A number of recordings of Bach’s cantatas have been made over the years, and for a body of work of this scope – the sacred cantatas take up some 60 CDs – there are a surprising number of complete sets. The first complete set was recorded by Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt from 1971 through 1990. It stands out for its use of boy sopranos, which is how Bach performed these works. This set is is available for around $175. Helmut Rilling also recorded the complete cantatas, which are now available in a budget set. (Both of these sets are available in box sets of Bach’s complete works.)
John Eliot Gardiner, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, recorded all the sacred cantatas during a “cantata pilgrimage.” While there is no complete set available yet, these recordings have been issued in individual one- or two-disc sets. (There is also an excellent set of earlier recordings of Bach’s Sacred Masterpieces and Cantatas, containing 22 CDs of passions, oratorios and cantatas, that is worth getting, and is available at a budget price. (Also available from iTunes.) Ton Koopman, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, recorded a complete set of the sacred and secular cantatas which is, unfortunately, quite expensive, so I have not heard this one yet. Finally, Maasaki Suzuki is in the process of recording a complete set, and is currently up to volume 53; he has also recorded some of the secular cantatas.It’s fair to say that with these five excellent sets – and there is one other set of lower quality, along with hundreds of individual recordings of the cantatas – listeners have a wonderful number of examples of these great works. Personally, my favorites are the recordings of John Eliot Gardiner, closely followed by recordings by Philippe Herreweghe, who recorded many of the cantatas, but had no desire to record a complete set. Suzuki’s recordings are also excellent, and the starkness and originality of the Leonhardt/Harnoncourt recordings make those worth listening to from time to time. While I’m not a big fan of Rilling’s recordings, he does have some excellent soloists, notably the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
A recently released curiosity is this 9-CD set by Karl Ristenpart, from 1949-1952. This was to be the first recording of all of Bach’s cantatas, but never went far enough. These 9 discs show an interesting approach to the cantatas, well before the pioneering recordings of Harnoncourt and Leonhardt. (And the MP3 version is currently very cheap, at only $20).
If you just want one disc of Bach cantatas to discover these works, I strongly recommend this recording of Actus Tragicus (BWV 106) and three other cantatas by Cantus Cölln. (iTunes) It is simply magnificent.
Since the cantatas are a huge self-contained sub-genre, it can be helpful to learn more about them. A book of translations of the texts by Richard Stokes can be helpful, as Bach sculpted the music around the texts with great care. And a huge book by Alfred Dürr gives detailed information about each cantata, along with translations of their texts. If you read French, a similar book by Gilles Cantagrel offers the same type of overview and texts of the works.
To learn more about the works, you can visit the Bach Cantatas website, maintained by a Bach fanatic, Aryeh Oron. This site, which contains information and detailed discographies of nearly every Bach cantata recording ever made, grew out of a mailing list which I created some 15 years ago. The Bach cantatas mailing list, itself an outgrowth of the Bach recordings mailing list, is a place where fans of these works can discuss them, and where a specific cantata is discussed each week. Finally, Julian Mincham’s The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach: A Listener and Student Guide offers in-depth commentaries of the cantatas.
And, if you’re a collector, and want to keep track of your Bach cantata collection, Alco Blom’s $4 Bach Cantatas iPhone app will help you. For now, it’s mostly for managing collections, but the developer told me he’ll be adding many more features to the app, including links to the websites I mentioned above.
If you’re not familiar with Bach’s cantatas, you should by all means discover these works which are, perhaps, the heart of Bach’s oeuvre. Some of his best music is in the cantatas, and you’ll find hours of wonderful music to listen to over and over. You may end up becoming obsessed by these works, as I am, and collecting recordings by different conductors and performers.