Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Bach Cantatas @ Barbican Hall, London

23 March 2010

Having composed three hundred between 1723 and 1728 alone, our knowledge of J. S. Bach’s cantatas would seem to be in inverse proportion to the volume that he produced. And in this recital, soprano Mojca Erdmann, baritone Matthias Goerne, and violinist Hilary Hahn revealed just how much we miss out on when we neglect the composer’s achievements in this musical form.

The cantatas performed typically involved one voice and one solo instrument, although even when they retained this format the variation from piece to piece was quite extraordinary. For example, in the Cantata, BWV205, the only work performed that had a secular subject matter, Erdmann’s pure, ethereal voice was complemented by Hahn’s fluid, soaring violin playing. In direct contrast, in Cantata, BWV32 Goerne’s languid passages seemed to be ‘contradicted’ by the more exuberant violin line.

Cantata, BWV157 revealed the genre’s potential for paradox and ambiguity as this meditation on death, accompanied by violin and flute, felt decidedly jocular. Similarly, the Cantata, BWV140, a soprano-bass duet, technically concerned a symbolic marriage between Christ and the individual soul, but felt remarkably like a standard love duet, possibly betraying its origins in a secular piece.

Throughout the evening Goerne sang with his usual striking voice, combining depth of sound with a lightness of touch. He also captured the spirit of the pieces with his body movements, frequently swaying from side to side whilst appearing to sculpt the sound with his hands. Hahn delivered playing that was passionate in its purity, whilst no-one would have believed from Erdmann’s command of the music that she had stepped in so late in the day to replace an ill Christine Schfer.

The soloists were brilliantly supported by the Munich Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of Alexander Liebreich. The group also contributed four orchestral pieces to the evening (two Sinfonias from C. P. E. Bach and two Orchestral Suites from Johann Sebastian), and, by virtue of an exemplary performance, enabled us to consider afresh the now unfortunately clichd ‘Air’ from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major.

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