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Bach: Cantatas
Johann Sebastian Bach, Kurt Thomas, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
Bach: Cantatas
Genre: Classical
 

      
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Beautiful singing from another era
Larry VanDeSande | Mason, Michigan United States | 05/19/2006
(3 out of 5 stars)

"These performances represent the kapellmeister approach to Bach that was famous in the postwar era through the age of enlightenment known as period performance practice, when Bach style changed. Produced in Leipzig in 1959, these performances of two of Bach's most famous baritone cantatas and a lesser known alto cantata lack the fire, speed, clipped phrasing and hectoring that has become commonplace in Bach performance under PPP.

The cantatas here -- Nos. 54 for alto and 56 & 82 for baritone -- are all beautifully sung by the principals and lovingly conducted by Thomas. Hoffgen is a hefty, gutteral but lovely alto that would show anyone under 40 what an alto is supposed to sound like in the era of countertenors. Prey was one of the most cultured lieder singers of his time and performs here with much beauty of tone and phrasing.

What these performances lack, however, is imagination, rubato and changes in pace and phraseology on repeats that we take for granted today from the world's better Bach cantata groups. There is a sameness in approach across this CD that turns the extended beauty into something bordering on mundane. Although the soloists are world class singers, their relative lack of changing temperament renders their performances closer to practice than performance, as they rarely change inflection, speed or emotion from movement to movement. Thomas does little to help here, maintaining a metronomic approach that varies by only a few points from one movement to the next.

Is this the way they did things behind the Iron Curtain in the postwar era? This recording is not as stylistically abhorrent as Karajan's justly infamous performance of the Brandenburg concertos -- which one critic once said was a topic for discussion at meetings of the Flat Earth Society -- but anyone under age 40 that's never heard Bach performed in old school style would be in for quite a shock listening to this group.

What saves this for posterity are the wonderful voices of Hoffgen and Prey, a pair of singers that equal any out there today. Thomas made a group of Bach cantata recordings in the old school way and this represents that body of work. It is a beautiful look back at the way things were done a half-century back but it will be difficult for most people to get fully on board with this approach today."