Bach Cantatas BWV 1 – 4
Concentus Musicus Wien, Nicholaus Harnoncourt conductor
Teldec Schallplatten GmBH 1971
These recordings, made in 1970, were the first in a complete cantata cycle using period instruments and historically informed performance practice that would take 20 years to complete. The instruments used were made in the 16th and 17th centuries, and are tuned to A = 421Hz (modern pitch, A = 440). All 4 cantatas are played at what seem to me to be just about ideal tempi, and with none of the faster speeds and idiosyncratic phrasing that I have found disconcerting in some of the later recordings in Harnoncourt’s Cantata Cycle. In fact, his overall tempi in these cantatas are slightly slower than they are in recordings made in 1980 by Helmuth Rilling. These performances have textural clarity, rhythmic precision and clear diction. Tenor Kurt Equiluz is especially good; his recitativos are beautifully nuanced and expressive. The opening coro of BWV1 is at a comfortable tempo of dotted quarter = 66. The (natural) horns are joyfully buoyant; inevitably there are the ‘bit out of tune’ passing notes, and in the final coro, they cannot quite match the voices’ pianissimo. The trombones are beautiful in BWV2, and the alto trombone part, played by Hans Pöttler is especially lovely. The soprano trombone parts are played on cornett (zink). Documentation of the Leipzig performance of BWV3 on January 14th, 1725 indicated trombone playing in only movt.1, which is how it appears in the BW score. Harnoncourt has it also playing in the final coro, supporting the bass line, which does seem to me to provide a satisfying balance to the whole. The Aria (Duetto)‘Wenn sorgen auf mich dringen’ is sung by counter-tenor Paul Esswood and a boy soprano, given in the booklet only as ‘a soloist of the Vienna Knabenchor’. His crystalline tone, near-perfect pitch and intuitive expressivity have a transcendental quality that I have not heard anywhere else. It is incredibly beautiful. Elsewhere, he is identified as Friedrich Pfeiffer, and therefore likely related to Walter Pfeiffer, one of 2 violinists playing in the ensemble. Even in the more complex textures of BWV4, a performance of exemplary clarity is achieved at brisk but comfortable tempi. Harnoncourt, who died earlier this year at the age of 86, has left us a wonderful recorded legacy.
At age of 20, Friedrich Pfeiffer was appointed first horn of the Vienna Philharmonic. He left the orchestra to pursue a conducting career.
Keith Davies Jones
Complete Cantatas 1