Ton Koopman

Bach: Actus Tragicus

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Dutch historical-performance specialist Ton Koopman's mid-'90s Bach cantata series, aborted in mid-issue by its label, continues to surface in bits and pieces, which is confusing for buyers who are trying to assemble the whole thing, but beneficial for samplers and newcomers. Koopman is one of the great veterans of Bach interpretation, and these performances are consistently gorgeous. Indeed, the good-sized Amsterdam Baroque Choir and sensuous interpretations make Koopman something of a conservative by now, although he's surely old enough to remember the days when using period instruments made one a radical. This pair of early Bach cantatas in a funeral mood was originally recorded in 1994 and appeared as part of a larger volume one of the entire set. This dour-covered reissue, with only a single window piercing the blackness, offers pieces that make sense on a single disc. The most distinctive musical feature is the sound of soprano Barbara Schlick, whose voice sparks and shines through the dark corners of Amsterdam's Waalse Kerk. Koopman seems to have organized the entire performance around Schlick, setting deliberate tempos and polishing sensuous surfaces (hear the lovely, reflective "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis" chorus, track 6) that give her space to apply her trademark odd, fluttering intensity. Sample the recitative-aria pair "Wie hast du dich, mein Gott" and "Bäche von gesalznen Zähren" from the Cantata No. 21, "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis" (tracks 8 and 9) to hear her sound, which is not universally admired but which will likely be found absolutely chilling as the soprano infiltrates the final chorus of "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit," track 2, and delivers the famous arioso flourish at the very end. The alto solos are sung by countertenor Kai Wessel, and the contrast between the two is extremely attractive. The musicians of Koopman's Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra are just about the best there is, coming out of programs that have trained many of Europe's historical-instrument players, and the sound has held up very well: the original Erato engineers were among the few at the time who really gave thought to how Baroque strings and recorders should sound in a church environment. Altogether, this makes a fine single-disc purchase for anyone beginning to explore the Bach cantatas.

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