This disc is the debut entry in a full cycle of Bach's cantatas to come from Canada's Montreal Baroque historical performance ensemble. Conductor Eric Milnes opts for the controversial approach of having just one voice per part -- the four soloists, joined together -- in the choral movements, with no choir in sight. The result is a clean, sparse sound. Listeners for whom the Bach cantatas say "chorales" and "chorales" say "chorus" will be dismayed, but there is a certain amount of historical evidence to support this procedure. The first step for the buyer is to sample one of the choral movements, such as track 6, to see whether you like the effect.
If you're still reading, this ambitious undertaking looks promising so far. Like other early discs in the series, this one presents a group of cantatas associated with a specific feast day in the liturgical year, in this case the Feast of St. John the Baptist. This approach is enlightening (if one may use that word to describe hardcore Lutheran ritual) for Bach's cantatas, which tend -- for both practical and more creative reasons -- to have specific musical languages associated with different text types. These three cantatas feature the gentle oboe d'amore or oboe da caccia. The lengthy (34-minute) Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30 was originally composed as a sort of secular minidrama intended for the dedication of a noble mansion, but it fits with the serene joy of the two shorter cantatas also included. Milnes' interpretations are on the reserved side, but all textures are crystal clear, and the soloists are ideal for the one-voice-per-part approach. They have medium-sized, sharp-edged voices that cut through their instrumental surroundings, and soprano Suzie LeBlanc uses a timbre evoking the boy sopranos who would sometimes have sung this music. They're not spectacular singers, but Bach's cantatas don't need spectacular singers and are probably better off without them. Atma's spacious but never muddy SACD sound design is superb. For listeners who are OK with the one-voice-per-part performance -- and Atma label clearly is, for it has 15 years' worth of discs coming up -- this release is a noteworthy event.