Of Bach's small collection of secular cantatas, Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan (The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan) comes closest to being the opera that Bach never wrote, a lack that is purely a matter of historical accident, for if he had been hired by a leading noble court such as that at Dresden, there would be plenty of them. It would be an abstract opera, with its musical competition between elevated Phoebus and flute-wielding nature-lover Pan, complete with commentary from their partisans, but abstraction was in no way beyond the norm for Baroque court entertainments, and the music, with trumpets in the orchestra, is in Bach's best festive mode. The chief novelty of this performance is that conductor Hansjörg Albrecht has moved the work even closer to the realm of opera by giving it a three-movement "overture," curtain-raiser, and curtain-dropper, drawn from other secular cantatas. This may seem startling, but Bach recycled already written music all the time, and it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have done something like this if the occasion demanded it. The one decision that raises eyebrows is the use of a movement with text for the third part of the overture. The text, a short song in praise of trumpets and the joyous sounds of music in general, is entirely appropriate, but an opening three-movement sinfonia of this kind would have been all-instrumental. The cantata itself is beautifully performed; since taking over the venerable Bach Collegium München and Münchener Bach Choir, Albrecht has molded them into state-of-the-art historical-instrument ensembles that yield to nobody in terms of clarity and vigor. The soloists are strong across the board, but the warm baritone of Konrad Jarnot as Phoebus stands out. The Oehms studio sound makes a fair facsimile of the well-upholstered halls where the cantata would originally have been heard; it is closely miked, generally subdued, and extremely detailed. A strong choice for those curious about this unique Bach cantata, which is both fun and intellectual at the same time.
Bach: Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan Review
by James Manheim