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GRAMOPHONE (02/2017)
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Reviewer: Peter Quantrill

On the face of it, this is turkey-carving or eggnog-making Bach: an album of instrumental contrafacta, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, in which sacred cantata arias and choruses have been lent a secular purpose, eminently friendly to radio play, through discreet transpositions, snipping of da capo sections and assignment of vocal lines to soloists in a concerto grosso ensemble of the size Bach himself directed at Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig.

No justification is required for such a happy enterprise, though one can be found in the composer’s own readiness to make such arrangements when it suited him. Inspection of the booklet reveals a loftier purpose on the part of the arrangers, who have gathered the movements into three cantata-concertos, following a theological scheme of comparably obscure content to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s late requisitioning of Mozart’s last three symphonies as an instrumental oratorio. What matters is that it works, and not least thanks to the compact energy and unassuming verve of Lautten Compagney. This Berlin-based early music group, now over 30 years old, has a record of uncommon juxtapositions and imaginative responses not always appreciated beyond the Continent: if you haven’t encountered it, do try ‘Timeless’, their 2010 album of Merula canzons and ‘period’ Philip Glass.

New slants on old favourites include ‘Die Seele ruht’ from Cantata No 127, one of Bach’s heart-stopping ‘death clock’ arias; the ebullient affirmation of lifeforce which launches No 133, Ich freue mich in dir; and, perhaps inevitably, the ‘Wachet auf’ chorale-aria to close the album. Don’t miss some hard-working banter between winds in the ‘hell’ aria of Cantata No 40, which is taken at a more infernal canter than any vocal bass could comfortably encompass; or the grave dialogue which reclaims the origin of the first chorus in No 146 as the slow movement of the famous D minor Keyboard Concerto. It sounds as though everyone concerned had tremendous fun.


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