The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: It’s Easter Sunday, so which recorded cycle of Bach’s cantatas is the best? Ask Alex Ross.

April 24, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Today is Easter Sunday.

I can’t think of a better time to listen to — or to perform — the music of J.S. Bach (below).

Specifically, his vocal and choral music.

Specifically his “St. Matthew” and “St. John” Passions.

And especially his cantatas, numbering over 200 of which another 100 or so have been lost.

That means I also think of a better time to offer you an excellent summary review of two outstanding recorded cycles of Bach cantatas by famed music critic Alex Ross (below) of  The New Yorker magazine.

One is by John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir, recording during the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage (below).

The other is by Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan (below). (There is no criticsl assessment of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s pioneering period performance efforts or Ton Koopman’s or Helmut Rilling’s cantatas. But that is another story for another day.)

I like them both, sometimes for different reasons and sometimes for the same reasons. It depends on the cantata and on me  and on my mood. Sometimes you want more clarity and precision;  sometimes, you want more emotion.

But in the end, of course, it is kind of like deciding which Beethoven piano sonata cycle or which Mahler symphony cycle is the best.

The best thing is probably not to put all your Easter eggs in the same Easter basket, so to speak.

And it is probably best to seek out the best individual recording of each work, since no one artist or ensemble can do all of them full justice. Or maybe to get both sets.

But here is Alex Ross’ essay, loaded with insight and fine judgments – or so I hope you agree.

To believers and to non-believers alike, I hope you find this guide to some of the most moving and, yes, spiritual, music ever written as compelling, enjoyable and informative as I did:

Which Bach cantata cycle do you prefer and why?

What is your favorite Bach cantata?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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