Cantatas, both sacred and secular, constitute a major part of Bach's catalogue of works. About 200 of them are extant from an estimated output of around 300. If this seems like a high number, it's worth bearing in mind that Bach's contemporary, Telemann, composed 1200 and Christoph Graupner almost 2000. But Bach's cantatas are marked out by the wide range of musical styles which they encompass, and the sheer quality of the music.
Recordings date back to the 1940s, and since then they have been recorded by a variety of groups and in a wide variety of styles. Some recordings use boys voices (as in Bach's time), some womens voices. Many older recordings employ a large choir whereas more recent ones use a much smaller choir. A few employ a choir of just one voice per part. You can hear performances in a heavy Germanic style, and performances of real lightness, wit and humour.
The various sections below will hopefully help you explore some of the variety, range, recommendations and new releases. To view available recordings of a particular cantata please use our numerical list of all cantatas.
There are now five complete cycles available, all with different qualities and insights.
Made between 1969-1985, Rilling was the first person to complete a cycle. Now considered somewhat 'modern' in performance practice. [more ...]
Made between 1971-1989, this pioneering set of Bach Cantatas on the Teldec Das Alte Werk label uses boys for the choruses and solos. [more ...]
New recordings made for Brilliant Classics in 1999-2000 on period instruments and sung by a boys’ choir. Now available as part of the label's bargain priced Complete Bach edition. [more ...]
Previously begun on Erato, Koopman's cantata cycle was taken over and completed in 2007 on Challenge Classics. Many now consider it the finest complete set on record, though with Suzuki and Gardiner both over half way trough their cycles some serious challengers are approaching. [more ...]
When DG decided they could no longer sustain John Eliot Gardiner's pilgrimage to record all of Bach's cantatas in various venues, he bravely decided to set up his own label and underwrite the project himself. [more ...]
Cycles in Progress
Masaaki Suzuki (now well over half way) offers some serious competition to the complete cycles above.
Amazing, and very heartening, considering the size of the undertaking, that new projects are still appearing.
Started in 1995 Suzuki's series with the Bach Collegium Japan is maintaining a remarkable consistency of sheer quality.
Was voted first choice on BBC Radio 3's Bach Christmas celebrations in 2005. [more ...]
Began a new cycle for Accent in 2001 following excellent reviews for previous one-offs. [more ...]
A native New Yorker, Eric Milnes began the monumental project for Atma in 2005, but still has a long way to go. [more ...]
Some really great recordings have come from Philippe Herreweghe's selective approach, helped by some superb soloists and choral singing. [more ...]
Recorded from the late 1950s to early 1970s now available on two super-budget boxes. [more ...]
The conductorless Purcell Quartet approach with a chamber scale and considerable intimacy. [more ...]
One of the first conductors to advocate one-voice to a part in the chorales. [more ...]
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