The very deep heart of Bach music can be found, without any doubt, in his cantatas. And yet, when literally heard, these texts are often full of religious banality. Then why do I like so many of them? Do I get anything more than texts and scores when I listen to them? To me this is one of the greatest mysteries of Bach music.
To take a look at this paradox read for example the text of BWV 4 "Christ lag in todes banden"
and listen to it..., e.g. a version by Andrew Parrot
Andrew Parrot, J.S. Bach "Christ lag in Todes Banden" and "Easter-Oratorio"
On the oposite side of what was written above there is my favorite cantata: BWV 106 Actus Tragicus - such a skilful and tasteful composition of the Old and New Testament quotations.
BWV 106 "Actus Tragicus: "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit"
Perhaps the most clear answer to the above paradox can be found in the opinion of the greatest cantata performer John Elliot Gardiner, displayed on the web site of his record label "Soli Deo Gloria":
I believe that Bach's music carries a universal message of hope and faith which can touch anybody, irrespective of their culture, religion or musical knowledge, J.E.Gardiner
This short introduction leads us to the journey through the J.S.Bach cantatas that is planned for this web page. The order of the discussed cantatas is purely subjective. I simply plan to start from the most impressive to me...

BWV 118b "O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht"
As ususal, life is not as simple as it seems to be, so my favourite cantata is not really cantata but a motet.
Its short text was written by Martin Behm in 1610:

O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht, (O Jesus Christ, light of my life)
Mein Hort, mein Trost, mein' Zuversicht, (my refuge, my comfort, my reassurance)
Auf Erden bin ich nur ein Gast, (on earth I am only a guest)
Und drückt mich sehr der Sünden Last. (And the burden of sin presses down heavily upon me).
-- English Translation by Francis Browne, July 2008 --

I heard this motet for the first time in the early 90-ties of XX century, recorded by John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists (DG Archive CD 429 782-2) as Cantatas BWV 106, 118b, 198
It took so much of my attention then, that it acompanied me on a small cassette & "walkman" during my first journey to Jerusalem in 1993. And now years and years have passed by, but this piece of music stands firmly at the very top of my Bach fascinations. Any one doubting about the quality of this music should take the above record of the DG "Archive Production" titled simply Cantatas, put on a head-set, sit back, close eyes and listen to all the 9min 11s of this track (no.[5])..."
Albert Schweitzer, in his famous Bach biography, has written only 13 lines about this motet (vol.2 p371, s. 590-PL):
The splendid motet upon "O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht", which is printed in the B. G. edition as cantata No. 118, was not originally written for the church, but was performed in the open air, at a funeral ceremony. For this reason it is accompanied by wind instruments alone. Nothing precise can be learned from either Mattheson or Walther as to the instrument called the "Lituus" that is here employed twice. It probably belonged to the comet family. The work could be re-orchestrated for church use. We possess another score of it, used by Bach for a performance in a building. In this he replaces the cornetto and the three trombones by strings, to which, perhaps, the wood-wind were added.
Such a brief note in a book of 800+ pages for my favourite cantata/motet? How could it happen that Schweitzer did not appreciate this particular piece of Bach music? Probably I found an answer when listening to the version of Rilling (from the Complete Bach works). The Rilling version was played in such a way that it lost most of the solemn splendor of "standing", slowly lasting, hypnotic music. Effectively it shrunk (!) to 6 minutes 25 seconds compare to 9 minutes 11 seconds of the Gardiner version. Gardiner indicates in his notes for the "Archive CD" that his recording is Bach's re-scored, later version (strings with continuo replacing brass consort but still retaining trumpets) denoted as BWV 118b. Perhaps Schweitzer new only the original version, not the re-orchestrated one which he mention? What would Schweitzer say after listening to the Gardiner recording of 1990? Could it be that it was John Elliot Gardiner who "polished this musical diamond" with such an effect?

Extensive analysis and discussion on BWV 118 can be found on the Bach-Cantatas web site.
This includes an endless discussion whether it is a motet or cantata.
There are many recordings of this cantata as can be seen here>
I have two versions of BWV 118 by Gardiner. The earlier recording for "Erato" label>
is very similiar to the later "Archive" version, but clearly the later one is played more precisely by the wind instruments.
A very moving example of how this cantata could be played during real funerals can be seen on this amateur video recorded during Gardiner's "Cantata Pilgrimage" on Iona Island, Scotland on July 28th, 2000
One can even hear birds contributing to this performance :) .

In fact I was surprized to find quite a lot of versions of this Cantata on "YouTube".
The one below seems extremely fast.
Some one commented, that it was easier for sopranos to sing faster:
Quote:The faster tempo makes it much more comfortable. It's a fun piece to sing, if the sopranos aren't suffocating end of quote
In spite of its huge instrumentation I like the slowly played version by Cardiff Choir for the nice organ part>
And this time the sopranos survived, didn't they?
Here are some other versions:
And the last one is quite funny as it is with a "false start" :) - surely this is a recorded excercise: