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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Kantaten im Januar" (Cantatas in January)

Anna Gschwend, soprano; Lucia Napoli, contralto; Stephan Scherpe, tenor; Thomas Bauer, bass
La Petite Bande
Dir: Sigiswald Kuijken

rec: Feb 2 - 5, 2020, Blaibach, Konzerthaus
Accent - ACC 25320 (© 2021) (62'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alles nur nach Gottes Willen (BWV 72); Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn (BWV 92); Ich stehe mit einem Fuß im Grabe (BWV 156)

Vinciane Baudhuin, Ofer Frenkel, oboe, oboe d'amore; Sigiswald Kuijken, Barbara Konrad, Ann Cnop, Xun Kim, violin; Marleen Thiers, viola; Edouard Catalàn, bass violin; Mario Sarrechia, organ

The disc under review here includes three cantatas for a short period in the ecclesiastical year, as its title indicates. All three cantatas were first performed in January, in 1725, 1726 and 1729 respectively. The first two - BWV 72 and 156 - are intended for the same Sunday, the third after Epiphany. The gospel of that day was Matthew 8, which tells about the healing of the leper and the centurion of Capernaum.

Alles nur nach Gottes willen is a setting of a libretto by Salomon Franck, from a collection of 1715. Bach composed this cantata for a performance on 27 January 1726. Its form has some uncommon features. It opens with a chorus, scored for four voices, two oboes, strings and basso continuo. The opening word "Alles" is repeated in all voices - and its marked musical motifs are taken up by the instruments - throughout this piece. There is some restraint on the lines "God's own will shall be my solace under cloud and shining sun". It is followed by a recitative for alto, which turns to an arioso with a number of prayers: "Lord, if thou wilt, must all things be obedient / shall vanish my pain / will I be well and clean" etc. At the end the form of the recitative returns, and then the alto immediately turns to the ensuing aria: the first lines link up with the closing lines of the recitative, and therefore the common opening ritornello is omitted. This (scored for two violins and basso continuo) follows the first lines, which are then repeated. The dacapo of the A section is abridged. This aria has not the common ABA form, but rather AABA'. The ensuing bass recitative opens with the phrase: "So now believe! The Saviour saith: 'I will do it!'" That is taken up by the soprano in the second aria: "My Jesus will do it". The voice is accompanied by oboe, strings and basso continuo. Again, it has an uncommon form: after the closing ritornello, the soprano repeats the opening phrase, and this way its central message is emphasized. The harmonisation of the chorale Was mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit closes the cantata. The main soloists are Anna Gschwend, who delivers a fine performance, and Lucia Napoli, whose voice is a bit on the dark side; I would have preferred more clarity of sound. In the recitative her audible vibrato is regrettable; the aria comes off better.

The second cantata is Ich stehe mit einem Fuss im Grabe; it was first performed at 23 January 1729. As in the previous cantata, the will of God is the central issue, inspired by the gospel of that Sunday. The leper says: "Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean". And Jesus replies: "I will, be thou clean". We find this issue in the chorale which has been woven into the first aria: "Deal with me, God, of thy good will", then in the opening of the alto aria: "Lord, what thou wilt shall be my pleasure", the ensuing bass recitartive ("And wilt thou that I should not suffer") and lastly in the closing chorale: "Lord, as thou wilt, so deal with me". The cantata opens with a sinfonia for oboe, strings and basso continuo, which is often played as a separate piece. It may be the arrangement of a movement from a previously-written concerto. The text is from the pen of Picander, who also wrote the libretto of the St Matthew Passion. The first aria is for tenor, accompanied by the strings playing in unison, with a chorale, scored for soprano. The tenor part is dominated by descending figures, reflecting the text: "With one foot in the grave I'm standing, soon falls my ailing body in". The word "standing" is set to a long-held note. The ensuing bass recitative ends with the line: "Let my distress no longer tarry; the longer here, the later there". The word "here" (on earth) is set to a low note, "there" (in heaven) to a high one. The second aria is for alto, with two obbligato parts for oboe and violin respectively, and basso continuo in the common ABA form. In the oboe part we find an example of Vorimitation: it opens with the same motif as the alto in the vocal part. Words as "gefallen" (pleasure) and "Freude" (gladness) are illustrated by semiquaver figures. In the second recitative, again for bass, the word "Trost" (solace) is singled out with harmonic means. The cantata closes with a harmonisation of the first stanza of the hymn Herr, wie du wilt, so schick's mit mir (Kaspar Bienemann, 1582). Stephan Scherpe is the excellent soloist in the tenor aria; his clear voice and good articulation make sure that the text is perfectly communicated. Anna Gschwend delivers an incisive performance of the chorale. The balance between the two voices and the instruments is exactly right. Thomas Bauer is at his communicative best in the two recitatives: well articulated, and with the right dynamic accents. Lucia Napoli is disappointing in the alto aria; again, she uses too much vibrato, and the delivery of the text is less than ideal.

Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn was first performed at 28 January 1725, known as Sunday Septuagesimae. It is part of the annual cycle whose cantatas have their starting point in chorales. In this case it is the hymn of Paul Gerhardt, dating from 1647, which comprises twelve stanzas; it has the melody of the better-known hymn Was mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit. The unknown author of the libretto included five of them unchanged (although two of them are troped, meaning that free poetic texts are inserted between the lines of the hymn), whereas other stanzas are paraphrased. A feature of the opening chorus is that here Bach divides the performing forces - four voices, two oboi d'amore, strings and basso continuo - into opposing groups. The instrumental introduction is a dialogue between the oboi d'amore and the strings, and later the soprano sings the cantus firmus, whereas the three other voices join the strings; the oboi d'amore represent a third 'choir'. The ensuing recitative for bass is one of those stanzas where the author of the libretto has added a text of his own. It results in a long recitative (here taking more than four minutes). The line "with cracking and with awesome thunder the mountains and the hills have fallen" is graphically illustrated, and one can leave it to Thomas Bauer to make the most of it. Notable is that in the lines from the chorale the basso continuo quotes the initial motives of the chorale in double tempo. Graphic text illustration is also a feature of the tenor aria 'Seht, seht!', whose opening words "Mark, mark! It snaps, it breaks, it falls, what God's own mighty arm holds not" set the tone. Stephan Scherpe does not miss the opportunities this text offers; his voice is perfectly suited for a piece like this. The strings are a bit too harmless here, though. The alto then sings a stanza from the hymn to the accompaniment of the oboi d'amore and basso continuo. Lucia Napoli does well here; it strikes me that the higher notes come off best, and from that I gather that the parts she has to sing on this disc may be a bit too low for her. After a recitative for tenor, the bass has what Sigiswald Kuijken, in his liner-notes, calls a 'bravura aria'. He is accompanied by basso continuo, "almost in a kind of perpetuum mobile". It is a powerful text - "The raging of the winds so cruel lets us the richest harvest gather" - and Bach's music perfectly suits it. It is one of the highlights of this disc, also due to the brilliant performance by Bauer. Next is another troped stanza: this time it is scored for the four voices, who after some lines of the hymn add their own comment, starting with the bass and ending with the soprano. The latter then has an aria (without dacapo), in which the organ keeps silent and the strings play pizzicato. The latter seems to be inspired by the last lines of the preceding soprano recitative: "And I may to these muted lyres the Prince of peace a new refrain now offer". The aria has an obbligato part for oboe d'amore. Anna Gschwend delivers an incisive performance. The cantata closes with a harminisation of the hymn's last stanza.

The idea to bring together these three cantatas does work rather well. There are several connections between them, such as the common elements in the content of BWV 72 and 156, as well as the connection between BWV 72 and 92 in that the latter's hymn shares the melody with the closing chorale of the former. All three cantatas have something special to offer, and all four singers have an opportunity to shine in recitatives and arias. Overall, these performances are very good, even though I am not entirely satisfied with the contributions of Lucia Napoli. I have been critical of Thomas Bauer in the past, but here he makes an excellent impression in both his recitatives and his arias. The contributions of Anna Gschwend and Stephan Scherpe leave nothing to be desired. The ensemble, vocally and instrumentally, is excellent.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Anna Gschwend
Lucia Napoli
Stephan Scherpe
La Petite Bande

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