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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Cantatas BWV 17, 33 & 99

Julia Sophie Wagner, soprano; Stefan Kahle, alto; Wolfram Lattke, tenor; Tobias Berndt, bass
Thomanerchor Leipzig; Sächsisches Barockorchester
Dir: Gotthold Schwarz

rec: Oct 2018, Leipzig, Lutherkirche
Accentus Music - ACC30471 (© 2018) (55'02")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 33); Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (BWV 99); Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich (BWV 17)

Soloists from the Thomanerchor: Jannes Arndt, Lukas Köhler, Clemens Sommerfeld, Carlos Voß, soprano

The three cantatas performed on this disc were written for three successive Sundays of the ecclesiastical year, albeit in two different years. The cantatas BWV 33 and BWV 99 date from 1724, whereas BWV 17 is from 1726. The 1724/25 was Bach's second year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, and the cycle of cantatas for that period were based on hymns.

Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ was performed on 3 September 1724, which was the 13th Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel of that Sunday was from Luke 10, where Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. However, there is no really close connection between the Gospel and the text of the cantata. It is the duet which refers to the message of the parable: "O God, you who are called Love, ah, enkindle my spirit. (...) Grant that out of pure impulse I love my neighbour as myself". The cantata is scored for four voices, two oboes, strings and basso continuo. In the opening chorus, the four voices sing the chorale (Konrad Hubert, 1540) in a harmonisation, with the soprano taking the chorale melody. The orchestral texture is largely independent; one could consider this chorus a kind of chorale arrangement. The longest part of the cantata is the aria 'Wie furchtsam wankten meine Schritte'. The alto is accompanied by strings; the first violin plays a leading role. The wavering footsteps of the protagonist are depicted through harmony and syncopations. Both sections of the aria include textual contrasts, and these come well of in the performance by Stefan Kahle. Wolfram Lattke and Tobias Berndt are a perfect match in the duet, and they blend well with the two oboes.

In the ecclesiastical year 1725/26, Bach frequently performed cantatas by other composers, in particular by his cousin Johann Ludwig Bach. Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich is one of the cantatas from his own pen; it was first performed on 22 September 1726, the 14th Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel of that Sunday is from Luke 17, which tells the story of ten lepers who are healed by Jesus. Just one of them returns to thank him, and he was a Samaritan. This is told in the tenor recitative, which opens the second part. The first part begins with a dictum taken from Psalm 50: "Whoever offers thanks praises me, and that is the way by which I will show him the salvation of God". Throughout the cantata, the unknown librettist regularly quotes biblical passages or refers to them. The opening chorus is introduced by an instrumental sinfonia, performed by two oboes, strings and basso continuo. The chorus was later reused in the Missa in G (BWV 236). It comprises two halves, which both are in binary form. The first aria is for soprano, accompanied by two violins and basso continuo. For some reason which is not explained in the liner-notes, the solo part is sung by four trebles from the choir. I find this a regrettable decision, even though the boys sing it very well. Both this aria, and the second, which is for tenor, omit a dacapo. In the latter, the protagonist expresses his thankfulness for the "excess of goodness" the Lord gives him. The tenor is accompanied by strings and basso continuo. Wolfram Lattke shows a full command of Bach's idiom and the meaning of the text. The cantata closes with the third stanza of the hymn Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren (Johann Gramann, 1530).

Back to 1724: on 17 September, the 15th Sunday after Trinity, Bach performed the cantata Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan. It is one of three cantatas with this title, referring to one of the best-known hymns in Protestant Germany, written by Samuel Rodigast (1674). The first and last stanzas are included unaltered in the cantata, whereas the intermediate stanzas have been reworked to recitatives and arias. The Gospel of that Sunday is a part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6), where Jesus urges his disciples not to worry or be of little faith, but to strive after the Kingdom of God. One of the notable features is that the text repeatedly refers to the cross - not the Cross of Jesus, but the cross the faithful have to bear, for instance in the tenor aria: "Do not shake, despondent soul, when the cross's cup tastes so bitter to you". The scoring is for four voices, transverse flute, oboe d'amore, strings and basso continuo. The flute plays a unusually prominent role, and Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, suggests that at that time Bach must have had a particularly skilled flutist at his disposal. In the aria I just quoted, the tenor is accompanied by flute and basso continuo. In the duet for soprano and alto, the flute is joined by the oboe d'amore. The strings only participate in the opening chorus and the closing chorale. In the aria and the duet, Bach makes use of harmony, including strong dissonances, to express the meaning of the text. Again Wolfram Lattke makes an excellent impression, and in the duet we hear Julia Sophie Wagner for the first and last time. She acts at the same level as her colleagues.

Overall I am quite impressed by this recording, both with regard to the contributions of the soloists and the playing of the orchestra. The main solo parts are sung by Stefan Kahle and Wolfram Lattke, who have very fine voices, which are perfectly suited to Bach's music. The only issue is that the recitatives are a bit too strict in time. The Thomanerchor is doing well too, although I have to be a little critical about the forte passages, in which the upper voices sound a bit stressed. They also tend to dominate; the lower voices are a little underexposed.

However, I think any lover of Bach's cantatas should investigate this disc. It seems a worthy addition to any collection of Bach recordings. According to the booklet, more recordings are to come. There is every reason to look forward to those.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Wolfram Lattke
Julia Sophie Wagner
Thomanerchor Leipzig
Sächsisches Barockorchester

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