musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Erbarme dich"

Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor
A Nocte Temporis

rec: May 9 - 13, 2016, Strasbourg, Église Sainte Aurélie
Alpha - 252 (© 2016) (69'56")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost (BWV 114) (Wo wird in diesem Jammertale, aria); Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (BWV 721); Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn (BWV 96) (Ach ziehe die Seele mit Seilen der Liebe, aria; Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn, chorale); Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn (BWV 601); Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (BWV 130) (Laß, o Fürst der Cherubinen, aria); Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht (BWV 55) (Ich habe wider Gott gehandelt - Erbarme dich, rec & aria); Jesu, der du meine Seele (BWV 78) (Ach! Ich bin ein Kind der Sünden - Das Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht, rec & aria); Partita in a minor (BWV 1013) (sarabande); Sonata in e minor (BWV 1034) (andante); Sonata in G (BWV 1039) (adagio e piano); Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (BWV 99) (Erschüttre dich nur nicht, verzagte Seele, aria); Was willst du dich betrüben (BWV 107) (Wenn auch gleich aus der Höllen, aria); Wir gläuben all an einen Gott (BWV 680)

Anna Besson, transverse flute; Ronan Kernoa, cello; Benjamin Alard, organ

There is every reason to be sceptical about recordings of single arias from larger works. It is probably less of a problem in the case of operas, such as those by Handel. In their content opera arias are mostly not indissolubly connected to the work in which they are included and it was quite common to move an aria from one opera to another. That is a bit different in most sacred music. The likes of Bach and Telemann set cantata libretti to music which were intended as a unity by their authors. One of the best-known was Erdmann Neumeister; he published cycles of cantatas for the entire ecclesiastical year. In his librettos he followed a certain line of thought, for instance from the awareness of sin to the joy about the salvation as a result of Jesus's Passion. Because of that single arias are best comprehensible in the light of their context.

However, singers who like to present themselves in Bach often have little choice than to record single arias. That goes especially for tenors; whereas Bach has written several cantatas for soprano, alto or bass, only one extant cantata is for tenor: Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht (BWV 55). That is more than compensated for by arias from other works, including the Passions. In 2010 Coviello released a disc recorded by the Austrian tenor Daniel Johannsen with arias from cantatas. I rated it highly, not only because of the outstanding performances, but also because of the intelligent and sensible way the programme had been put together. I felt that this way a recital programme made much sense.

The Belgian tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen recorded a programme which shows much similarity to Johannsen's. No fewer than six arias appear on both discs. Whereas Johannsen connected four different themes to the tenor voice in Bach's oeuvre, Gilles Cantagrel, in his liner-notes to the Alpha disc, mentions two: "[The] composer entrusts it with a double role, of the sinner overwhelmed by the weight of his sins, and of one yet hoping for redemption. For Bach, there could be no contradiction between the two, since every Christian knows himself to be stained since birth with original sin, while hoping for the forgiveness of his sins by the redemptive sacrifice of Christ on the cross."

The programme opens with a reference to the very foundation of Christian faith. Its centre piece is the chorale Herr Christ, der ein'ge Gottes Sohn. Bach used it in his cantata with the same title; Van Mechelen sings the tenor aria 'Ach ziehe die Seele mit Seilen der Liebe' (Ah, draw my soul to Thee with bonds of love), referring to an image from the prophet Hosea. Next Benjamin Alard plays the chorale arrangement from the Orgelbüchlein, which is followed by the closing chorale from the cantata, where Van Mechelen sings the chorale melody and the organ takes care of the remaining parts.

The subject of sin comes to the fore in the recitative and aria from the cantata BWV 78, Jesu, der du meine Seele, intended for the 24th Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel of the day is from Luke 17, the healing of the ten lepers. This is used as a symbol of the healing of the Christian from his sins. An instrumental piece, the adagio from the Sonata in G (BWV 1039), is played as an introduction to the next aria. Both this movement from a trio sonata for two flutes, in which Alard plays the second flute part on the organ, and the aria are in the key of e minor - according to Mattheson connected to sadness - and that fits the aria which is about the Satan's enterprises against the faithful. The next aria is from a cantata for Michaelmas, Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (BWV 130). This feast is in honour of the archangel Michael, the main opponent of Satan, who is asked to make sure that the army of angels carries the believers to heaven. It is fittingly followed by Bach's arrangement of Luther's versification of the Credo: Wir gläuben all an einen Gott, from the Clavier-Übung II.

The cantata Was willst du dich betrüben (BWV 107) also deals with the issue of Satan's threat of the faithful; it includes two tenor arias whose first expresses the confidence that he cannot destroy God's work. The second aria, 'Drum ich mich ihm ergebe', is an expression of confidence in God. 'Wo wird in diesem Jammertale' is from Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost (BWV 114), which is based on a penitential chorale by Johannes Gigas (1561). The text of the aria expresses the despair of the sinner looking for refuge: "Where will within this vale of sorrow my spirit find its refuge now?" The B part answers with a reference to Jesus: "Alone in Jesus' hands paternal will I in weakness seek my refuge; I know no other place to go". It is hardly less gloomy than the A part, and therefore Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, misses the point, when he states that a repetition of the A part is hardly justifiable. In my view Daniel Johannsen - in the liner-notes to his recording - is right in writing that "[the] individual plagued by suffering and torment is not able to break out of his deep depression (...)".

'Erschüttre dich nur nicht' from the cantata for the 15th Sunday after Trinity, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (BWV 99), is about the cross the Christian has to bear: "Do not shudder, despairing soul, when the cup of suffering tastes so bitter". This text is expressed through sharp dissonants and chromaticism. It is suitable that this aria is followed by the chorale prelude Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (whose authenticity is not established). The disc ends with a recitative and aria from Bach's only cantata for tenor solo mentioned above. In this cantata the two main subjects mentioned by Cantagrel - sin and forgiveness - come together. Van Mechelen sings the poignant aria 'Erbarme dich': "Have mercy! Let my tears move Thee, let them reach into Thy heart". There are strong similarities with the aria 'Erbarme dich' from the St Matthew Passion, including the upward sixth at the beginning of the solo part.

Reinoud Van Mechelen is a rising star in the world of early music. I have heard him mainly in French music, where he mostly takes hautecontre parts. That indicates that he has a rather light timbre, and indeed, some lower notes in the arias in this programme are lacking in power. But the agility of his voice is very suitable for Bach's arias, which are often quite demanding and include much coloratura. Technically his performances are impressive; his German pronunciation is very good, although not perfect. The same goes for his diction; here and there it leaves something to be desired. But these are very minor issues in comparison to the overall level of these performances.

I have not compared Van Mechelen's performances in detail with those of Johannsen. After all, singing Bach is not a matter of competition. There are various ways to interpret Bach. Only in the case of the aria from Cantata 114 I noted that Johannsen brings a bit more depth to his interpretation; the contrast between the A and B section is also a little stronger. That said, this is a most satisfying recital which brings together a number of highly expressive arias. Van Mechelen finds equal partners in Anna Besson, Ronan Kernoa and Benjamin Alard. The former delivers some fine performances of the flute parts and Alard is excellent in the organ pieces. I should not forget to mention that the basso continuo is played at the same Silbermann organ which is also used for the solo organ pieces. Obviously, this is entirely in accordance with Bach's own practice, and it is a positive development that more and more performers try to employ large organs rather than small positive organs for the basso continuo in Bach's sacred music.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Reinoud Van Mechelen
A Nocte Temporis

CD Reviews