musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Redemption"

Anna Prohaska, sopranoa
Susanne Langner, contraltob; Christian Pohlers, tenorc; Karsten Müller, bassd
Lautten Compagney
Dir: Wolfgang Katschner

rec: June 2020, Berlin-Oberschöneweide, Christuskirche
Alpha - 658 (© 2020) (79'52")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit (BWV 115) (Bete aber auch dabei, aria)a; Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe (BWV 25) (Es ist nichts gesundes an meinem Leibe, chorus)abcd; Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder (BWV 135) (Ehr sei ins Himmels Throne, chorale); Selig ist der Mann (BWV 57) (Ich ende behende mein irdisches Leben, aria)a; Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (BWV 208) (Schafe können sicher weiden); Sie werden euch in den Bann tun (BWV 44) (Es ist und bleibt der Christen Trost, aria)a; Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht (BWV 105) (Wir zittern und wanken, aria)a; Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (BWV 150) (sinfonia; Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, chorusabcd); Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31) (Letzte Stunde, brich herein, aria)a & Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist, chorale (BWV 430); Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei (BWV 179) (Liebster Gott, erbarme dich, aria)a; Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (BWV 150) (Leite mich in deiner Wahrheit, chorus)abcd; Ich habe genug (BWV 82a) (Ich habe genug, aria; Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod, aria)a; Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht (BWV 105) (Jesu, der du meine Seele, chorale); Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott (BWV 127) (Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen, aria)a; Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202) (Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, aria)a; Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (BWV 150) (Meine Tage in dem Leide, chorus)abcd

Friederike Otto, cornett; Martin Ripper, recorder; Inga Maria Klaucke, recorder, bassoon; Matthias Kiesling, Ulrike Ködding, transverse flute; Martin Jelev, Markus Müller, Elisabeth Grümmer, oboe; Carl-Philipp Kaptain, Till Krause, David Yacus, trombone; Birgit Schnurpfeil, Anne von Hoff, Andreas Pfaff, Daniela Gubatz, violin; Ulrike Paetz, Caroline Kersten, viola; Ulrike Becker, Lea Rahel Bader, cello; Annette Rheinfurth, Mirjam Wittulski, double bass; Hans-Werner Apel, Andreas Nachtsheim, Wolfgang Katschner, lute, theorbo, guitar; Gerd Amelung, Daniel Trumbull, harpsichord, organ

This may well be the first disc that crosses my path, which has been recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic. The cover has a picture of the members of the orchestra wearing mouthmasks, and the booklet includes another one. The idea of recording an album with arias from cantatas by Bach came already up in 2019, but when public concerts were impossible due to the restrictions in many countries, including Germany, there was extra time for that idea to come true. The fact that only a limited number of performers were needed, made it easier. Obviously, the situation had some effects. As the pictures show, the performers took considerable distance to each other. To what extent this influences the way the music is performed and how it actually sounds, is hard to say. The acoustical circumstances play a part here, as well as recording technique. For the choruses, Anna Prohaska was joined by three other singers, resulting in performances of one-to-a-part. Apparently this was motivated by the fact that singing by larger groups was considered quite risky. However, as the reader certainly knows, some experts believe that this was the way most of Bach's cantatas were performed anyway. The chorales are performed instrumentally. One wonders why: if the choruses are performed by four soloists, why can't they take care of the chorales as well? Otherwise, no compromises have been made: the line-up in the arias is exactly as intended by Bach.

The choice of pieces seems also to be inspired by the current situation. "Anna Prohaska relates the album's conceptual structure to the phases of grief borne by the individual soul, which according to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross are a blend of denial and anger as well as depression and acceptance. Anna Prohaska and the lautten compagney add the association of hope to this alembic of emotions." Obviously, every singer has the right to give a personal turn to the music he/she has selected. However, one should not forget that Bach's cantatas were written for a liturgical context and were part of a system of doctrines which are very different from the thinking of most modern interpreters (and audiences). The risk of selecting single arias from cantatas is that this context is lost. "Talking to Anna Prohaska, it was clear that she was not so much concerned with the pietistic idea of interpreting disease as a divine punishment for Man's sinfulness; far more, [the] artists strive to "show a facet of the world as lived in by people in the Baroque era", when the preoccupation with sickness and death was an everyday habit of mind." They are certainly right about the latter, but at the same time, thinking about sickness and death can not be isolated from the idea of "Man's sinfulness", which is a fundamental part of Lutheran doctrine (and of Christian doctrine in general, for that matter) of Bach's time, being the ultimate origin of the many trials and tribulations of everyday life. The aria 'Wir zittern und wanken' from the cantata Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht (BWV 105) is a telling example: "How they tremble and waver, the sinner's thoughts, when they accuse each other while at the same time daring to excuse themselves". It is no coincidence that the opening chorus of this cantata is a setting of the second verse of Psalm 143: "Lord, enter not into judgment with thy servant".

The programme opens with the aria 'Bete aber auch dabei' from Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit (BWV 115), one of the cantatas from the chorale cantata cycle, and first performed at 5 November 1724. The tenor of this cantata is that the faithful should be prepared for the Lord's coming, demanding settlement from them. The voice is accompanied here by a transverse flute and a piccolo cello, playing pizzicato. For reasons I don't understand, the chorus 'Es ist nichts gesundes an meinem Leibe' which opens cantata BWV 25 follows attacca. The chorale from cantata BWV 135 is followed by 'Ich ende behende mein irdisches Leben' from one of Bach's dialogue cantatas, Selig ist der Mann (BWV 57), in which the soprano represents the Soul (the bass represents Jesus). It is a cantata for the second Day of Christmas, which was also St Stephen's Day, and the story of this martyr inspired the librettist, Georg Christian Lehms. The aria has no dacapo, and the second section has a strongly pietistic character. 'Es ist und bleibt der Christen Trost' is another typical specimen of an aria which cannot be isolated from its context. It is taken from a cantata for Sunday Exaudi, the Sunday between Ascension Day and Whitsunday. The opening chorus is a setting of words by Jesus, telling his disciples: "They will place you under a ban". In general, this cantata is about Christ's followers being persecuted. But: "It is and remains the Christian's comfort that God watches over his church". It simply would be wrong to use this as a general message of comfort for the troubled mankind. In 'Liebster Gott, erbarme dich' from Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei (BWV 179), Man's sinfulness turns up again: "My sins afflict me like a festering sore in my body".

Anna Prohaska selected the opening and the closing aria from one of Bach's most beloved cantatas, Ich habe genug (BWV 82), which has been preserved in four different versions. Here we get the version for soprano, in which the obbligato instrument is a transverse flute. It makes much sense that the last aria, saying "I long for my death, ah, if only it had already come", is followed by 'Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen' from Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott (BWV 127): "The soul will repose in Jesus' hands when earth covers this body". This embodies the element of hope with which the artists were willing to end their journey through Bach's oeuvre. Part of that is also the opening aria from the (secular) wedding cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202). The programme closes with the chorus that ends Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (BWV 150): "Though my days pass in sorrow, God ends them in joy". This has the form of a ciaccona.

To date, Anna Prohaska has seldom crossed my path in recordings, but I have heard her several times in recorded concerts on the radio. I never associated her with Bach, and therefore I was curious to know how she would approach his music. I have to confess that I was sceptical about this disc, also because of my often not very positive experiences with the Lautten Compagney (they could not resist adding a bonus track, in which saxophone and percussion participate). Both she and the ensemble have put me wrong, I am happy to say. Actually, this is one of the best Bach discs of its kind I have heard in recent years. Prohaska stays away from the incessant vibrato which destroys so many recordings of baroque repertoire, including Bach. As she is of mixed Austrian/English heritage, she has no problems with the pronunciation of the German texts. I like her dynamic shading on long notes, which is a rarity these days, and the way she emphasizes elements in the text. What is more, her performances are very expressive; she obviously has carefully studied what these arias are about and how Bach translates the text into music. The highlights are 'Wie zittern und wanken' (BWV 105.3) and 'Liebster Gott, erbarme dich' (BWV 179.5). The way she sings the closing line of the B section of the latter aria (I am sinking in the deep mire) is marvellous. In the B section of 'Es ist und bleibt der Christen Trost' (BWV 44.6), the illustration of the text comes off very well. The choruses are also quite good, with a nice blending of the four voices.

There are only a few issues I have to mention. First, Prohaska's articulation could have been better; she tends to sing a bit too much legato now and then. Second, in the dacapos she adds some ornamentation. I know this is a matter of debate among scholars and performers, and we will probably never know for sure what Bach's intentions were. I tend to think that ornamentation generally should be avoided. Fortunately, Prohaska's ornamentation is rather modest; only in the dacapo of 'Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten' she does a little too much. Third, in 'Ich ende behende mein irdisches Leben' (BWV 57.7) she is probably a bit too 'operatic'.

On balance, these are minor issues. This is a very fine disc, which gives much reason for satisfaction (let's graciously forgive and forget the bonus track). I would like Anna Prohaska to record more Bach in the near future. And let's hope that her approach to Bach may have a positive influence on the way she sings other repertoire from the baroque era.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Anna Prohaska
Lautten Compagney

CD Reviews