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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Cantatas & Mass in g minor

[I] "Ein feste Burg - Cantata BWV 80, Missa in g BWV 235"
Sarah Wegener, sopranoa; David Allsopp, altob; Thomas Hobbs, tenorc; Peter Harvey, bassd
Kammerchor Stuttgart; Barockorchester Stuttgart
Dir: Frieder Bernius
rec: June 11 - 13, 2017, Gönningen, Evangelische Kirche
Carus - 83.282 (© 2017) (49'03")
Liner-notes: E (abridged)/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80)abcd; Missa in g minor (BWV 235)bcd

[II] Cantata BWV 4 & Missa in g minor, Organ works
Martina Daxböck, Barbara Zidar, soprano; Anna Kargl, contralto; Johannes Bamberger, tenor; Daniel Gutmann, Ricardo Bojorquez Martinez, bass; Ludwig Lusser, organa
Domkantorei St. Pölten; Cappella Nova Strumentale
Dir: Otto Kargl
rec: May 1, 2016 (live), St. Pölten, Cathedral
fra bernardo - fb 1712223 (© 2017) (67'40")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4); Missa in g minor (BWV 235); Passacaglia in c minor (BWV 582)a; Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (BWV 654)a


The four 'Lutheran Masses', consisting of Kyrie and Gloria, cannot be counted among the most popular sacred works of Johann Sebastian Bach. For a long time they have even not been taken seriously, probably largely due to the fact that they consist entirely of adaptations of older material. Bach's first biographer Philipp Spitta called them "mindless adaptations" and Albert Schweitzer considered them "perfunctory and occasionally quite nonsensical". Today no serious Bach scholar or performer shares those views. There is no reason to look down on such adaptations. The contrafactum practice has been very common from the earliest stages of Western music history and still is in our own time. The most famous work in Bach's oeuvre which is also largely based on existing material, is the Mass in b minor.

The two recordings under review here both include one of the four Masses, the Missa in g minor (BWV 235). The Kyrie is scored for four voices and an orchestra of two oboes, strings and bc; it is an adaptation of the chorus which opens Cantata BWV 102 (Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben). The Gloria is divided into five sections: three arias for bass, alto and tenor respectively are embraced by two choruses. The three arias and the closing chorus 'Cum Sancto Spiritu' are taken from Cantata BWV 187 (Es wartet alles auf dich), whereas the opening chorus 'Gloria in excelsis Deo' is derived from Cantata BWV 72 (Alles nur nach Gottes Willen). Bach did more than just replace the old text with the new lyrics; he adapted the music in accordance with the Affekte of the new words, for instance in the alto aria.

The two performances have in common that the tutti are sung by a choir of around 20 singers. Among the most notable differences is the tempo of the Kyrie: Kargl takes 7'04", whereas Bernius needs just 5'11". Whereas the latter is probably a bit too fast, Kargl is too slow. The articulation and dynamic differentation are good, but because of the slow tempo a bit artificial. Rhythmically Bernius's performance is irresistable, and some listeners may find it hard to keep their feet still. However, Masaaki Suzuki probably has found the most satisfying tempo (6'06"). In the arias Bernius is superior: he has the better singers and they deliver outstanding performances. I was especially impressed by David Allsopp, who realises the intimacy of 'Domine fili' perfectly. Here the vibrato of Anna Kargl is disappointing. Johannes Bamberger is rather colourless and the bass soloist (the booklet mentions two, but does not specify which of them sings in which piece; I assume it is Daniel Gutmann) is not very subtle. These performances are also marred by a pretty close miking, and although the Cathedral in Pölten is a large venue, the acoustic seems rather dry.

That also has a negative effect on the other pieces in the programme, in particular the two organ works. However, the fact that they are disappointing is largely due to the interpretation and the organ. In particular the performance of the Passacaglia in c minor is rather rigid, and the tempo is too slow. The organ dates from 1973 and was built by Metzler; it is a representative of what is known as the 'neo baroque' style in organ building. Its sound is rather aggressive and cold; such organs miss any vocal quality and are hardly appropriate for Bach's organ works.

The second vocal work is the Easter cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4). It is not entirely clear, when it was composed. It is assumed that it must have been written before 1714, maybe as early as 1707/08. This is a chorale cantata in which all verses of the chorale are set to music. It has a symmetric structure: after the sinfonia the first verse is for 4 voices and instruments, like the last. In the centre is the 4th verse, again for 4 voices and instruments, and this is surrounded by two duets and two solos. As in most recordings, the last section here is a four-part chorale setting; this was not part of the original version but of a copy from 1724/25. There is much debate about the number of singers Bach used in his sacred vocal works in Leipzig, but there can be little doubt, that the cantatas he composed before his Leipzig period were performed by solo voices. From that perspective the use of a chamber choir in this cantata is inappropriate. In the third verse the tenor sings the unornamented cantus firmus; it is sung here by the tenors from the choir, which is very odd. The second verse is a duet for soprano and alto; although the balance between the voices is less than ideal, this is one of the best parts of this performance, alongside the duet for soprano and tenor (verse 6). Verse 5 is an aria for bass; the soloist (Ricardo Bojorquez Martinez?) is too operatic and rather pathetic; his singing is marred by vibrato and the low notes are too weak. The Domkantorei St. Pölten is a pretty good ensemble, and the instrumentalists do a good job. However, as the latter includes only two violins, the balance between choir and instrumental ensemble is rather unsatisfying.

I can't think of any particular reason, why the Cantata BWV 4 was selected, as there is no connection whatsoever with the Missa in g minor. The same can be said about the Cantata BWV 80, Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, in the Carus recording. However, in that case there is a chronological connection: the Lutheran Masses date from the late 1730s, and that is also the time this cantata - at least in the form which has been preserved complete - has been written. Klaus Hofmann, in his liner-notes, suggests that it was intended for Reformation Day 1739, "an occasion when the people of Leipzig looked back on the introduction of the Reformation in the duchy of Saxony in 1539." Apart from the fact that it is based on one of Luther's most famous hymns, it is the brilliant opening chorus, which has earned this cantata its fame. It is followed by a duet for bass and soprano, the latter singing the second verse of the hymn as an unornamented cantus firmus. The lively bass part is given a splendid performance by Peter Harvey, and Sarah Wegener's pure voice is perfectly suited to sing the hymn. The aria 'Komm in mein Herzenshaus' also comes off very well, but Ms Wegener could have done more with the exclamation "weg, schnöder Sündengraus" (leave, scornful sin, from me). David Allsopp and Thomas Hobbs deliver a fine performance of the duet 'Wie selig sind doch die'. The cantata ends with a harmonisation of the last stanza of the hymn.

Although there are some nice moments in the fra bernardo recording, overall it is a rather disappointing affair. All the works performed on that disc are available in better recordings. I am sure that the concert was enjoyable, but not every live performance is good enough to make it to CD. Bernius's performances are of an entirely different class: his soloists and his choir and orchestra are of excellent quality. The only reason not to add this disc to your collection could be the short playing time. But in that case you miss some superb music making.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Daniel Gutmann
Peter Harvey
Thomas Hobbs
Sarah Wegener
Domkantorei St. Pölten & cappella nova strumentale
Kammerchor & Barockorchester Stuttgart

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