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Music of the Reformation, from Bach to Vaughan Williams

[I] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort"
Dorothee Mields, sopranoa; Benno Schachtner, altob; Benedikt Kristjánsson, tenorc; Tobias Berndt, bassd
Gaechinger Cantorey
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec: Oct 4 - 9, 2016, Stuttgart, Liederhalle
Carus - 83.311 (© 2017) (59'07")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (BWV 126)bcd; Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (BWV 79)abd; Missa in G (BWV 236)

[II] "Reformation 1517-2017"
Mary Bevan, sopranoa; Robin Blaze, altob; Nicholas Mulroy, tenorc; Neal Davies, bassd; Nicholas Morris, organe
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Clare Baroquef
Dir: Graham Ross
rec: April 2 & 4, 2017, London, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902265 (© 2017) (73'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance]
Martin LUTHER (1483-1546): Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80)abcdf; Johann CRÜGER (1598-1662): Nun danket alle Gott; Johann Sebastian BACH: Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (BWV 79)abdf; Georg NEUMARK (1621-1681): Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten; Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847): Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (MVW A 7)af; Martin LUTHER: Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin; Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897): Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen, op. 74,1; William CROFT (1678-1727): O God, our help in ages past; Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958): Lord, thou hast been our refugeegh

[CCC, solih] Holly Holt, soprano; Catherine Clark, mezzo-soprano; Jackson Riley, tenor; Christopher Holiday, bass
[CB] Frances Norbury, Katharina Spreckelsen, Rachel Chaplin, oboe; Zoe Shevlin, bassoon; Ursula Paludan Monberg, Nicholas Benz, horn; Paul Sharp (solog), John Hutchins, Stephen Cutting, trumpet; Adrian France, trombone; Margaret Faultless, Rachel Stroud, Anna Curzon, Alison Bury, Jamie Campbell, Florence Cook, Jane Gordon, Claudia Norz, Davina Clarke, Carol Hawkey, violin; Nicholas Logie, Marina Ascherson, Martin Kelly, viola; Andrew Skidmore, Catherine Rimer, cello; Carina Corsgrave, double bass; James Johnstone, harpsichord; Stephen Farr, harpsichord, organ; Jude Carlton, timpani

Scores Bach

Ask the average music lover what is the most characteristic Lutheran chorale, and there is a good chance he will answer: Ein feste Burg. However, there is another chorale which is just as characteristic: Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort. This is a prayer for God's protection against all powers that threaten his church: the Pope and the Turks "who would want to cast down Jesus Christ, your son, from his throne." This hymn was written by Luther himself and was published in 1542 with two additional stanzas. The melody is by Johann Walter, one of Luther's closest allies in liturgical matters. The last two stanzas have become widely known and received an additional dimension in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648): 'Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich' (Grant us peace, in your mercy) and 'Gib unsern Fürsten und aller Obrigkeit' (Grant to our Princes and all those in authority peace and good government). The first was Luther's own adaptation of the traditional antiphon Da pacem Domine, the second a new verse by Walter.

In 1725 Johann Sebastian Bach took this hymn as a starting point for a cantata. It was part of his second annual cantata cycle, known as the chorale cantata cycle. Bach's procedure was to set the first stanza as the opening chorus and the last - in this case the last two - as a four-part harmonisation. The other stanzas were rewritten in the form of recitatives and arias. The cantata BWV 126 is written for Sunday Sexagesimae, the second Sunday before Lent. The epistle of that Sunday is from 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, about God's power which manifests itself in the weak. That is reflected in the text of the first recitative: "All peoples' favoured might has little value, if you will not your needly flock here shelter". The other aspect which comes to the fore here is the importance of the Word of God; this can be connected to the Epistle, which is from Luke 8, where Jesus tells the parable of the sower - who is the symbol of Jesus himself, sowering the Word of God. The scoring is rather modest: four voices, two oboes, strings and bc. There are two arias, one for tenor and a particularly expressive aria for bass. In addition there are three recitatives, one of them with the third stanza of the chorale sung as cantus firmus.

From the same year is Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (BWV 79), which was written for Reformation Day. The Epistle of the day is from 2 Thessalonians 2: an injunction to steadfastness against the Adversary. The opening chorus links up with this reading: "God the Lord is sun and shield", a dictum, taken from Psalm 84 (vs 12). In this cantata Bach incorporates the opening stanza of the hymn Nun danket alle Gott as its third movement. It is preceded by an aria for alto and followed by a recitative for bass. "God, o God, forsake your people nevermore" is the opening of the duet for soprano and bass. The cantata ends with the last stanza of the hymn Nun laßt uns Gott den Herren (Ludwig Helmbold, 1575): "Let truth be our endeavour". The scoring of this cantata is for four voices, two horns, timpani, two oboes, strings and bc. Notable is that the horns and timpani have independent parts in the closing chorale, which means that it is in fact in seven parts.

It makes much sense to add the Missa in G (BWV 236). It documents that Luther did not want to completely abolish the use of Latin in the liturgy. Especially Kyrie and Gloria could be sung in Latin, as was the case, for instance, in Leipzig. The Missa in G is one of four masses comprising Kyrie and Gloria. They are often called 'Lutheran masses'. That has nothing to do with the text: that is identical with the traditional text of these mass movements. Moreover, Catholic composers also often wrote such masses, known as missae breves. It has much more to do with the way Bach treats the text; the structure of these mass settings is mostly different from the way the text was traditionally treated. In his liner-notes Henning Bey points out that Bach structures the text of the Mass in such a way that it reflects Lutheran doctrine. In the case of this mass that is further emphasized by the fact that Bach adapted two movements from his Reformation cantata BWV 79. This whole Mass - as the other three - consists of such adaptations: two further parts are from Cantata BWV 179 (Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht) and the two remaining sections are from Cantatas BWV 17 and 138.

When in 2013 Hans-Christoph Rademann was elected director of the Bach-Akademie Stuttgart as successor to Helmuth Rilling he first continued what his predecessor had started, although with a different style of interpretation. After some years the Akademie changed course and it was decided to link up with historical performance practice. Rademann put together a new ensemble, consisting of a choir and an orchestra playing period instruments. It was called Gaechinger Cantorey. This seems to be its first recording. From a historical angle it is regrettable that the choir is pretty large. Here it comprises 29 singers; about half that size would suffice. That would also result in a greater transparency. Thanks to the way of singing it is not too bad here, but it could be better. The soloists don't participate in the tutti, in contrast to what has become common practice, even among those conductors, who perform Bach with a small choir, such as Masaaki Suzuki and Philippe Herreweghe. Overall the four soloists do a good job here. Dorothee Mields' part is limited, singing only in two duets. Benno Schachtner makes a very good impression; notable is his text expression in his aria 'Gott ist unsre Sonn und Schild' (BWV 79), in particular the B section. I had never heard Benedikt Kristjánsson before, and this was a pleasant acquaintance: he has a beautiful and flexible voice, an excellent diction and articulation and an appropriate treatment of dynamics on longer notes. Tobias Berndt is alright, but not one of my favourites, as he uses a bit too much vibrato. His performance of the aria from Cantata BWV 126 is quite expressive, but the lowest notes are a bit too weak.

The second disc also focuses on the chorale as one of the main features of the Reformation. "In 2017 at Clare College, Cambridge we marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with a series of cantatas by J. S. Bach performed liturgically in Clare College Chapel on the eight Sundays of Lent Term, celebrating and exploring the exceptional theological, cultural and spiritual legacies of the European Reformation and Counter Reformation which changed the face of the world. This recording was the culmination of this project, presenting chronologically the two great Reformation cantatas of J. S. Bach and three chorale-based works by Mendelssohn, Brahms and Vaughan Williams, each preceded here by the chorale melody or hymn on which they are based", Graham Ross states in the booklet.

The disc opens with Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80). As so often it is performed here with additional parts for trumpets and timpani; these parts are from the pen of Bach's eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann and probably date from the late 1730s. However, Wilhelm Friedemann did not ad these parts to his father's cantata, in contrast to what Ross suggests in his liner-notes. He used only two sections: the opening chorus and the chorale 'Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär' (No. 5), which he isolated from the cantata. He did not keep the original texts, but used Latinised paraphrases. The inclusion of the parts for trumpets and timpani in the cantata is the result of a decision on the part of the editors of Complete Edition of the Works of Johann Sebastian Bach, in which this cantata was included in 1870. So, in fact, what we get here is a version which never existed in Bach's time (*). It is followed by Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (BWV 79), the same cantata Rademann recorded.

The performances of these two cantatas are pretty disappointing. Robin Blaze does well in the aria 'Gott ist unsre Sonn und Schild' from the latter cantata. He has often participated in the recordings of Bach's cantatas by the Bach Collegium Japan, and that shows. The duet 'Gott, ach Gott, verlass die Deinen nimmermehr' is pretty bad, due to the vibrato of Mary Bevan and Neal Davies. The former's German pronunciation is pretty good, much better than Davies'. In Cantata BWV 80 is the heavy vibrato of Mary Bevan complete spoils the aria 'Komm in mein Herzenshaus'; she also makes too little of the last line of the B section, "Weg, schnöder Sünden Graus!". The duet 'Wie selig sind doch die' is sung rather well by Robin Blaze and Nicholas Mulroy. The singing of the choir is one of the worst parts of these performances. The choruses and chorales are damaged by the vibrato in most of the voices, and the German pronunciation is pretty bad. If you know German, it is rather painful. In the chorales which precede the cantatas Graham Ross shows that he really doesn't understand, how such hymns are to be sung. These performances so utterly un-German, for instance in regard to the treatment of the text - without any text-based dynamic differentiation - and the fermates. The choir is also too big, just like Rademann's, and the playing of the strings is rather bland. In the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 80 the choir overpowers the strings.

The inclusion of the cantata Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy is quite interesting, as he was one of the few composers of the 19th century who wrote much church music, based on hymns from the Lutheran tradition. But the performances give little reason for enjoyment. Once again the choruses are spoiled by the vibrato of the choir and the bad pronunciation; Mary Bevan's performance of the only aria is hard to endure. This cantata is followed by one of Brahms' best-known and most incisive motets: Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen, in which he includes the funeral hymn Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin. I have heard better performances by better choirs.

The disc ends with one of the best known and most popular pieces from the pen of Ralph Vaughan Williams: Lord, thou hast been our refuge. It is based on William Croft's hymn O God, our help in ages past. At least one doesn't need to complain about the pronunciation, but that is the most positive there is to say.

The concept of this disc is quite interesting. That makes it all the more disappointing that the performances are so unconvincing. In fact, there is very little on this disc that I really enjoyed. I found most of it rather annoying.

(*) More about this here.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Benedikt Kristjánsson
Nicholas Mulroy
Benno Schachtner
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Gaechinger Cantorey

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