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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Cantatas BWV 21 & 147

Nuria Rial, soprano; Wiebke Lehmkuhl, contraltoa; Benedikt Kristjánsson, tenor; Matthias Winckhler, bass
Gaechinger Cantorey
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann

rec: Feb 11 - 14, 2021, Ludwigsburg, Forum am Schlosspark
Carus - 83.522 (© 2021) (65'54")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147)a; Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21)b

Lucy de Butts, Anja Scherg, Natasha Schnur, Mirjam Striegel, soprano; Magdalena Fischer, Jennifer Gleinig, Anne Hartmann, Anna Krawczuk, contralto; Paul Kmetsch, Klemens Mölkner, Christoph Pfaller, Christopher Renz, tenor; Tobias Ay, Menno Koller, Florian Schmitt-Bohn, Stefan Weiler, bass
Andreas Helm, Julia Ströben-Bänsch, oboe; Györgyi Farkas, bassoon; Hannes Rux-Brachtendorf, Astrid Brachtendorf, Marc Deml, trumpet; Florian Helbich, Bernd Ibele, Sabine Gassner, Masafumi Sakamoto, trombone; Mayumi Hirasaki, Jonas Zschenderlein, Regine Freitag, Julia Kuhn, Yves Ytier Miranda, Lotta Suvanto, Gundula mantu, Adela Drechsel, violin; Simone Jandi, Yoko Tanaka-Zschenderlein, Isolde Jonas, viola; Jan Freihet, Thomas Pitt, cello; Christine Sticher, double bass; Michaela Hasselt, harpsichord; Fabian Wöhrle, organ

The disc under review brings together two cantatas which Bach performed in his first year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. Both are reworkings of cantatas he had written early in his career, when he worked in Weimar. Both bear traces of the sacred music that was written in Germany in the 17th century.

Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) was first performed in Weimar, and then again in Köthen. Although Bach marked this cantata as not being specifically connected to a particular stage in the ecclesiatical year ("per ogni tempo"), he also indicates that in Weimar it was performed at the third Sunday after Trinitatis. In Leipzig he performed it at the same occasion, on 13 June 1723. It was the third cantata he performed after his arrival in Leipzig. The connection between the cantata and this particular Sunday is the Epistle of that day, which is from the first letter of St Peter (ch 5): "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him, for he careth for you". The cantata is divided into two parts, to be performed before and after the sermon respectively. The first part opens with a sinfonia for strings with an obbligato part for oboe, which prepares the opening chorus, whose first section is full of figures reflecting the grief which the text speaks about. The slow tempo of the opening section makes way for a faster second section on the text: "[But] your consolations revive my soul". The latter thought returns in the second part. The opening chorus is followed by a plaintive aria, a duet of soprano and oboe, full of descending figures and sighing motifs, depicting the text: "Sighs, tears, grief, distress (...) gnaw at my heavy heart, I feel misery, sorrow". After a tenor accompagnato, in the aria 'Bäche von gesalznen Zähren', the parts of the tenor and the strings illustrate the moving of the water which the text refers to: "Streams of salty tears, floods rush along continually". The quiet tempo is increased on the phrase "Storms and waves destroy me". The chorus that closes the first part points in the direction of the consolation that the second part deals with: "Wait upon God! For I shall yet thank Him for being the help of my countenance and my God". The second part opens with a duet of soprano and bass, representing the faithful and the vox Christi respectively, first in the form of a duet, and then in that of a dacapo aria. It is followed by a chorus, in which Bach inserted two stanzas of the hymn Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten. In the Leipzig version performed here, Bach added a quartet of trombones, playing colla parte. The ensuing tenor aria links up with the text of the chorus ("Now be content once more, my soul, for the Lord does you good"): "Rejoice, o soul, rejoice, o heart, (...) for Jesus consoles me with heavenly delight". The cantata ends with a chorus of the text of Revelations 5, vs 12: "Worthy is the lamb that was slain"; the orchestra includes parts for three trumpets and timpani. The second section is a fugue.

The second cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147) is one of Bach's most famous cantata, thanks to the hymn that ends both parts, Wohl mir, dass ich Jesum habe / Jesus bleibet meine Freude. Again, this cantata was first written and performed in Weimar, and intended for the fourth Sunday of Advent. In Leipzig, Bach reworked it and performed it at the Feast of the Visitation of our Lady on 2 July 1723. It was Bach's fourth cantata in Leipzig after his arrival. For that occasion the cantata was split into two parts, the order of the sections was changed, the text of the last aria was extended and three recitatives added. Moreover, it was for this version that Bach wrote the two chorale settings that have become so popular. They also connect the cantata to the above-mentioned feast, as they are part of the hymn Jesus, meiner Seelen Wonne (Martin Jahn, 1661), which in a Dresden hymnal of 1725 is listed as a hymn for that particular feast. Its structure in this form is very simple: two pairs of recitative and aria in the first part, and two arias embracing a recitative in the second part. Each singer has one recitative and one aria to sing, except the soprano, who has no recitative. In 'Der höchsten Allmacht Wunderhand', Bach uses for the first time wind instruments (two oboi d'amore) in an accompanied recitative. The recitatives - two accompanied, one secco - are all rather long. The two accompanied recitatives are a kind of paraphrases of the events around the visitation.

Hans-Christoph Rademann opts for a vocal line-up that was common in the early days of historical performance practice and is still pretty usual these days: a choir of sixteen singers and four soloists, who don't participate in the tutti. The orchestra comprises eight violins, three violas, two cellos and double bass, plus the winds that are needed. For the basso continuo, both harpsichord and organ are used; there is no plucked instrument. The singing of the choir is very good, although in some episodes the sound could be more transparent. The contrast between the two sections in the opening chorus of BWV 21 is perfectly realized. In some choruses four solo voices are extended to a 'full choir'. Here a line-up of four soloists and four ripienists would have been more convincing. Nuria Rial has a fine voice, and although she is probably not associated with Bach, she seems to feel at home here. I like her voice, but in the first aria of BWV 21 I find it a bit too cold, sometimes even shrill. I would have preferred a warmer sound, given the character of the aria. The same goes for the duet, which is more intimate than the performance suggests. Now and then Rial allows vibrato to creep in. Very nice is the way Benedikt Kristjánsson and the strings make one feel the movement of the water in the aria 'Bäche von gesalznen Zähren', by way of subtle dynamic accents. The closing chorus is given a majestic performance, perfectly depicting the text. In BWV 147 I admire the way the two chorales are sung. Through little dynamic accents and a good, pretty fast tempo Rademann creates a kind of lightness that fits the text well. Wiebke Lehmkuhl is largely disappointing, because of too much vibrato. She has a rather dark voice, which I like, but here I would have preferred a clearer, more penetrating voice. The text does not come off that well. In the bass recitative the two lines that have an arioso character should have been sung with more lyricism. Winckhler's strong voice is perfectly suitable for the aria 'Ich will von Jesu Wundern singen'. The tenor aria 'Hilf, Jesu, hilf' is very well sung, but the opening words may have been more declamatory. I have nothing but praise for the orchestra and its members who play the obbligato parts.

All in all, these are not the ideal performances of these two cantatas. However, there is much to enjoy and to admire. The various qualities are such that Bach lovers won't like to miss this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Benedikt Kristjánsson
Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Nuria Rial
Matthias Winckhler
Gaechinger Cantorey

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