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"Beloved Beautiful"

Johannette Zomer, soprano; Mark Chambers, alto; Marcel Beekman, tenor; Harry van der Kampab, Stephen MacLeodcd, bass
The Netherlands Bach Society
Dir: Jos van Veldhoven

rec: August 2007, Leyde, Lokhorstkerk & Eindhoven, Muziekcentrum Philips
Channel Classics - CCS SA 27308 (© 2008) (61'53")

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1702): Meine Freundin, du bist schöna; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Der Herr denket an uns (BWV 196)b; Georg BÖHM (1661-1733): Mein Freund ist meinc; Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Stehe auf, meine Freundin (SWV 498)d

[ripienists] Amaryllis Dieltiens, soprano; Jean-Sébastien Beauvais, Mark Chambers, alto; Kevin Skelton, tenor; Michiel Meijer, bass
Antoinette Lohmann [soloa], Pieter Affourtit, violin; Arjen de Graaf, Elisabeth Ingen Housz, John Wilson Meyer, viola; Lucia Swarts, cello; James Munro, double bass; Matthias Spaether, theorbo; Siebe Henstra, harpsichord; Pieter Dirksen, organ

Through the ages the Song of Songs - one of the books from the Old Testament - has inspired composers to write some of their best music. It is used here as the thread for a programme of music written in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. The motet by Heinrich Schütz is the only piece which entirely consists of texts from the Song of Songs, Georg Böhm and Johann Christoph Bach use them in addition to free poetry or other biblical texts, whereas Johann Sebastian Bach doesn't use them at all, but instead turns to Psalm 115 for his wedding cantata Der Herr denket an uns.

The disc starts with the cantata Mein Freund ist mein by Georg Böhm. He is mainly known for his organ works, and through them he had a considerable influence on Johann Sebastian Bach, who seems to have been his pupil for some time. Only a small number of his vocal works have been preserved, and these are relatively little known. His cantatas are important, though, in that they are among the first examples of pieces for the church which show the influence of modern Italian opera. From 1693 to 1697 Böhm lived in Hamburg, the main centre of opera in northern Germany. It is easy to see how this has influenced his style of composing. The tutti sections which open and close this cantata are modelled after the 17th-century motet, but their dancing and melodious character points to the future. In between are four stanzas for solo voices, alternated by a repeated ritornello. The text of this cantata, a mixture of passages from the Songs of Songs and free poetry by an unknown author, links up with the old tradition of identifying the bridegroom with Jesus: "For my heart has been opened to Jesus; in him I can rejoice. He is my friend, and he holds faith with me, when death and the devil set upon me".

One may assume Heinrich Schütz' motet Stehe auf, meine Freundin is also part of this tradition. It is not known for what occasion it has been written. It is not part of one of Schütz' collections of motets and it was never printed during his lifetime. It is assumed it was written around 1650, and it is quite possible that it was composed for a wedding. The whole text is from the Song of Songs; it is set for eight voices in two choirs, and in two sections. In its structure it is a rather conservative work in the polyphonic tradition which Heinrich Schütz has always held in high esteem.

With the wedding cantata Meine Freundin, du bist schön by Johann Christoph Bach we are in a rather different world. Two things are worth noticing. First of all, the central section is a very long ciacona of 66 variations for soprano and strings, and the violin has a virtuoso solo part, in particular at the end of the cantata. Secondly this cantata shows that in the baroque era there was no watershed between sacred and secular: the biblical texts are interspersed by comments of a much more secular, and often humorous character. The largest part of the texts is from the Song of Songs, but there are also references to phrases from Ecclesiastes: after the invitation to eat and drink the soli and tutti sing: "For this is a gift from God, and now I see and approve, that it is good, when one eats and drinks and is in good humour" (Eccl 3). Towards the end soli and tutti sing: "The Gratias", leading into a chorale-like grace: "Now let us sing the Gratias. Lord God and Father, we thank thee, for Thou has plentifully nourished us".

The disc ends with a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach which belongs to his earliest compositions in this genre. It is still rooted in the late 17th century style of cantata writing; the dacapo of the soprano aria 'Er segnet, die den Herrn fürchten' is rudimentary in comparison to the extended dacapo form Bach turns to in his Leipzig period. Also characteristic of the early cantatas is that the text is entirely biblical (Psalm 115, vs 12-15) and that recitatives are absent.

The programme on this disc was also performed during the Early Music Festival Utrecht 2007. I was basically positive about the performances, but I also saw reasons for criticism. Unfortunately this disc doesn't make me change my mind in this respect. Although the soloists give good performances, there are two problems. Mark Chambers' voice is too weak, in particular in comparison to the others. In the cantata by Böhm the duet of soprano and alto is unsatisfying as Chambers is overpowered by Johannette Zomer. I'm not very impressed by Mark Chambers' singing in general, and I really don't understand why he has been chosen for this recording. Moreover Marcel Beekman tends to be a bit too dominant. The balance between the voices in this recording is less than ideal.

The least satisfying part of this disc is Johann Christoph Bach's cantata. Harry van der Kamp gives an excellent performance of the bass part, but I am less happy with Johannette Zomer, who sometimes can't quite control her vibrato. What I didn't really notice during the live performance is that the tempi are slowish. Partly as a result of this the ciacona in the centre of the piece fails to captivate. But it is also due to Johannette Zomer who just doesn't make enough of her part. The vocal scoring in this recording - with soloists and ripienists - may be historically more justified than in the recording by the Rheinische Kantorei and Musica antiqua Köln (Archiv), the latter is musically more enthralling than what we get here.

Schütz and Bach have been done best, although Schütz also suffers a bit from Mark Chambers' singing. The ensemble is satisfying but again is a bit sluggish now and then. This is something I have noticed on previous occasions as well. It's not that the players aren't good; they are, but they - or rather the conductor - could take a bit more risk and be more bold in the interpretation.

So this is a disc with an interesting programme and well worth listening to, but at the same time these performances don't fully explore what the music has to offer.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Netherlands Bach Society

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