musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Tenore & Traverso - Arias for tenor, transverse flute and basso continuo"

Daniel Johannsen, tenor; Annie Laflamme, transverse flute; Lúcia Krommer, cello; Matthias Krampe, organ

rec: Feb 22 - 25, 2009, St. Gerold (A)
Coviello - COV 20909 (© 2010) (73'46")

Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost (BWV 114): Wo wird in diesem Jammertale, aria; Clavier-Übung II: Duetto III in G (BWV 804); Fughetta super Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr (BWV 677); Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn (BWV 96): Ach ziehe die Seele mit Seilen der Liebe, aria; Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (BWV 130): Laß, o Fürst der Cherubinen, aria; Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (BWV 113): Jesus nimmt die Sünder an, aria; Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht (BWV 55): Erbarme dich, aria; Jesu, der du meine Seele (BWV 78): Ach! Ich bin ein Kind der Sünden - Das Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht, rec & aria; Mass in b minor (BWV 232): Benedictus; Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (BWV 180): Ermuntre dich, dein Heiland klopft, aria; Sonata for transverse flute and bc in e minor (BWV 1034); Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (BWV 99): Erschüttre dich nur nicht, verzagte Seele, aria; Weihnachtsoratorium (BWV 248): Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet, aria

At various occasions I have expressed my scepticism towards recordings of arias from operas and in particular sacred music. Admittedly, arias in Italian operas - for instance Handel's - were sometimes moved from one opera to another. But in Bach's cantatas and comparable repertoire there is a strong connection between arias and their context. Moreover, over the years I have too often heard recordings of arias from cantatas by Bach - and some of them have been reviewed on this site - which were apparently made for the glory of the singer rather than in order to communicate the content of Bach's music to the listener. Many singers who are mostly at home in opera hardly know what Bach's cantatas are about, let alone that they have a real understanding of the theological background of his cantatas.

This disc by the Austrian tenor Daniel Johannsen is an exception, though. He has not only been educated as a singer, but also as a church musician. In his interpretation as well as his liner notes he shows that he has a thorough knowledge and - more importantly - understanding of Bach's sacred music. And this is also reflected by the way he has put together his programme of arias from Bach's cantatas.

Johannsen states that Bach has given a specific role to the voice of the tenor and that he also deliberately scored arias for the combination of tenor and transverse flute. "One tendency which becomes apparent in many sacred tenor texts is that of exhorting other people (and himself) to praise, repentance, and faith - something extremely 'tenor specific' in Bach's work and, moreover, a linking of the four main themes mentioned above". These are "devoted, willing to suffer, the martyr; the evangelist, the angel, the interpreter; the supplicant, lamenting; virtuous, loving, laudatory".

His reference to the fact that the transverse flute "combined with its player, visually forms the shape of a cross" may meet some scepticism. But there can be little doubt that the choice of a type of voice and an instrument isn't a coincidence. The connection between content and scoring is a fixed part of the baroque aesthetics. It is interesting to note that in most cantatas from which the arias on this disc are taken the transverse flute only plays in these arias but does not participate in the tutti sections, like the opening choruses. It is also telling that, according to Johannsen, "[the] tenor is also statistically (=43%) the flute's most frequent and presumably most characteristic vocal partner in Bach's oeuvre".

Most arias on this disc are from chorale cantatas, which means that various stanzas from a hymn are used, either litterally - mostly in the opening chorus and in the closing chorale - or in a poetic arrangement. The programme begins with an aria from Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (BWV 130) which was written for Michaelmas in 1724. The scoring reflects the power of the angels: 3 trumpets, timpani, 3 oboes, strings and bc. The aria 'Laß o Fürst der Cherubinen' is remarkable for its modest scoring for tenor, transverse flute and bc. The rising motifs of the flute part symbolise the angels bringing the faithful to God in heaven. Daniel Johannsen and Annie Laflamme effectively differentiate in the melismatic passages. The rhythmic pulse is very well exposed. These are returning features in these performances. The next aria is very different. 'Erschüttre dich nur nicht' is from Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (BWV 99) which is about the cross the Christian has to bear. This aria is characterised by sharp dissonants and chromaticism, in particular in the A section: "Do not shudder, despairing soul, when the cup of suffering tastes to bitter". The words "bitter" and "Gift" (poison) are effectively singled out by Johannsen.

The Duetto III in G prepares for the next aria in g minor, 'Das Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht' from Jesu, der du meine Seele (BWV 78. The aria is preceded by a highly expressive recitative, which is perfectly sung by Daniel Johannsen, in which the believer acknowledges his sin: "Alas! I am a child of sin" and asks for forgiveness: "Do not reckon the transgressions that have angered you, Lord!" In the aria he expresses his faith that he receives absolution: "The blood that cancels by guilt makes my heart light again". This is depicted by staccato figures in the flute part, beautifully played by Annie Laflamme. Again Johannsen effectively colours specific words: "leicht" (light) is sung lightly, whereas "Streite" (battle) is dynamically emphasized.

Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn (BWV 96) is a chorale which is referring to Jesus as Son of God. The aria 'Ach, ziehe die Seele mit Seilen der Liebe' is a prayer for the Christian's soul being thirsty to find God. This is depicted by the Seufzer figures in the tenor and the flute part. The interpreters have found the right way to communicate the content of this beautiful aria. In the B part the word "würke" (work out) is repeated forte which intensifies the prayer. Next follows one of Bach's best-known tenor arias, 'Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet' from the Christmas Oratorio. The performers avoid the temptation to take a exaggerated high speed, and as a result the pastoral character comes off well. Johannsen's diction is especially impressive in the B part with its coloraturas. His voice sounds nicely relaxed, even in the highest notes, in the 'Benedictus' from the Mass in b minor.

Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (BWV 113) was written for the 11th Sunday after Trinity. The gospel of tis Sunday was the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The latter asks for mercy, and the aria 'Jesus nimmt die Sünder an' expresses the answer to his prayer: "Jesus accepts sinners". The B part ends with "Your sin is forgiven you", and here Bach quotes the melody of the chorale this cantata is based upon. It is again striking how well Daniel Johannsen treats the text, with a quiet and vibratoless long note - with a light messa di voce - on "Seelenruh" (peace of soul). The joyful message of the text is also expressed in the lively flute part, excellently played by Annie Laflamme.

Next follows a rather disturbing aria, the longest on the programme, taking more than 11 minutes. 'Wo wird in diesem Jammertale' is from Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost (BWV 114), which is based on a penitential chorale by Johannes Gigas (1561). The text of the aria expresses the despair of the sinner looking for refuge: "Where will within this vale of sorrow my spirit find its refuge now?" The B part answers with a reference to Jesus: "Alone in Jesus' hands paternal will I in weakness seek my refuge; I know no other place to go". It is hardly less gloomy than the A part, and therefore Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, misses the point when he states that a repetition of the A part is hardly justifiable. In my view Daniel Johannsen is right in writing that "[the] individual plagued by suffering and torment is not able to break out of his deep depression - that comes about only during this cantata (...)". The desperation of the sinner is expressed to the full here by Johannsen and his colleagues. I agree that the aria needs a slow tempo, but the time it takes here seems a bit exaggerated.

'Erbarme dich' is another highly expressive aria, this time from the only solo cantata for tenor, Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht (BWV 55). There are strong similarities with the aria 'Erbarme dich' from the St Matthew Passion, including the upward sixth at the beginning of the solo part. The disc ends with one of Bach's most joyful arias, from one of his most joyful cantatas, Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (BWV 180), based on the communion hymn of Johann Franck (1649). "Be lively now: thy Saviour knocks. Ah, open soon thy spirit's portals", the A part says. This is expressed by lively coloraturas in the tenor and flute parts, which include wide leaps, up to almost two octaves. The word "öffne" (open) is repeated 42 times. Those who believe in Bach's extensive use of numerology will immediately note that this is three times 14, which is the number of the name Bach. But there is reason to treat this kind of interpretations with some scepticism. The repeat of this word is telling, though, as it emphasises what is the core of the cantata and of the holy communion: Jesus wants to live in the heart of the faithful.

In addition to the sacred works the Sonata in e minor (BWV 1034) for transverse flute and bc. Programmatically this is probably a bit odd, but it gives Annie Laflamme the opportunity to show her skills which are quite impressive. Like in the arias she articulates and phrases very well. I like her speech-like style of playing, and thanks to her dynamic differentiation and the support of Lúcia Krommer and Matthias Krampe the rhythmic pulse is brilliantly exposed. The tempi are also perfectly chosen.

As I said, this disc of arias is different from what is mostly offered in this kind of recitals. The programme has been intelligently put together, and the performance shows a thorough understanding of the world of Bach's sacred music. As a result this disc is in a class of its own, and no Bach lover should miss it. Daniel Johannsen proves to be the ideal Bach interpreter, and he has found some musicians who share his approach to Bach's cantatas. I wish him a great career and hope to hear more from him in the years to come.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Daniel Johannsen
Annie Laflamme

CD Reviews