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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Luther Cantatas

[I] "Bach & Luther"
Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam; Musica Amphion
Dir: Pieter-Jan Belder
rec: June 20 - 23, 2012, Glauchau, St. Georgenkirche
Et'cetera - KTC 1442 (© 2012) (77'23")
Liner-notes: E/N; lyrics - translations: E/N
Cover & track-list

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Merk auf, mein Herz, und sieh dorthin a 8, motetb; Johann Sebastian BACH: Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4); Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 718)a; Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot (BWV 678)a Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80); Toccata and fugue in d minor 'Dorian' (BWV 538)a

[GCA] Dorothea Mields, Nele Gramßb, soprano; Terry Wey, Marnix De Catb, alto; Charles Daniels, Harry van Berneb, tenor; Harry van der Kamp, Jelle Draijerb, bass
[MA] Andrea Inghisciano, cornett; Frank de Bruine, Susanne Regel, oboe, oboe d'amore; Peter Frankenberg, oboe da caccia; Claire McIntyre, Willem Gerritsen, Joost Swinkels, trombone; Rémy Baudet, Kees Koelmans, Sayuri Yamagata, Franc Polman, Annelies van der Vegt, violin; Staas Swierstra, Daniela Braun, viola; Albert Brüggen, cello; Margaret Urquhart, violone, double bass; Pieter-Jan Belder, harpsichord, organ; Leo van Doeselaar, organ (soloa)

[II] "Luther-Kantaten"
La Capella Ducale; Musica Fiata
Dir: Roland Wilson
rec: August 9 - 11, 2012, Arnstadt, Bonifatiuskirchea; Waltershausen, Stadtkircheb
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88725468032 (© 2013) (68'37")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh' darein (BWV 2)a; Ach Gott, vom Himmel soeh' darein (BWV 741)b; Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 38)a; Aus tiefer Not schrei' ich zu dir a 6 in organo pleno (BWV 686)b; Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (BWV 7)a; Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (BWV 684)b

[LCD] Verena Gropper, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Markus Brutscher, tenor; Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass
[MF] Hans-Peter Westermann, Annette Spehr, oboe, oboe d'amore; Roland Wilson, Peter Zentel, Detlef Reimers, Ercole Nisini, trombone; Anette Sichelschmidt, Anne Schumann, Johannes Frisch, Marie Verweyen, violin; Christiane Volke, viola; Barbara Kernig, cello; Christian Zincke, violone; Ludger Rémy, harpsichord; Christoph Anselm Noll, organ (solob)


The Lutheran Reformation, whose 500th anniversary is celebrated this year (2017), had a lasting effect on the course of European music history. One of its most notable features is the introduction of hymns - usually referred to as chorales - which were to be sung by the congregation. Their influence was both spiritual and musical. The German Jesuit Adam Contzen stated that "Luther's hymns have done more damage to souls than all his writings and speeches". Hymns became so popular that they were arranged in all sorts of ways, from polyphonic settings for choirs to preludes and arrangements for organ. Hymn melodies even made their appearance in instrumental music.

Michael Praetorius was the first who was able to combine the hymn melodies with the latest fashions in Italian music. He set them in the form of polychoral motets, in Venetian style, but also embraced the concertato style and the monodic principle, two features of the seconda prattica which emerged in Italy in the early 17th century. In doing so he demonstrated that hymns - although rooted in the 16th century - were not a relic of the past, but could go hand in hand with whatever style was in vogue. Much later the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach bears witness to that. He included the hymns in his cantatas which were modelled after the Italian chamber cantata and embraced elements of Italian opera.

There can be little doubt that Bach was close to Luther's ideals in musical matters, as the musicologist Jan Smelik argues in the book which accompanies the recording of two cantatas by the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam and Musica Amphion. It is the second in a project, called 'Bach in context', which aims at performing cantatas in a kind of liturgical setting. For several reasons I haven't come to reviewing it at the time it was released. The commemoration of the Reformation is a good reason to make up for that, and include another recording of 'Luther cantatas' by Roland Wilson, with his ensembles La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata, which was released one year later.

There are several similarities between these two recordings. Both include organ works which are also related to Luther. In Wilson's recording Christoph Anselm Noll plays three arrangements of the chorale which is the subject of the ensuing cantata. This is in accordance with the liturgical practice in Bach's time: "[A] prelude was to be played after the Gospel reading, just before the cantata. It seems more than likely that this was done in the same key as the cantata's first movement. This prelude possibly also had a practical reason: the players could use it as an opportunity to tune their instruments" (Smelik). The 'Bach & Luther' disc also includes two chorale arrangements, one preceding the cantata on the same hymn, whereas the other is an arrangement of another hymn from Luther's pen, Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot. Free organ pieces also played a role in the liturgy: "[The] organist was to play a prelude as introduction to the service". Leo van Doeselaar plays the Toccata and fugue in d minor (BWV 538), known as the 'Dorian'; the toccata opens the programme and the fugue is played at the end of the disc. A motet was also a fixed part of the morning service, and the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam sings one of the lesser-known motets of Johann Christoph Bach, Merk auf, mein Herz, und sieh dorthin. Needless to say that neither recording is a historically 'correct' liturgical reconstruction: both offer some of the main elements of a service in the main churches in Leipzig in Bach's time, but in the choice of these elements they follow a somewhat different path.

Two further similarities need to be mentioned. First, both ensembles opted for a performance with one voice per part; the soloists also take care of the tutti. Second, in both recordings a large organ is used not only for the organ works, but also for the basso continuo in the cantatas. That is a relatively new trend in the performance practice of baroque sacred music, and especially Bach's cantatas. This is certainly in line with the practice in Bach's time, but is not easy to follow in our time. Not only does one need an organ whose disposition, pitch and tuning are appropriate for the music one is going to perform, one also needs enough space at the organ loft for the singers and instrumentalists. It is notable that in the 'Bach & Luther' recording the vocal and organ works are performed in the same church, with the same organ, whereas Wilson's recording took place in two different churches. The booklet doesn't give any details about the organs or the circumstances of the recordings, but it seems quite possible that one of the factors mentioned above is responsible for this.

Let's turn to the music performed here. The central piece in the first half of the programme recorded by the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam and Musica Amphion is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80). It is based on Luther's most famous hymn, sometimes called the 'national anthem' of Lutheranism. However, as Smelik rightly states, its belligerent character and the triumphalism often associated with it, were not intended by Luther, who not only wrote the text, but also composed the melody. "The hymn is not about struggle, but about the defence and protection Christ offers, and of submission to him". That is also reflected by the Gospel reading of the day: Revelation 14, vs 6-8, about the everlasting Gospel which urges mankind to fear and honour God. The hymn can also be connected to the Epistle reading, Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 2, vs 3-8: an injunction to steadfastness against the Adversary. The opening chorus is written in the stile antico. Notable is the first chorale setting which is written in a concertante style, but here the four tutti voices sing the chorale melody in unison, which creates a strong contrast with the vivid instrumental part. It needs to be added that the cantata is performed here in the original scoring, without the trumpets and timpani which Bach's eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann added later. (There is more to say about this version, as I have pointed out here.)

It is not known exactly when Bach composed the cantata but it is based on an earlier work which dates from 1715. Christ lag in Todesbanden seems to be one of the earliest cantatas in Bach's oeuvre and may have been written during his Weimar period (1708-1713) or even earlier. It is a cantata for Easter Sunday and Bach turns here to another of Luther's most famous hymns. A special feature of this cantata is that Bach uses all the stanzas of this hymn unaltered. 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. Unfortunately the original version has not survived; the earliest source is a set of performing parts from 1724/25. In this version the last section is a four-part chorale setting; that is the way it is usually performed, and that is the case here as well. However, Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, suggests that in the original version the seventh stanza may have been sung to the same music as the first (as in the recording by Cantus Cölln). The liner-notes don't mention this issue.

The choice of Merk auf, mein Herz shows that this recording includes elements from the liturgical practice in Bach's time, but is not anything like a liturgical reconstruction. Its inclusion is rather based on the fact that Johann Christoph Bach set a text which is a free arrangement of stanzas from Luther's hymn Vom Himmel hoch. Johann Christoph was held in high esteem by the members of the Bach dynasty, including Johann Sebastian, and this motets shows why. It is full of text illustration in various ways, through musical figures and an effective use of chromaticism. Many of Johann Christoph Bach's motets are for eight voices in two choirs, and that includes this motet. This structure is again eloquently explored in the interest of a meaningful interpretation of the text.

The three cantatas which Roland Wilson selected were all written during Bach's second season in Leipzig; this second season (1724/25) was devoted to cantatas based on hymns. Cantata BWV 2 was performed on 18 June, BWV 7 on 24 June and BWV 38 on 29 October 1724, but are here performed in reverse order, which is a bit odd.

Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (BWV 2) is for the Second Sunday after Trinity. It is based on Luther's paraphrase of Psalm 12 which dates from 1524 and "laments that mankind turns away from God and is led astray into godless living by heretical teaching" (Dürr). The first and last stanzas are included unchanged; the other stanzas are paraphrased in the form of recitatives and arias. There is no immediate connection between the cantata and the Gospel of the day (Luke 14, the parable of the great supper). The opening chorus is written in the stile antico; the alto sings the cantus firmus. Bach included four trombones in the scoring which play colla voce. The arias are for alto and tenor respectively; the former includes an obbligato violin part.

Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (BWV 7) is one of three cantatas for the Feast of St John the Baptist in Bach's oeuvre; this feast was celebrated on 24 June. Its starting point is Luther's baptismal hymn which dates from 1541. This hymn is treated here the same way as in the preceding cantata. The opening chorus begins with an instrumental introduction; the vocal parts are almost independent from the cantus firmus which is in the tenor. That is even more the case with the instrumental parts which are treated as in an instrumental concerto. As one would expect the moving of the waters of the Jordan is illustrated in the music. The scoring of the three arias shows an increasing intensity: the first is for bass and bc, the second for alto with two violins and bc and the third for alto and the full orchestra.

The third and last cantata in the programme is Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 38), written for the 21st Sunday after Trinity. The hymn is again a paraphrase of a Psalm, this time 130, known with its Latin title De profundis. In Leipzig this hymn was assigned to this Sunday; the unknown librettist further emphasizes the connection to the Gospel of the day, John 4, vs 46-54, about the healing of a nobleman's son after his father shows faith in Jesus. The first and last verses are included unchanged; the other sections are paraphrases of other stanzas. Interesting is the fourth section, an accompanied recitative for bass. The text has no connection to Luther's hymn, but that is compensated for by the basso continuo which plays the chorale melody. The opening chorus has the form of a motet in the stile antico; the instruments double the vocal parts and the cantus firmus is sung in long note values in the soprano. The third section is an aria for tenor with two oboes and bc, the fifth a trio for soprano, alto and bass with basso continuo.

In performances with one voice per part it is essential that the voices of the singers blend perfectly. Bringing together singers at random for such a performance seldom results in really satisfying performances, good as all of them individually may be. The Gesualdo Consort mostly consists of the same singers. Roland Wilson's ensemble is probably more flexible in its vocal line-up, but his singers are always from the same circle which lends his ensemble an amount of coherence which is comparable to that of the Gesualdo Consort. This is one of the reasons that these two recordings have to be counted among the very best of its kind. Seldom have I heard such outstanding performances of solo parts and tutti in one recording. In my view the singers are better than those in Sigiswald Kuijken's cantata recordings. Without exception all these performances are outstanding, both vocally and instrumentally. Leo van Doeselaar and Christoph Anselm Noll are completely convincing in their interpretations of the organ works. Johann Christoph Bach's motet Merk auf, mein Herz is a fine work and deserves to be much better known. The only reservation in regard to Wilson's recording is the singing of Markus Brutscher. He is a fine singer, but in his dynamic contrasts he tends to exaggerate. He also sometimes chops words and syllables; a good articulation is essential but should not turn into a kind of staccato.

However, this is a minor issue. These two discs are compelling additions to the Bach discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam
La Capella Ducale & Musica Fiata
Musica Amphion

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