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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Solo cantatas for soprano and for bass

[I] "Cantatas for soprano"
Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Andreas Wolf, bass-baritonea
Freiburger Barockorchester
Dir: Petra Müllejans
rec: May 2016, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902252 (© 2017) (63'04")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199); Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (BWV 152)a; Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202)

Isabel Lehmann, recorder; Katharina Arfken, oboe; Petra Müllejans, Christa Kittel, Kathrin Tröger, Martina Graulich, Anne Katherina Schreiber, Beatrix Hülsemann, Gerd-Uwe Klein, violin; Gottfried von der Goltz, violin, viola d'amore; Annette Schmidt, Ulrike Kaufmann, viola; Frauke Hess, viola da gamba; Stefan Mühleisen, Guido Larisch, cello; James Munro, double bass; Andreas Arend, lute; Torsten Johann, harpsichord

[II] "Cantatas for basso solo"
Henryk Böhm, bass
Monika Mauch, sopranoa; Anna Bineta Diouf, contraltob; Lothar Odinius, tenorc
Göttinger Barockorchester
Dir: Antonius Adamske
rec: Sept 5 - 9, 2016, Göttingen, Klosterkirche Nikolausberg
Coviello Classics - COV91704 (© 2017) (58'47")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Der Friede sei mit dir (BWV 158)abc; Ich habe genung (BWV 82); Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) (sinfonia); Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56)abc; Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12) (sinfonia)

Martin Jelev, Eva Endel, oboe; Simon Böckenhoff, taille; Luise Manske, bassoon; Henning Vater, Catherine Aglibut, Anna Fusek, Britta Gemmeker, Ulrike Wildenhof, Katharina Arendt, violin; Lea Strecker, Esther Jasmin Becker, viola; Angelika Miklin, cello; Laura Frey, violone; Andreas Düker, lute; Sabine Erdmann, harpsichord; Christof Pannes, organ


The number of solo cantatas in Bach's oeuvre is limited, in comparison to his total output in the realm of vocal music. He treated the voices differently. He wrote just one cantata for tenor and three for bass. The alto is served better, especially if one also takes into account the alto version of the bass cantata BWV 82. Sopranos have a much wider choice, including several secular cantatas.

Carolyn Sampson and the Freiburger Barockorchester have recorded a disc with the title "Cantatas for soprano", but only two of the three compositions are solo cantatas. Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn is a dialogue cantata for soprano and bass, one of a small but significant category in Bach's output. The three cantatas all date from Bach's time in Weimar (1708-1717), although there are different opinions in regard to Cantata BWV 202. Only a copy from 1730 has been preserved, but Peter Wollny, in his liner-notes to the Harmonia mundi disc, states that there can be little doubt that it was written in Weimar. Alfred Dürr, on the other hand, has strong doubts, as he states in his book on Bach's cantatas.

Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten is a wedding cantata, but it is not known for whose wedding it was intended; the text indicates that the event took place in the spring. The author of the libretto has also remained anonymous. Wollny emphasizes that Weimar was a crucial period in Bach's development as a composer. Here he finally left behind the style of the 17th century and "stylistically looked far into the future". "In the relative seclusion of these early Weimar years, he completely remodelled his spectrum of musical expression and developed a truly individual musical language, devoid of the lightest hint of stereotype." From a formal viewpoint the division of the cantata in recitatives and arias bears witness to the influence of Italian cantata and opera. However, only three of the five arias have a dacapo structure.

There is no doubt that the two remaining cantatas are from Bach's time in Weimar. Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199) is written for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, and probably first performed in August 1713 or 1714. Bach returned to this cantata several times, in Cöthen (between 1717 and 1723) and in Leipzig (1723). It is scored for soprano, oboe, strings and bc. Here all the arias have the dacapo form; it includes a chorale, but not - as was common practice in the Leipzig cantatas - at the end, and scored for four voices, but as the sixth section, instead of an aria, for soprano with an obbligato part for the viola. The text, written by Georg Christian Lehms, links up with the Gospel of the day which is the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18).

Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (BWV 152) is a cantata for the Sunday after Christmas and was first performed on 30 December 1714. The Gospel of the day is from Luke 2, which tells about Simeon, who meets Joseph and Mary, presenting baby Jesus in the temple. The libretto is from the pen of Salomo Franck; it has the form of a dialogue. In most cantatas of this kind the soprano represents the soul of the believer, whereas the bass acts like the voice of God or of Jesus. In this cantata these 'roles' are only specifically mentioned in the closing duet. The cantata opens with a sinfonia which is followed by an aria and a recitative for bass. Next come an aria for soprano, another bass recitative and the duet. The instrumental scoring is that of a concerto da camera: recorder, oboe, viola d'amore, viola da gamba and bc. Only in the opening sinfonia and the duet they play together, in the latter unisono.

Although this dialogue is the best part of this disc, it is still unsatisfying. Andreas Wolf sings the bass part very well, but in the duet his voice doesn't blend with Carolyn Sampson's, and that is largely due to the latter's pretty strong and incessant vibrato. That is also a major problem in the other cantatas, although it is variable, which in itself is rather puzzling. Take the opening aria from Cantata BWV 199: Sampson sings the A part very nicely, almost without any vibrato. Then why does she use lots of it in the B section? I really can't figure out the thought behind that. This is a feature of this whole recording: the use of vibrato is inconsistent. Fortunately most of the time it is not that wide, but even so I find it unpleasant, and untenable from a stylistic point of view. The recitatives are too strict in time, which is a recurrent problem in cantata recordings. Overall the two solo cantatas are certainly not performed badly, if one is a little tolerant in regard to vibrato. However, there are two substantial flaws. The tempi in Cantata BWV 202 are pretty slow. The second aria opens with the phrase: "Phoebus races with his swift horses" - well, not here: he is not in a hurry and takes his time. The other flaw is the pitch in Cantata BWV 199; there can be little doubt that in Weimar Bach performed sacred music at the high Chorton (a'=c465 Hz). In my review of Dorothee Mields's recording of this cantata I criticised the use of the Kammerton (a'=415 Hz). I compared that recording with the present one, and the latter is even lower. The booklet doesn't mention the issue, but it seems that here the lower French pitch is used. That was probably common in instrumental music in the regions where Bach worked at that time, but not in music for the church. I find this very odd, and if there is some historical reason for it, that should have been mentioned.

Although this disc is better than I expected on the basis of earlier recordings with Carolyn Sampson, these performances are certainly not top of the bill.

The second disc includes another cantata which is assumed to date from Bach's time in Weimar: Der Friede sei mit dir (BWV 158). However, as no autograph has been preserved, this is impossible to prove. It seems likely that it is not complete: it opens with a recitative which is followed by an aria with an inserted chorale, sung by a soprano, accompanied in unison by an oboe. There are doubts about the obbligato violin part. "It is odd (...) that the violin never goes down below d1, so that the G-string remains unused; indeed, at one point an expected c1 sharp is evidently avoided", Dürr writes. He suggests that originally this part may have been intended for the transverse flute. It is also not totally clear for which part of the ecclesiastical year it is intended. The surviving copy mentions the Purification of the Virgin Mary and the third day of Easter. Like Cantata 158 it refers to Simeon's meeting with Jesus in the temple, but the closing chorale is the fifth stanza from Christ lag in Todesbanden.

Little needs to be said about the two solo cantatas. They are frequently performed and recorded. However, fairly recently the musicologist Christine Blanken, who also wrote the liner-notes to the Coviello disc, discovered the author of these two cantatas. Whereas Dürr writes that the author has remained anonymous, Blanken found a manuscript in the city library of Nuremberg which includes the texts of twelve cantatas written by Christoph Birkmann (1703-1771), a theologian who was from 1724 to 1727 a student at Leipzig University. The common feature of his libretti is that they are written from the perspective of the believer. That is why the word "ich" (I) takes an important part in his texts. The two cantatas performed here even begin with that word: Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen and Ich habe genung. The other texts by Birkmann which Bach set to music are BWV 49, 52, 55, 56, 69 and 98. All of them, with the exception of the last, are for solo voices and they are all part of Bach's third annual cantata cycle. Blanken suggests that the cooperation with the young librettist - who studied theology and mathematics - was a great source of inspiration for Bach.

As these three bass cantatas are well represented on disc we hardly need another recording. However, if it is a really good one, we can only be happy. That is not the case here. Henryk Böhm has a nice voice; he sings the cantatas well, both technically and stylistically, although he doesn't take enough rhythmic freedom in the recitatives. However, the performances don't stand out and lack profile. They are rather bland and detached. I found it hard to keep my concentration while listening. It just babbles on, and there is nothing which catches the ear. The same goes for the instrumental parts; everything is nicely played, but rather undifferentiated and dynamically too flat.

There are far better and more expressive recordings in the catalogue.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Carolyn Sampson
Freiburger Barockorchester
Göttinger Barockorchester

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