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

[I] "Cantatas for bass"
Matthias Goerne, baritone; Katharina Arfken, oboe d'amorea
Freiburger Barockorchester
Dir: Gottfried von der Goltz
rec: Feb 2017, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902323 (© 2017) (56'41")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for oboe d'amore, strings and bc in A (BWV 1055R)a; Ich habe genung (BWV 82); Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) (sinfonia); Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56)b

[ripienists]b Christina Roterberg, soprano; Isabelle Rejall, contralto; Florian Feth, tenor
[FBO] Katharina Arfken, Clara Blessing, Maike Buhrow, oboe; Gottfried von der Goltz, Kathrin Tröger, Gerd-Uwe Klein, Peter Barczi, Christa Kittel, Martina Graulich, Daniela Helm, violin; Ulrike Kaufmann, Anette Schmidt, viola; Guido Larisch, Annekatrin Beller, cello; Miriam Shalinsky, double bass; Javier Zafra, bassoon; Torsten Johann, harpsichord, organ

[II] "The Solo Cantatas for Bass"
Christian Senn, bass-baritone
Dir: Ruben Jais
rec: April 2 - 4, 2017, Milan, Auditorium di Milano
Glossa - GCD 924102 (© 2018) (54'38")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Der Friede sei mit dir (BWV 158)a; Ich habe genung (BWV 82); Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56)b

[ripienists] Francesca Cassinari, Sonia Tedla Chebreab, sopranoab; Silvia Capobianco, contraltob; Jacopo Facchini, altob; Michele Concato, Matteo Magistrali, tenorb; Guglielmo Buonsanti, Luca Scaccabarozzi, bassb
Manuel Staropoli, Mattia Laurella, transverse flute; Nicola Barbagli, Martino Noferi, Michele Favaro, oboe; Granfranco Ricci, Ulrike Slowik, Giorgio Tosi, Sara Meloni, Diego Castelli, Rossella Borsoni, Gemma Longoni, Yayoi Masuda, violin; Emanuele Marcante, Zeno Scattolin, Massimo Percivaldi, viola; Nicola Brovelli, Marlise Goidanich, cello; Carlo Sgarro, double bass; Anna Maria Barbaglia, bassoon; Matteo Riboldi, 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.

Recently two new recordings of the cantatas for bass solo have been released. The two most famous of them are Ich habe genung (BWV 82) and Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56). They were written as part of the third annual cycle of church cantatas in 1726/27. It is very likely these two cantatas were to be sung by Johann Christoph Samuel Lipsius, who was a law student at Leipzig University at the time, and who regularly sang the bass parts in Bach's cantatas. During the years 1725 to 1727 the Leipzig city council paid him 12 Talers per year in recognition of his commitment.

For a long time the author of their librettos was not known. Fairly recently the musicologist Christine Blanken discovered the author of these two cantatas. She 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. 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.

Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen is written for the 19th Sunday after Trinity. Its subject is the devout Christian shouldering his cross until he is taken into the promised land. The first aria is a vivid depiction of the believer walking under the heavy burden of the cross. The next recitative has an obbligato part for the cello, which expresses the waves which the text talks about. Here the journey of the believer through the world is compared to a boattrip. The cello falls silent when the text refers to the end of the boattrip as the Christian leaves the boat and enters his city: heaven. Next follows a joyful aria in which the believer expresses his relief that his cross will be taken off his shoulders. Another recitative follows and the cantata closes with a four-part chorale.

Ich habe genung was written for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (or Candlemas) on 2 February. Its central theme is the longing for death and eternal life of the believer, now that Jesus has come. Its background is the canticle of Simeon, which as Nunc dimittis has become a part of liturgy of the Christian Church: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace ... for mine eyes have seen thy salvation". It seems that Bach liked this cantata very much. He reworked in three times: there is a second version for soprano, a third for mezzosoprano and a fourth for bass again, this time with an oboe da caccia as obbligato instrument, instead of the oboe of the first version. And in addition the first recitative, 'Ich habe genung', and the second aria, 'Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen', were included in the Clavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach, its scoring being reduced to voice and basso continuo. It isn't just the music which Bach must have liked, but probably in the first place its subject: the longing for death, being a transition to eternal life and a salvation from sin, is a frequently returning issue in Bach's sacred music.

The third cantata, Der Friede sei mit dir, is a bit of a puzzle. No authograph exists, and it is impossible to date this work. Although the second and third movement are thematically comparable to the cantata Ich habe genung, the manuscript copy mentions both Candlemas and the third day of Easter as the days for which it was written. From a textual point of view this is rather strange, as the second and third sections are difficult to link to Easter and the first and fourth can hardly be associated to Candlemas. This has been reason to suggest the cantata in its present form could be a compilation of pieces from otherwise unknown cantatas, put together by someone else. It begins with a recitative which refers to the words with which Jesus has greeted his pupils after his resurrection: "Peace be with you". Then follows an aria for bass which expresses the aversion for this world and the wish to be with Jesus. The soprano sings the chorale 'Welt, ade! ich bin dein müde' (World, farewell, I am weary of you) on a melody by Johann Rosenmüller as cantus firmus. An oboe is playing colla parte with the singer. The aria also contains a virtuosic part for violin.

Maybe the somewhat problematic character of this cantata was the reason that Matthias Goerne did not include it in his recording. That is one of the differences between the two discs under review here. There are also differences in the line-up. The ensemble laBarocca is slightly larger than the Freiburger Barockorchester. The latter comprises six violins plus its leader Gottfried von der Goltz, two violas, two cellos and double bass, whereas laBarocca has eight violins and three violas. Cantata BWV 56 closes with a chorale. In Goerne's recording he is joined by three singers, whereas Christian Senn, in his recording, does not participate in the chorales (in BWV 56 and 158); these are sung by vocal ensemble of eight singers (SSAATTBB). It is notable that in the aria con corale 'Ade, ich bin dein müde', the chorale is sung by the two sopranos from the vocal ensemble. Without discussing the whole issue of one-voice-per-part vs choir, I think it is reasonable to assume that in cantatas, in which only in one or two chorales additional voices are needed, these parts were performed by solo voices rather than a choir. In this particular case, the fact that the soprano is supported by an oboe, playing exactly colla voce, also points in that direction.

The two singers are from different backgrounds. Matthias Goerne is from Germany and although he has performed and recorded in music by Bach, has made a career in later music, including opera and Lieder. In contrast, Christian Senn is from Chile, and has frequently participated in performances of pre-romantic repertoire. These aspects result in strongly different performances. Obviously Matthias Goerne has no problems with German pronunciation; in contrast Senn's pronunciation, although certainly not bad, is anything but perfect. However, stylistically is more convincing than Goerne. The latter's singing is marred by an incessant and pretty wide vibrato. In fact, he does hardly sing a note without it. Moreover, in his performance the text is overshadowed by the music. He usually sings legato and with only few dynamic shading. The recitatives are rhythmically pretty strict, and far from a speechlike interpretation. The central aria in Ich habe genung is too fast. 'Schlummert ein' is a sleep aria, but its character, with the typical swaying rhythm, is damaged by the tempo. I am rather surprised that the Freiburger Barockorchester was willing to get involved in such a performance, which has not that much to do with historical performance practice. They should know better.

Senn makes a better impression. In his notes in the booklet, Ruben Jais states: "[We] have approached the study and performances of the solo cantatas by endeavouring to make emotional intensity and the relationship with the poetical text as our "guide"." The performances, though not flawless, attest to that. Christian Senn delivers more stylish performances than his colleague. He is more economical in his use of vibrato, his treatment of the text is more convincing and there is more dynamic shading, inspired by the contrast between good and bad notes. The tempi are just right; thanks to the quieter tempo 'Schlummert ein' is allowed to blossom and to achieve its full emotional impact. There are some considerable shortcomings, though. His articulation is often rather mechanical, for instance in the opening aria of BWV 156, where his treatment of the Seufzer distorts the flow of the musical discourse. The treatment of the coloratura is a little unimaginative. I am also not impressed by the recitatives: like Goerne, Senn takes too little rhythmic freedom. Overall, I have certainly enjoyed his performances, but they are no real competition to the best recordings in the catalogue.

Both ensembles deliver good performances of the instrumental parts. The Freiburger open the programme with the sinfonia from Cantata 21 and in between the two cantatas they play one of Bach's concertos known as a piece for harpsichord and strings in a reconstruction for oboe d'amore, which may have been the original scoring. Katharina Arfken is one of the world's best players of the baroque oboe and oboe d'amore, and that shows here. The inclusion of this concerto in this version makes much sense, considering that the oboe also has an obbligato part in Cantata 82, and that the scoring of Cantata 56 includes two oboes and taille.

It needs to be noted that both recordings include errors in the text as sung by the performers. Goerne sings "kommt" instead of "kömmt" in the opening aria of Cantata 56, whereas Senn sings "Jesu" instead of "Jesus" [Händen] in the recitativo ed arioso of the same cantata. Such things need to be corrected during the recording sessions.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Matthias Goerne
Freiburger Barockorchester

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