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Bach (JS): "Actus tragicus" - Cantatas BWV 4, 12, 106, 196

Cantus Cölln
Dir: Konrad Junghänel
rec: (P) 2000, Neustadt-Mandelsloh, Kirche St Osdag
Harmonia mundi - HMC 901694 (70'23")

Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4); Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit ('Actus tragicus') (BWV 106); Der Herr denket an uns (BWV 106); Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12)

Johanna Koslowsky (soprano), Elisabeth Popien (contralto), Gerd Türk, Wilfried Jochens (tenor), Stephan Schreckenberger (bass), Karin van Heerden, Beate Knobloch (recorder), Uwe Hartwich (trumpet), Katharina Arfken (oboe), Andrea Keller, Werner Ehrhardt (violin), Antje Sabinski, Claudia Steeb (viola), Werner Matzke (cello), Jean-Michel Forest (violone), Lorenzo Alpert (bassoon) and Carsten Lohff (organ)

This performance belongs to the category, often referred to with the abbreviation OVPP, meaning 'one voice per part'. That means that every part is sung by just one singer. This is a highly controversial issue, and so far there are not that many recordings with OVPP-performances of Bach's cantatas. The four cantatas on this CD are early works, all composed around or before 1714. I don't know what view Konrad Junghänel holds on the point of OVPP performances (the booklet doesn't give any information about that). But even those who reject this approach generally speaking don't oppose this kind of performance for the early cantatas.

From a technical point of view this is an excellent recording. One of the preconditions for a succesful OVPP performance is that the voices blend. You just can't put some solo singers together and hope they will do their best to sound like an ensemble. But although these singers all have solo careers, they work together very closely in this ensemble, and have done so for years. That definitely pays off. The choruses and chorales as well as the duets sound great. The singers hardly use any vibrato, and in particular in some choruses where the harmonies are very important, that has a very striking (positive) effect on the emotional impact of the performance. The players perform at the same high level. All belong to the very best on the early music scene. The string players for example are all members of Concerto Köln, one of the best orchestras in baroque and classical music.

As far as the interpretation is concerned my feelings are somewhat mixed. I feel that the emotional content of some of the cantatas isn't fully exploited.
The best performance is Cantata 196. It is assumed that this is a wedding cantata, but there is no firm evidence for it. It is a rather happy and uncomplicated work, very short but very beautiful. I don't understand why the only recordings of this piece are part of complete editions. It seems that no director wanting to do some cantatas, is looking at this one, and that's a great shame. The fast tempi on this CD work well here. Johanna Koslowsky gives a fine performance of the short da capo aria "Er segnet, die den Herrn fürchten".

Cantata 106, also known as Actus tragicus and one of the most brilliant cantatas Bach has ever composed, is almost just as good. The contrast in the chorus "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit" comes across well. On the whole the tempo in this cantata is a little too fast, but otherwise the singers and players are convincing in their expression of the character of this piece. The pitch used isn't mentioned, but I assume it must be the high pitch (Chorton) which is thought to be practiced in Mühlhausen, where Bach wrote this work. The consequence is that in the duet "Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein" the bass part is sung by a tenor (Wilfried Jochens). It seems that the chorale, scored for alto, is sung unisono by soprano and alto.

Cantata 12 is a very gloomy piece, which starts with a sinfonia, which has the character of the slow movement of an oboe concerto. The chorus "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" is excellent - it is expecially here where the almost vibratoless sound of the ensemble is so important to bring out its chromaticism. In the arias the singers are sometimes a little too pale. In particular the bass Stephan Schreckenberger is not the most expressive singer I have heard. Wilfried Jochens does really well. Impressive is Uwe Hartwich on the trumpet, who plays the melody of Jesu, meine Freude in the tenor aria, and also (together with a violin) the upper part in the chorale at the end "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan".

Least succesful is the Cantata 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden. This is a chorale cantata in which all verses of the chorale are set to music. 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. In most recordings the last section is a four-part chorale setting, but this dates from 1724/25, and was not how it was originally conceived. The music of the first performance hasn't survived. In this recording the last verse is sung to the same music as the first verse. The argument for this is the symmetric structure. But how Bach has originally composed this last verse is not known. So this solution is based on an assumption. Would Bach really have used the same music for a different text? The other difference with most recordings is the use of strings only. In the later version a cornet and a trombone are involved, although they only play colla parte. This cantata is not all happiness and joy. The text of this chorale constantly refers to Jesus' death at the cross, and its cause: sin. It is not surprising that Bach has set this whole cantata in c minor, according to Mattheson a key, which can hardly be linked to cheerfulness, "how hard one tries". It makes you rather thoughtful. Interesting is that Mattheson characterises this key as something which both makes you sad and gives you consolation. That is exactly what this chorale is all about. The problem with this performance is that it underplays the sad side. The tempi are too fast. The contrasts are not strong enough, for example within Versus I ("Christ lag in Todesbanden") between the first seven lines and the "halleluja" at the end. The heart of the cantata is Versus IV ("Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg"), and unfortunately this is the least satisfying part of the performance. The tempo is so high that it sounds like a madrigal by someone like Johann Hermann Schein. The text ("Das Leben behielt den Sieg, es hat den Tod verschlungen" - and: "Wie ein Tod den andern fraß, ein Spott aus dem Tod ist worden") doesn't ask for such a speedy tempo - here it is almost a caricature.

As far as the instrumental aspect of this CD is concerned, the players may be technically better than for example those on the Teldec recording (Harnoncourt & Leonhardt), but they are far less colourful. What I am missing is the characterisation of the content of the text by the instruments. They are too often just accompanying the singers.

On the whole, an interesting recording, and - with all the reservations I have - one of the best of its kind.

Johan van Veen (© 2000)

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