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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Cantatas BWV 106 & 182; Komm, Jesu, komm

Amici Voices

rec: Feb 13 - 15, 2017, London, St Michael's Church, Highgate
Hyperion - CDA68275 (© 2019) (61'46")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus tragicus) (BWV 106); Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV 182); Komm, Jesu, komm, motet a 8 (BWV 229); O Gott, du frommer Gott, partita (BWV 767) (var. 8)a

Bethany Partridge, Rachel Ambrose Evans, soprano; Helen Charlston, mezzo-soprano; Guy James, alto; Hiroshi Amako, Stefan Kennedy, tenor; Michael Craddock, Henry Hawkesworth, bass
Elspeth Robertson, recorder; Ashley Solomon, recorder, transverse flute; Magdalena Loth-Hill, Agata Daraskaite, violin; Stefanie Heichelheim, Katie Heller, viola; Reiko Ichise, tenor viol; Henrik Persson, bass viol, cello; Peter McCarthy, violone; Terence Charlstona, Julian Perkins, organ

The ensemble Amici Voices was founded in 2012 and has since then performed a number of works by Johann Sebastian Bach, among them the St John Passion and the B minor Mass. This seems to be their first recording, and it is also devoted to music by Bach. Three of Bach's most beloved works are brought together in this programme. The selection seems more or less arbitrary: at least I can't see any thread here. The two cantatas are early works, but the motet is of a much later date. The Actus tragicus and Komm, Jesu, komm were likely intended for funerals, but Himmelskönig, sei willkommen is a cantata for Palm Sunday. In particular the fact that these works are from different periods in Bach's career has some consequences for aspects of performance practice, especially pitch, but those are ignored here.

The disc opens with Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit, the so-called Actus Tragicus. It probably dates from 1708, when Bach worked in Mühlhausen. The text is a compilation of biblical verses and hymn stanzas. The are no recitatives and arias: the text is divided into solo and tutti sections. In the track-list, the solos are called 'arias', but that is incorrect and also suggest they are more or less similar to the arias as we know them from later cantatas by Bach. The instrumental scoring is very modest: two recorders, two viole da gamba and bc. It refers to the 17th century, when recorders and viole da gamba were frequently applied in sacred music. Bach only uses biblical texts, without any free poetry.

Himmelskönig, sei willkommen was written in Weimar; it may have been the very first cantata Bach composed after his appointment as Concertmeister at the court. Part of his duties was the monthly composition of a cantata. This cantata was performed at 25 March. The text is probably from the pen of Salomo Franck. Here Bach makes use of the dacapo form, which was to become the standard in his later cantatas. It has only one short recitative for bass, which leads to an aria for the same voice type. There are also traditional elements, for instance the chorale 'Jesu, deine Passion', which has the form of a chorale arrangement, in which the soprano sings the cantus firmus. The cantata ends with a chorus.

I already mentioned the issue of pitch. In his early cantatas, Bach almost certainly obliged to the then common Chorton, which was a'=465 Hh or even higher. Here the two cantatas are performed at Kammerton (a'=415 Hz). I find this disappointing as it does matter for the overall outcome of a performance. In the case of cantata BWV 182 one may argue that Bach performed it again in Leipzig, and at that occasion it was certainly performed at Kammerton. However, at that occasion he also adapted the instrumentation: the single violins were doubled, and an oboe played colla parte with one of the violins. That is not the case here. It is also odd that the recorder part is played here at the transverse flute. The liner-notes don't include any information about performance practice, and the listener has to guess what may have been the reason.

These days performances of cantatas by Bach can be divided into three categories as far as the vocal line-up is concerned. On the one hand, we have performances by solo voices and a choir of different size, from small (16) to large (30 to 40). At the other end of the spectrum, we have performances which are based on the OVPP-theory, according to which Bach performed his sacred works with one voice per part, sometimes with an additional quartet of ripienists. In between are performances with a small vocal ensemble (12 to 16), from which the soloists are recruited. This recording falls into the OVPP-category. This allows for a maximum transparency of the tutti sections, and historically this is certainly in line with what was common practice in Mühlhausen and Weimar. That said, in the Actus tragicus the addition of four ripienists in the tutti sections seems without historical foundation.

In addition to the two cantatas we get a performance of one of Bach's motets: Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229). This has been written by 1732 at the latest. The text was originally written in 1684 for the funeral of Jacob Thomasius, headmaster of the Thomasschule, and was set by the then Thomaskantor, Johann Schelle. The motet comprises two sections, the second of which is called 'aria'. They both end with a reference to one of Jesus's words: "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14, vs6). As most of Bach's motets, it is in eight voices, split into two separate groups.

I am a bit in two minds about the actual performance. In general, the singing is pretty good, and especially as we have here a group of English speakers, these performances are better than what I have heard from other English ensembles over the years. German pronunciation is alright, but that is not enough to make a performance idiomatic. The solos are different: I especially like the contributions of mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, who in her articulation and dynamic differentiation comes quite close to what I consider an idiomatic interpretation, even though in the aria in BWV 182 she is not always entirely free from vibrato. Her performances also do justice to the text. I am less enthusiastic about other solos. In 'Bestelle dein Haus' (BWV 106), Michael Craddock is a bit too operatic; his performance should have been more restrained. The soprano part in 'Es ist der alte Bund' is sung with too much legato. That is a feature of some of the tutti sections as well. There is often also a lack of dynamic accents. In short, the performances are mostly not speech-like enough.

The tempi are also an issue. In some cases I find them too slow. That goes in particular for Komm, Jesu, komm. There is a clear contrast between the first and the second section, but that hardly comes off here. The latter is too slow, and the cadence is underexposed. The closing chorale is again a bit too slow, and it should have stronger dynamic accents and be better articulated. In comparison, the chorus 'Himmelskönig, sei willkommen' (BWV 182) is much better.

This is certainly not a bad performance, and I have enjoyed several of its features. However, there are just too many weaknesses to unequivocally recommend it.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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