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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Cantatas BWV 35 & 169

Iestyn Davies, alto
Dir: Jonathan Cohen

rec: Oct 7 - 9, 2020, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Hyperion - CDA68375 (© 2022) (65'12")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores JS Bach

Johann Sebastian BACH: Geist und Seele wird verwirret (BWV 35)a; Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169)a; Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Klag-Lied (BuxWV 76b); Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672): Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (SWV 447)

Katharina Spreckelsen, Sarah Humphrys, oboe, oboe d'amore; Leo Duarte, taille; Inga Maria Klaucke, bassoon; James Toll, Beatrice Philips, Jane Gordon, Michael Gurevich, Iona Davies, Florence Cooke, violin; John Crockatt, Oliver Wilson, viola; Kinga Gáborjáni, Reiko Ichise, viola da gamba; Jonathan Byers, cello; Timothy Amherst, violone, double bass; Sergio Bucheli, theorbo; Jonathan Cohen, harpsichord; Tom Foster, organ (soloa)

When Martin Luther initiated the Reformation, this had far-reaching consequences for religious life in parts of Germany and in the wake of that, for the history of music. In connection with the music covered by the disc under review, two features are particularly important. The first is that Luther emphasized the importance of the vernacular. This resulted in a large repertoire of writings and music in German. This allowed for the communication of the biblical message to the common believers who did not understand Latin, until then the language of the Church. It has resulted in a large repertoire of sacred music in German, which aims at strenthening the faith of the believers.

The second is the conviction that believers can't simply hide behind the church: believing what the Church believes is not enough. Luther emphasized the importance of a personal relationship with God. This explains why in many sacred music individuals are speaking. The listeners are invited to identify with the "I" in the texts. The Passions written by German composers attest to that: they retell the story of Jesus's suffering and death with the aim of making the listener relive, as it were, what is told in the gospels.

The four items included on this disc have little in common, except that they demonstrate what I have just pointed out. The writing for a solo voice is the perfect way to emphasize the importance of personal faith. Heinrich Schütz's sacred concerto Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott is a fine example. It is one of the few works by Schütz, which is based on a chorale melody. This hymn, a versification of Psalm 51 (Vulgata: 50), dates from 1524; the composer of the melody is not known, but may have been Johann Walter. Psalm 51 - best-known with the Latin text Miserere mei Deus - is one of the seven penitential psalms, which were especially sung during Holy Week. That connects them with the Passion of Christ, and this event was the heart of Luther's theology (theologia crucis). In the way Schütz has arranged the first stanza we recognize the influence of the Italian monodic style in his oeuvre.

The two features mentioned above also manifest themselves in the sacred works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Whereas in the recitatives and arias it is the individual believer who is speaking, the chorales represent the community to which he belongs. The two cantatas included here are among Bach's best-known and most-beloved. They have several things in common. First, they are scored for a solo voice in the alto range. Richard Wigmore, in his liner-notes, explains this by suggesting that Bach had an "outstandingly gifted boy alto" at his disposal. That is certainly possible, but there is no reason to believe that this cantata cannot have been sung by an adult, a falsetto of the kind of Iestyn Davies. Second, both are split into two parts, the first to be performed before, the second after the sermon. Each part opens with a sinfonia. Third: in nearly every section of these cantatas the organ has an obbligato part.

In Geist und Seele wird verwirret the organ is joined by two oboes, taille, strings and basso continuo. The cantata was written for 8 September 1726, the 12th Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel of the day was from Mark 6, which tells the story of the healing of the deaf-mute. The libretto of the cantata refers to this, also in a metaphorical way, as in the first aria: "For the miracles they [spirit and soul] know, that people name with joyful shouts, have made them deaf and dumb". The tenor of the cantata is the amazement which should fill everyone who sees the miracles that God creates. "God has done all things well" (aria II). It should encourage the believer to praise him. The last aria expresses the longing for life everlasting, in the presence of God - a recurring theme in Bach's sacred music.

On 8 October 1724, the 18th Sunday after Trinity, Gott soll allein mein Herze haben was performed. The instrumental scoring is identical with that of BWV 35. The Gospel of this Sunday was from Matthew 22, where Jesus names the first commandment as the love of God and one's neighbour. The message of the cantata is summed up in the closing chorale: "You sweet Love, grant us your favour, let us feel the fervency of your Love, that we love each other from our hearts and remain in peace, of the same mind." However, in the recitatives and arias it is the first part - the love of God - that is in the centre. "God alone shall have my heart" (aria I), "Die in me, world, and all your love, that my breast may on earth for ever and ever cultivate the love of God" (aria II).

One of the problems for performances in our time is the organ part. In Bach's time, this part was played at the large organ of the Thomaskirche, as were the basso continuo parts. Today Bach's cantatas are mostly performed in concert halls and other venues which have no suitable organ on which to play the obbligato organ parts. Ideally, for a recording performers could look for a church which has such an instrument. It is disappointing that so few performers seem to feel the need to do so. For British performers the main problem is that they have to go to Germany to make a recording like the present one, as the UK seems not to have any organ which is appropriate for Bach's cantatas. As in so many recordings the organ parts are played on a small organ. I find the musical result rather unsatisfying; if one has heard a performance on a large organ it is hard to get used to a small instrument like the one played here.

This is one of the issues of this recording. The second is that Iestyn Davies and Tom Foster include ornamentation in the dacapos. This is a controversial aspect of the interpretation of Bach's music, as some scholars and performers argue that Bach basically has written out all the ornamentation that is needed. Fortunately they don't overdo it here, but I would have liked a little more restraint in this department.

As far as the performances by Iestyn Davies are concerned, I like his voice and overall I appreciate his interpretation which is certainly not short on expression. However, the recitatives are rhythmically too strict; he should have taken more liberties here. I also would have liked stronger dynamic differences between good and bad notes and a more declamatory way of singing. The string parts are a bit bland and again I miss dynamic differentiation.

Schütz's sacred concerto is very well sung, but the best part of his recording is Buxtehude's Klag-Lied. It is a quite unique piece as it is a very personal tribute to his deceased father, on a text probably written by himself. Such personal expressions are relatively rare in the baroque era: Bach, for instance, lost his first wife and several children but we know of no single piece in which he expressed his sadness about these losses. Unfortunately Buxtehude's piece is mostly performed incomplete; it cannot be appreciated enough that Davies decided to perform all seven stanzas. He does so very well; his performance is one of the best that I have heard. One thing is notable: the lack of any ornamentation. He must have had a reason for that, but this aspect is not discussed in the booklet.

There is definitely much to enjoy here, but in some aspects the recording leaves something to be desired.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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Iestyn Davies

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