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CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH: Sacred Cantatas

[I] "Kantaten No 10"
Noëmi Sohn Nadc, Gerlinde Sämannb, soprano; Claude Eichenberger, contraltoc; Alex Potter, altoa; Hans Jörg Mammelc, Julius Pfeifera, tenor; Peter Harveyc, Dominik Wörnera, bass
Choir and Orchestra of the J.S. Bach-Stiftung
Dir: Rudolf Lutz
rec: (live) Feb 18, 2011b; April 29, 2011a; Jan 20, 2011c, Trogen (AR), Evangelische Kirche
J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen - B204 (© 2014) (58'58")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen (BWV 66)a; Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (BWV 84)b; Was mein Gott will, das gscheh allzeit (BWV 111)c

[II] "Kantaten No 11"
Eva Oltiványi, sopranob; Antonia Frey, contraltoa; Markus Forsterb, Andreas Schollc, alto; Bernhard Berchtoldb, Daniel Johannsena, tenor; Klaus Hägera, Raphael Judb, bass
Choirab and Orchestra of the J.S. Bach-Stiftung
Dir: Rudolf Lutz
rec: (live) May 25, 2007b; Nov 20, 2009a, Trogen (AR), Evangelische Kirche; June 21, 2013c, Teufen (AR)< Evangelische Kirche
J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen - B237 (© 2014) (63'00")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (BWV 26)a; Erschallet, ihr Lieder (BWV 172)b; Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170)c


In recent years several volumes from the Bach project of the J.S.Bach-Stiftung in Switzerland have landed on my desk. There is more about the background of this project om my weblog. In this review I'll focus on two volumes, each of which includes three cantatas.

Volume 10 opens with Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen (BWV 66), a cantata for Easter which received its first performance on the Easter Monday 1724. It is one of a number of cantatas which were originally conceived as congratulatory cantatas which Bach composed during his time in Cöthen. This cantata includes a duet for alto and tenor which represent Hope and Fear respectively; in its secular predecessor these roles were Weakness and Confidence. That cantata closed with a chorus which has become the opening of the Easter cantata. It is scored for four voices and an ensemble of two oboes, bassoon, strings and bc; the present recording also includes the ad libitum trumpet part. In this chorus and in the ensuing recitative and aria for bass the joy about Christ's resurrection dominates. The aria is followed by a recitative which is opened by the tenor (Hope) who expresses the comfort which the resurrection delivers but the recitative turns into an arioso in which the tenor is joined by the alto expressing the fear that it may not be true and asking God to help him to really believe that death is conquered. In the ensuing aria Fear is gradually accepting the truth: "Now my heart is full of comfort". The introduction of two characters makes sense in the light of the gospel of the day which tells about the two men of Emmaus. This cantata receives an almost ideal performance. It is a little unfortunate that the text of the opening chorus is rather hard to understand. Another minus is the organ interludes in the closing chorale. This is practised in several cantata performances in this series but historically it seems unfounded. Alex Potter, Julius Pfeifer and Dominik Wörner deliver outstanding interpretations of the recitatives and arias. The duet of alto and tenor includes an obbligato part for violin which is excellently played, with nice ornamentation in the dacapo.

Bach has written several solo cantatas for soprano. Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (BWV 84) is probably the least-known of them; it was first performed in February 1727 on an anonymous text. As only the closing chorale is in four parts it seems logical to perform it with one voice per part as is the case here. The gospel of the day is the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) but the connection between that reading and the text of the cantata is rather loose. The tenor of the latter is that one should be content with what God gives, because He owes man nothing. The instrumental scoring emphasizes the rather intimate character of this cantata: oboe, strings and bc; in the second aria the first violin has an obbligato part. Notable is also the second recitative which is accompanied, probably in order to make it stand out and emphasize its message. Gerlinde Sämann brings a fine performance with a good delivery and an admirable easiness in the realisation of the coloratura; she also adds some tasteful ornamentation. Only here and there a slight vibrato creeps in but it hardly matters. The chorale is rightly performed here with one voice per part but the treatment of the fermates is rather odd.

Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit (BWV 11) was first performed in January 1725; it is written for the third Sunday after Epiphany. It is part of the chorale cantata cycle of 1724-25 and opens with the chorale which is also included in the St Matthew Passion and in two other cantatas (BWV 72 and 144). The cantata closes with the fourth stanza of this hymn. There seems to be no immediate connection to the Gospel which is Matthew 8, vs1-13 which is about the healing of a leper and the centurion of Capernaum who asks Jesus to heal his slave. Jesus is impressed by the latter's faith which he hasn't found in Israel. However, one could argue that the third and fourth lines sum up what happens in that episode: "He [Jesus] is ready to help those who have firm faith in him". In the aria and the duet and the two recitatives the second and third stanza of this hymn are paraphrased. The first aria is for bass and bc; it receives a very speech-like performance from Peter Harvey. The duet is for alto and tenor. It is interesting here to read the somewhat different interpretations of the musical figures: Dürr emphasizes the uplifting aspects, especially the dotted rhythms and "calm pedal points" which illustrate the "spirited steps" of the text. Anselm Hartinger talks about "weighty pedal points and descending continuo passages which represent the grave and eternal sleep" and states that the two voices are "literally trapped between the trusting strides of the strings and the deathly pull of the continuo". The pedal points could have come off more clearly here; the harpsichord has a bit too much presence. Claude Eichenberger and Hans Jörg Mammel sing this duet well; the balance between them is satisfying.

On balance this volume is one of the most satisfying in this project which I have heard so far.

Volume 11 includes one of Bach's most famous cantatas: Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust. Probably the main reason is that it is scored for a soloist, without any participation of a choir. This makes it easy to perform it as part of a solo recital, in this case an alto. Andreas Scholl is the soloist in the present performance; he has recorded it before, under the direction of Philippe Herreweghe. In recent years a fast vibrato has crept in his voice which makes his performances considerably less attractive than they used to be. That is also the case here. On the other hand, his interpretation is certainly not short of expression. In the second aria, 'Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen', the singer is accompanied by strings in unison and an organ with two manuals. Here one of the parts is played at the organ, the other on the transverse flute. I can't see any reason to do so, especially in the light of what Anselm Hartinger in his liner-notes writes about the closing aria, 'Mir ekelt mehr zu leben'. In contrast to the previous aria this one exists in two versions. "In a reworking of the cantata in 1746/47, Bach reassigned the soloistic interludes of the organ part to the transverse flute. Since certain source texts suggest that this actually corresponded to Bach's original intentions (who may well have compensated for the lack of a virtuoso flautist by playing the part himself on the organ in the 1726 version), we have included this captivating version for flute as a bonus track on this CD". That is very nice but also shows the inconsistency here: as Bach played the organ because of a lack of a competent flautist it is rather odd to include a flute in the second aria.

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (BWV 26) is a cantata for the 24th Sunday after Trinity which falls in November. The cantata is based on a hymn by Michael Franck (1652); the first and last stanzas are used for the opening chorus and the chorale which closes the chorale. The rest of the hymn is paraphrased in three recitatives and two arias. The Gospel of this Sunday is the raising from the dead of Jairus's daughter (Matthew 9). This explains that this cantata dwells on the transience of life. It is likely that it is also connected to All Soul's Day on 2 November. The fleetingness of life is effectively illustrated in the swiftly moving figures in the opening chorus. This mood is continued in the tenor aria: "As swiftly as rushing water shoots forth do the days of our life run by". The performers adopt a very fast tempo which seems in accordance with the text but sometimes goes at the cost of a clear diction of the words. That said, Daniel Johannsen's articulation can only be admired considering the tempo. I'm not sure that it is right to increase the volume in the dacapo. The emptiness of daily life is illustrated in the bass aria: "To set one's heart on earthly treasures is a seduction of the foolish world". This is illustrated by the use of a bourrée but the playing of the three oboes is a bit too awkward and not very dance-like. The last recitative is scored for soprano but sung here by Johannsen, probably because it was considered too expensive to hire a soprano for a single recitative in this live performance. Was none of the sopranos in the choir able to take care of it? Again in the closing chorale the lines are interrupted by organ improvisations. The last chord is held very long, illustrating its meaning: "Whoever fears God shall endure for ever". To me this seems exaggerated.

Unfounded liberties in the scoring are also a feature of the last cantata on this disc. Erschallet, ihr Lieder is for Whitsunday and was first performed in May 1714 in Weimar. The fact that Bach performed it in Leipzig at least another four times indicates that he must have loved this cantata. The instrumental scoring emphasizes the celebratory character of this work: three trumpets, timpani, four-part strings (2 violins, 2 violas) and bc. The opening chorus is rhythmically and dynamically too flat. It is followed by the only recitative which is a dictum: "Whoever loves me will keep my Word" (John 14, 23). As the performance is too strict in time one hardly notices that the recitative ends with an arioso. Next follows an aria for bass with three trumpets and timpani which receives a fine performance. The same goes for the lovely tenor aria 'O Seelenparadies', with strings and bc. Next is a duet for soprano and alto; the former represents the soul (Anima) and the latter the Holy Spirit (Spiritus Sanctus), not Jesus, as Anselm Hartinger writes in his liner-notes. The alto Markus Forster is too weak here. An oboe (in later versions an obbligato organ) plays the chorale Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott. It is played here by the viola - there is no historical evidence that this is a legitimate option. Musically it is also highly unsatisfying as the viola is far less clearly audible than an oboe or an organ would have been. The closing chorale suffers from a lack of accents. "The performance on this recording is the version in C major (1714/1731), although it includes the repetition of the introductory chorus at the end of the work that is only proved to belong to the 1724 version", Hartinger writes. It is another inconsistency which is historically untenable. From a historical point of view the use of a choir in a cantata written in Weimar is also questionable.

In contrast to the previous volume this disc is has too many weaknesses to really satisfy, despite fine performances by most of the soloists.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

J.S. Bach-Stiftung

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