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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Sacred Cantatas

[I] "Kantaten No 20"
Noëmi Sohn Nadb, Julia Neumannc, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, contraltoa; Jan Börner, altobc; Bernhard Berchtolda, Johannes Kaleschkec, Hans Jörg Mammelb, tenor; Wolf Matthias Friedrichb, Stephan MacLeodc, Dominik Wörnera, bass Choir & Orchestra of the J.S. Bach-Stiftung
Dir: Rudolf Lutz
rec: Oct 21, 2011b, April 25a & Dec 19c, 2014, Trogen (AR), Evangelische Kirche
J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen - B592 (© 2017) (47'46")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ (BWV 67)a; Herr Christ, der einge Gottes Sohn (BWV 96)b; Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121)c

[II] "Kantaten No 21"
Miriam Feuersingerb, Dorothee Mieldsc, soprano; Marianne Beate Kielland, contraltoa; Markus Forsterb, Terry Weyc, alto; Bernhard Berchtoldc, Daniel Johannsenab, tenor; Matthias Helmb, Klaus Mertensc, Dominik Wörnera, bass
Choirac & Orchestra of the J.S. Bach-Stiftung
Dir: Rudolf Lutz
rec: June 17a & August 19c, 2016, April 28, 2017b, Trogen (AR), Evangelische Kirche
J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen - B617 (© 2017) (53'15")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ein ungefärbt Gemüte (BWV 24)a; Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (BWV 79)b; Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80)c


About twelve years ago the J.S.Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen in Switzerland started a project which concerned the (live) performance and recording of Bach's sacred cantatas. The concept is that once a month one cantata is performed. Rudolf Lutz has a choir and an orchestra at his disposal, but the participation of the soloists seems to depend on who is available for a particular performance. Sometimes the soloists are members of the choir, such as the soprano Noëmi Sohn Sad and the alto Jan Börner, but often we see in the list of performers the names of well-known specialists in the field of early music, such as Hans Jörg Mammel and Wolf Matthias Friedrich. Because of this concept the quality of the performances can vary. As most discs include recordings from different years - sometimes as long as four years apart - it is impossible to signal a kind of development in the way the cantatas are performed. Some cantatas are performed with one voice per part, but so far I have not been able to discover a clear pattern in the line-up.

Over the years I have received several volumes in this series. I not always could find the time to review them; the previous recordings I reviewed were the volumes 10 and 11. It seemed appropriate to have a look at some more recent volumes, such as those reviewed here, which were both released in 2017.

The choice of cantatas for each disc seems arbitrary; at least I have not been able to discover a clear thread. In the booklet to Vol. 20 Rudolf Lutz speaks about the image of Jesus in Bach's cantatas, and he illustrates his views with the three cantatas included in the programme. However, as this subject is relevant to all of Bach's cantatas, there is no reason to see a thread here.

The disc opens with Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn (BWV 96), a cantata for the 18th Sunday after Trinity. It was performed on 8 October 1724 in Leipzig, and is one of Bach's chorale cantatas. The starting point is a hymn by Elisabeth Cruciger of 1524, which comprises five stanzas. The first and the last are kept intact, the others are transformed into recitatives and arias. The Gospel of the day (from Matthew 22) is about the love of God and of one's neighbour as the most important parts of the law of God. This is expressed in the text of the cantata, which opens with a chorus and closes with a chorale; in between are two arias, for tenor and bass respectively, preceded by a recitative, the first for alto, the second for soprano. The instrumental scoring is notable for the inclusion of a piccolo, a sopranino recorder in F, which seems to be included in the opening chorus because of the reference to the "morning star". In this recording it also participates in the closing chorale, although that is not indicated by Bach. The first aria, 'Ach ziehe die Seele mit Seilen der Liebe', includes an obbligato part for the transverse flute. In the bass aria, 'Bald zur Rechten, bald zur Linken' ("Now to the right, now to the left my straying steps turn") the wavering of the steps is illustrated by musical figures and the alternation of winds (two oboes) and strings. This cantata receives a very good performance. The recorder, played by Maurice Steger, is nicely woven into the opening chorus. The two recitatives are sung well, but rhythmically too strict. Hans Jörg Mammel and Wolf Matthias Friedrich are seasoned interpreters of this kind of repertoire, and that results in fully idiomatic performances of the two arias.

Next is Halt im Gedächtnis Jesu Christ (BWV 67), written for the first Sunday after Easter, also known as Sunday Quasimodogeniti; it was first performed on 16 April 1724. The Gospel of the day is about the appearance of Jesus to his disciples, and the lack of faith of one of them, Thomas. The cantata opens with a dictum (2 Timothy 2,8). The instrumental scoring here is rather unusual: it includes two oboi d'amore and an instrument, known as corno da tirarsi, an instrument which only appears under this name in Bach's music and which has given much reason for speculation about its identity. The corno da tirarsi parts seem to have been played by Gottfried Reiche, the star trumpeter, who so often played Bach's trumpet parts. This could explain why this instrument disappears from Bach's scores after 1734, the year Reiche died. In this recording the instrument is played by Olivier Picon, whose extensive research resulted in the reconstruction of the instrument. It participates in the opening chorus and the chorale which closes the cantata. The first aria is for tenor; transverse flute and oboe d'amore play in unison. Notable are rising figures in the strings, which are later imitated in the vocal part; the same happens in the alto part of the opening chorus. An alto recitative leads attacca to the chorale 'Erschienen ist der herrlich Tag', the first stanza of an Easter hymn by Nikolaus Herman (1560). The sixth section has a special form: a chorus of four stanzas, each framed by a solo for bass - representing the vox Christi - on the text "Friede sei mit dir", the words Jesus spoke when he suddenly appeared before his disciples, represented by soprano, alto and tenor, and here sung by the choir. The contrast between Jesus and his disciples is depicted in various contrasts in the music. The part of Jesus is given an excellent account by Dominik Wörner, acting with a right amount of authority. Bernhard Berchtold delivers a good performance of the tenor aria, but it could have had a little more weight. Margot Oitzinger also does not enough with some elements in the text of her recitatives.

Christum, wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121) is a cantata for the second Day of Christmas. This was also St Stephen's Day, in remembrance of the first Christian martyr, but that subject is ignored here. Like BWV 96 it is one of the cantatas from the chorale cantata cycle of the season 1724/25. The chorale is Martin Luther's German translation of the traditional hymn A solis ortus cardine. As was common practice the first and last stanzas of the hymn are left unaltered, whereas the four other stanzas are adapted to recitatives and arias. The opening chorus has the form of a chorale motet. Notable is that Bach includes the old-fashioned instruments cornett and sackbut, which play colla voce, as was the habit in the days of the stile antico. They return in the closing chorale. Unfortunately their participation results in a lack of transparency in the choral sound. With 18 voices the choir is bigger than would be ideal; here certainly a one-voice-per-part performance, if desired with one additional ripienist per voice, would have been preferable. In contrast the ensuing aria for tenor is quite modern, thanks to the obbligato part for oboe d'amore. Johannes Kaleschke and Andreas Helm deliver a very fine performance; the tenor's diction and dynamic shading are exemplary. The alto recitative is notable for Bach's harmonic experiment at the end: a sixth-chord of C sharp major is followed not by the expected f sharp minor, but via a diminished seventh to C major. This may well be inspired by the text, which is about the unexpected act of God: "God chooses Himself a pure body as a temple of His honour, So that He may turn to mankind in a wondrous manner." Although the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is not part of the Gospel of the day, the bass aria, 'Johannis freudenvolles Springen', refers to this event. Bass and strings are dominated by rhythms which eloquently depict "John's joyful leaping". It is perfectly realised by Stephan MacLeod and the strings of the ensemble.

Volume 21 also has no clear thread. However, two of the three cantatas are for the feast of the Reformation, and it is probably not coincidental that they were included here on a disc which was to be released in 2017, the year the Lutheran Reformation was commemorated.

Obviously, the best-known of the two Reformation cantatas is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80) as it is based on the hymn which, more than anything else, is associated with Luther and the Reformation. During the 19th century it developed even into a kind of battle hymn, and was treated as the 'national anthem' of - in particular German - Protestantism. Anselm Hartinger, in his liner-notes, discusses the connection between Bach and German nationalism under the title "Bach, the protestant national artist: on the genesis and deconstruction of a myth". However, it is fair to say that, although Bach's music is obviously free from any trait of nationalism - a way of thinking which even did not exist in his day - the way he treats Luther's hymn has sometimes a clearly belligerent character. That comes especially to the fore in the fifth movement, a setting of the third stanza, "Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär". The chorale melody is sung here in the way of a choral unison, with the orchestra delivering the concertante counterpoint, with many quite belligerent figures. The second movement, 'Alles, was von Gott geboren', an aria for bass, is not very different in character from this chorale setting. Here the cantus firmus, sung by the soprano, is the second stanza, "Mit unser Macht ist nichts getan". Klaus Mertens is excellent in this aria, which includes quite some coloratura. The soprano is a bit too much in the background; the balance between the two voices could have been better. In the text I noted a difference between the lyrics in the booklet (and in Alfred Dürr's book about Bach's cantatas) and what Mertens sings: instead of "siegt im Geiste für und für" (is victorious in spirit for ever and ever) he sings "in Christo" (in Christ). The soprano aria, 'Komm in mein Herzenshaus', and the duet of alto and tenor, 'Wie selig sind doch die', both include a marked contrast between the A and B sections. That comes well off in these performances, which are generally very good. Dorothee Mields finds the perfect approach to the intimacy of the A part in her aria, but she also does not let pass unnoticed the offensive traits in the B section. Terry Wey and Bernhard Berchtold are a perfect match in their duet. The opening chorus is sung well, but the articulation could have been better and there should have been stronger dynamic accents. This cantata is often performed with trumpets and timpani, whose parts are from the pen of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. However, these were never intended to be included in the opening chorus and the concluding chorale of this cantata. They are rightly omitted here, but it is a bit odd that the list of instrumentalists includes two trumpets and timpani nonetheless.

Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (BWV 79) is quite different. Notable is that here the instrumental scoring includes a pair of horns, but even so the cantata is overall less belligerent than its counterpart. That shows that the instrumentation is not decisive, but rather the musical motifs and figures a composer uses. The opening chorus is a dictum: the text is from Psalm 84 (vs 11). In contrast to most performances in this series this chorus is not sung by the choir, but by the four soloists. They are accompanied by the full orchestra, including horns, but there is no problem in regard to balance. One would wish that more cantatas would be performed this way. The line-up here bears witness to the fact that this project is not based on a clear and consistent concept, for instance in regard to matters of scoring. The opening phrase is taken up in the next section, an aria for alto, whose A section consists of just one line, whereas the text of the B section is much longer. The alto is paired here with an obbligato oboe. Markus Förster sings well, but in the opening stages I found his voice a bit weak. He could also have been a little less introverted in the B section. Next follows the hymn 'Nun danket alle Gott' (Martin Rickart, 1636). It is sung here with participation of the audience. Although it is not explicitly claimed in the liner-notes that the congregation in Bach's time took part in the hymns, there has been suggestions in this direction in previous volumes. This seems a mistake; as far as I know there is no evidence of such a practice whatsoever. Obviously the polyphony in this setting is largely lost in such a performance. The duet of soprano and bass, 'Gott, ach Gott, verlass die Deinen nimmermehr', is called "feisty" in the liner-notes; the performance by Mariam Feuersinger and Matthias Helm is quite good, but not really feisty.

The third cantata is Ein ungefärbt Gemüte (BWV 24), which is for the fourth Sunday after Trinity and dates from 1723. The Gospel of the day is taken from Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, and as a result this cantata is about virtue. Its message is summed up in the third movement, a chorus on the text of Matthew 7,12: "Everything that you would that people should do to you, you do to them". The structure is unconventional: the cantata opens with an aria for alto, which is followed by a recitative for tenor. After the chorus just mentioned we hear another recitative, this time for bass. It is an accompanied recitative, and the marked interventions of the strings effectively support the almost theatrical nature of the recitative, which is about hypocrisy: its character is outlined in detail, and Dominik Wörner knows exactly how to bring that across. It is followed by a nice aria for tenor, which has the form of a quartet: tenor, two oboi d'amore and bc. The instrumentation lends this piece a kind of loveliness which comes well off in Daniel Johannsen's performance. Marianne Beate Kielland does equally well in the opening aria, in which she is accompanied by strings playing in unison.

As one may conclude from what I have written about the various performances, these volumes are among the best in this ongoing series. Even though several complete recordings of Bach's cantatas are available, this project is certainly something to keep an eye on. I have noted some less convincing performances in previous volumes, but overall the level is considerable and often Rudolf Lutz can rely on seasoned performers. Reason enough to look forward to further releases.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Jan Börner
Miriam Feuersinger
Markus Forster
Wolf Matthias Friedrich
Matthias Helm
Daniel Johannsen
Marianne Beate Kielland
Hans Jörg Mammel
Klaus Mertens
Noëmi Sohn Nad
Juliane Neumann
Margot Oitzinger
Terry Wey
Dominik Wörner
J.S. Bach-Stiftung

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