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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Kantaten No 23"

Ulrike Hofbauera, Monika Mauchc, soprano; Elvira Billa, Ruth Sandhoffb, contralto; Jan Börner, altoc; Jakob Pilgramc, Julius Pfeiferb, tenor; Dominik Wörner,sup>a, Markus Volpertc, bass
Choirab & Orchestra of the J.S. Bach-Stiftung
Dir: Rudolf Lutz

rec: Oct 22, 2010b, Feb 19, 2016c, March 31, 2017a (live), Trogen (AR), Evangelische Kirche
J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen - B 665 (© 2018) (59'28")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Es wartet alles auf dich (BWV 187)a; Ich glaube, lieber Herr (BWV 109)b; Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet (BWV 164)c

From time to time, new volumes in the ongoing series of recordings of Bach's cantatas by the J.S. Bach-Stiftung from Switzerland, under the direction of Rudolf Lutz, land on my desk. In the coming months, several of them are going to be reviewed here. The three cantatas in Vol. 23 are all written for the period between Trinitatis and Advent, but were first performed in different years: 1723, 1725 and 1726 respectively.

Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben, written for the 21st Sunday after Trinity in 1723, is probably one of Bach's lesser-known cantatas. It is a remarkable work, especially for the way Bach has set the opening chorus. It seems to lack a clear structure, and that could well be intentional, considering the cantata's content. This is summed up in the dictum, which is used as the text for the opening chorus: "I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief!". It is taken from the Gospel according to Mark (ch 9, vs24), where a man whose son is possessed by evil spirits, asks Jesus for help. Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, characterises the cantata as a kind of dialogue between the two opposing feelings, represented here by tenor (Unbelief) and alto (Belief) respectively. The request for help is expressed in the dominating motive in the instrumental scoring of the opening chorus, and especially the ascending sixth, which is also used in the aria 'Erbarme dich' in the St Matthew Passion. The restlessness and doubt of the protagonist is also eloquently expressed in the recitative and aria for the tenor. In the performance, the contrast between the opposing feelings of the singer are emphasized in that the references to Jesus' assistance are accompanied with cello and organ, and the sentences expressing doubt - introduced by the words "Ah no" - are accompanied by cello alone. The aria seems to lack any melodic and harmonic direction; it is a brilliant exposition of the doubt and wavering feelings of the protagonist ("How full of doubt is my hope, how my anxious heart wavers"), which is further emphasized by the strings, which sometimes are actively involved in the proceedings, and then keep silent. Julius Pfeifer delivers an incisive and highly expressive performance, and thanks to his fine diction and articulation, the text is perfectly communicated.

The alto then represents the change of feelings of the protagonist: "Take hold of yourself, O doubt-filled spirit, for Jesus even now does miracles". This message of the recitative is followed by the aria: "The Saviour indeed knows them that are his, when their hope lies helpless". The alto is accompanied by two oboes, moving in parallel thirds and sixths, and basso continuo. The music is written in the rhythm of a sarabande. The answer to the doubt of the tenor is here vividly depicted in the music. Ruth Sandhoff does sing well, but her voice is a bit too dark, and as a result the text is not that easy to understand. The closing chorale - the seventh stanza from the hymn Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt (Lazarus Spengler, 1524) - has the form of a chorale arrangement: the soprano sings the chorale melody, whereas the other voices and the instruments provide the counterpoint. Both here and in the opening chorus, choir and orchestra are in excellent form.

Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet was first performed on 26 August 1725, which was the 13th Sunday after Trinity. The gospel of that Sunday is from Luke 10, in which Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. This inspired the librettist, Salomo Franck, to turn to the concept of the imitatio Christi. Bach has translated this into his music by emphasizing the imitation between instruments. The cantata opens with a tenor aria, which asks: "You who call yourselves after Christ, where is the mercy by which one recognizes Christ's members?" The descending fifth at the start is reversed in the second line. Jakob Pilgram, in his performance, effectively emphasizes the word "härter" (harder [than a stone]) in the last line. The ensuing recitative for bass refers to the priest and the Levite "who here step aside" and "are indeed an image of loveless Christians". Next is an aria for alto, with two transverse flutes and basso continuo; the two instruments symbolize the two elements mentioned in the text as the things through which "we become equal with God himself": love and mercy. Like the first, this aria has no dacapo, and has rather an ABB structure. An accompanied recitative for tenor has the character of a prayer: "Ah! melt with your ray of love the cold heart's steel". It is followed by a duet for soprano and bass, with pairs of flutes, oboes and violins playing in unison, which results in a quartet texture; each vocal part opens in canonic writing, which again emphasizing the subject of the imitation of Christ. The voices of Monika Mauch and Markus Volpert blend well, but the text is not always that easy to understand. The cantata ends with the fifth and last stanza from the chorale 'Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn' (Elisabeth Creutziger, 1524). The fact that this cantata opens with an aria, and the relative modest scoring, seems to have been the reason Rudolf Lutz decided to follow here the 'one-voice-per-part' practice, as the closing chorale is sung by the four soloists. They do so very nicely, and overall this is another fine performance of one of Bach's lesser-known cantatas.

Es wartet alles auf dich is intended for the 7th Sunday after Trinity, and was first performed on 4 August 1726. The gospel of that Sunday is from Mark 8, which reports about the feeding of the four thousand. This explains why the subject of this cantata is that God nourishes his people. The cantata opens with a chorus on a text from Psalm 104: "These wait all upon you, that you may give them nourishment in due season." This is then continued in the ensuing recitative for bass and the alto aria 'Du Herr, du krönst allein das Jahr mit deinem Gut': "You, Lord, you alone crown the year with your goodness". The second part begins with a solo for bass, who quotes words of Jesus from Matthew 6: "Therefore, you should not worry or say: what shall we eat? what shall we drink? (...) For your heavenly Father knows that you have need for all these things". Thus the general subject is turned to the more personal and subjective. This is followed by a soprano aria: "God takes care of all life that has breath here below. Would he not give me alone what he has promised to all?" After an accompanied recitative for soprano, the cantata ends with two stanzas from the hymn Singen wir aus Herzensgrund (Hans Vogel, 1563): "God has established the earth, he allows no lack of nourishment".

The scoring of this cantata is for four voices, two oboes, strings and basso continuo. In the first aria, the first oboe and first violin play colla parte, the bass solo has an accompaniment of two violins and basso continuo, and the last aria has an obbligato part for oboe. It is notable that the opening chorus and the three solos were all reused in the Missa in g minor (BWV 235). The opening chorus is sung by the full choir. I would prefer a smaller group, but Lutz manages to keep the musical fabric as transparent as possible. Dominik Wörner is marvellous in his truly speech-like performances of the recitative and his solo, which is an aria but in name. Elvira Bill is entirely convincing in her aria. I like her dynamic shading and her excellent articulation, which guarantees that the text is clearly communicated. Ulrike Hofbauer is a regular in this series, and once again shows to be the perfect Bach interpreter. Her aria includes some wide leaps, which she catches with perfection. Each of the two stanzas of the closing chorale is introduced by a short improvisation on organ and harpsichord respectively. It is one of the experiments which now and again are part of this series. I neither see the need nor any historical foundation, but it certainly does not spoil my enjoyment of this fine performance.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Elvira Bill
Jan Börner
Ulrike Hofbauer
Monika Mauch
Jakob Pilgram
Markus Volpert
Dominik Wörner
J.S. Bach-Stiftung

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