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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Kantaten No 25"

Mirjam Berlia, Monika Mauchb, Julia Sophie Wagnerc, soprano; Marianne Beate Kiellanda, Roswitha Müllerc, Margot Oitzingerb, contralto; Bernhard Berchtoldbc, Georg Poplutza, tenor; Fabrice Hayozc, Peter Kooijb, Dominik Wörnera, bass
Choirbc & Orchestra of the J.S. Bach-Stiftung
Dir: Rudolf Lutz

rec: August 23, 2013c, May 22, 2015a, Dec 23, 2016b (live), Trogen (AR), Evangelische Kirche
J.S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen - B 667 (© 2018) (53'29")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen (BWV 175)a; Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (BWV 91)b; Wir danken dir, Gott (BWV 29)c

In recent years I have reviewed several discs which are part of the continuing Bach project by the Swiss J.S. Bach-Stiftung. At the start I was rather sceptical, and I still sometimes wonder why particular decisions with regard to performance practice are taken, but with time this project has grown on me. I am beginning to think that this cycle may well become a very serious competition to the existing recordings by directors, who are better known and whose performances attract more attention.

One of the features of the discs in this series is that each of them includes cantatas for different stages of the ecclesiastical year and often written at different times. Mostly, the selection of cantatas seems to be entirely arbitrary. That is also the case with Volume 25.

Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (BWV 91) is a cantata for the first day of Christmas and was first performed on 25 December 1724. It is part of the cantata cycle 1724/25, which is dominated by hymns, which are the core of each cantata. The hymn which is the subject of the present cantata is from the pen of Martin Luther. It is (loosely) based on older material from pre-Reformation times. Bach has used it in several compositions, for instance his Christmas Oratorio. As was Bach's custom, the full orchestra is involved in the opening chorus, a setting of the first stanza of the hymn. It comprises three oboes, two horns and timpani, in addition to strings and basso continuo. Against Bach's habit, the chorale melody is not quoted in any way in the instrumental parts. Whereas in many performances of this project the opening chorus has considerable transparency, despite the size of the choir (here 19 voices), in this case the text is not that easy to understand. Obviously that is also the effect of the presence of a relatively large number of loud wind instruments. The chorus is followed by a recitative for soprano, which includes quotations from the hymn's second stanza. These are sung here by the sopranos from the choir, for which I can't see any reason. The ensuing tenor aria is scored for three oboes and basso continuo. Anselm Hartinger, in his liner-notes, explains this from the pastoral content of this aria. It receives a fine performance from Bernhard Berchtold, who has a very clear voice and articulates well. The bass then sings an accompanied recitative, which is notable for the heavy chromaticism in the last line on the word "Jammertal" (vale of tears). It is followed by a wonderful duet of soprano and alto, and interestingly, there are contrasting opinions on the connection between text and music here. The voices of Monika Mauch and Margot Oitzinger are a perfect match. The dotted rhythm is effectively emphasized by the strings with dynamic means. In the closing chorale, the entire ensemble is involved again.

The second cantata is Er rufet seinen Schafen bei Namen (BWV 175), which is intended for Whit Tuesday, and was first performed on 22 May 1725. We are still in the chorale cantata cycle 1724/25, but from Easter to Trinity, Bach interrupted his writing of chorale-based cantatas. The present cantata is one of nine for which he selected texts by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler. As he often did, he made some changes in the text (here the bass recitative). It is a remarkable piece for several reasons. It opens with a dictum, a litteral quotation from the Bible, but not in the form of a chorus, but rather a short accompanied recitative. We hear here the three recorders which play a major role in this cantata, undoubtedly inspired by its pastoral character, connected to the Gospel of the day, in which Jesus presents himself as the true shepherd (John 10, vs 1-10). The recorders also accompany the alto in the first aria: "Come, lead me, my spirit longs for green pasture". Marianne Beate Kielland's voice fits the tenor of the text perfectly. The second aria, following a short recitative, is for tenor, accompanied by a cello piccolo; it is the adaptation of an aria Bach previously used in a secular cantata. Georg Poplutz sings it well, but his vibrato, although not very wide, is regrettable. It is notable that this aria has no dacapo. The next accompanied recitative for alto and bass is the first section where the strings are involved. They are silent again in the bass aria 'Öffnet euch, ihr beiden Ohren", which is about Jesus being victorious over death and the devil. No wonder it has a belligerent character, emphasized by the scoring with two trumpets; there are no timpani. The trumpets keep silent in the B section. Dominik Wörner has the perfect voice for this piece: strong and powerful. It is probably the rather intimate character of this cantata which made Rudolf Lutz decide to perform the closing chorale with one voice per part rather than a choir.

Wir danken dir, Gott (BWV 29) is one of several cantatas Bach composed for the inauguration of the Leipzig town council. This cantata dates from 1731 and was first performed on 27 August of that year. Two further performances are documented for 1739 and 1749. It is again a remarkable work, for its opening sinfonia to start with, as this is an adaptation of the prelude of the Partita in E (BWV 1006) for violin solo. Bach arranged the violin part for organ and added an orchestral score. For performers in our time Bach's sinfonias with an obbligato organ part cause considerable trouble. They only come off to full effect, if they are played at the kind of organ Bach had at his disposal and used both for obbligato parts and in the basso continuo. Only a few churches in Germany have an organ which is suitable, stylistically and logistically, for such performances. Here we have a much smaller organ, which has too little impact and is too much part of the ensemble. The ensuing opening chorus is familiar to any Bach lover, as it was later adapted to the 'Dona nobis pacem' section of the Mass in B minor. It is an impressive testimony of Bach's command of counterpoint. It is notable that Bach here explicitly requires four additional ripieno voices. Next comes an aria for tenor with an obbligato violin part. Its declamatory character is perfectly realised by Bernhard Berchtold; the violin part receives a differentiated performance by the orchestra's leader, Renate Steinmann. A secco recitative for bass leads to a lovely soprano aria in siciliano rhythm, with an accompaniment of oboe and strings. Julia Sophie Wagner delivers a subtle performance. A recitative for alto is closed by an "Amen" for the tutti, sung in unison, which is followed attacca by an alto aria, which is a repeat of the A section of the tenor aria; this time the violin is replaced by the organ. The full ensemble then closes the cantata with the chorale 'Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren'.

Despite some issues, this is another fine sequel in this cantata cycle. I hope further volumes will land on my desk.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Fabrice Hayoz
Marianne Beate Kielland
Peter Kooij
Monika Mauch
Roswitha Müller
Margot Oitzinger
Georg Poplutz
Julia Sophie Wagner
Dominik Wörner
J.S. Bach-Stiftung

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