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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Kantaten No 36"

Monika Mauchb, Julia Neumannc, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, contraltoc; Simon Savoya, Terry Weyb, alto; Daniel Johannsena, Julius Pfeiferc, tenor; Raphael Judc, Manuel Walserb, Dominik Wörnera, bass
Choirab & Orchestra of the J.S. Bach-Stiftung
Dir: Rudolf Lutz

rec: Jan 16, 2009c, May 24, 2013b & Feb 22, 2019a (live), St. Gallen, St Mangen; Teufen (AR), Evangelische Kirche; Trogen (AR), Evangelische Kirche
J.S. Bach-Stiftung - B 960 (© 2021) (41'21")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (BWV 126)a; Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding (BWV 176)b; Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange (BWV 155)c

At the time of writing about forty discs in the cantata project of the J.S.Bach-Stiftung have been released. Unfortunately I have not been able to listen to and review each one of them, but those I have heard, vary from good to excellent. The disc under review here is one of the latter category.

The first cantata is Es ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding (BWV 176), which was written for Trinity Sunday on 27 May 1725. The text was written by Christiane Mariana von Ziegler. It has some notable features. First, the opening chorus is a fugue, whose subject is first exposed in the bass and then moves upward. There is no instrumental introduction nor a postlude. Second, there are two arias, and both are short - in this performance less than three minutes - and omit a dacapo. Third, in the second aria the alto is accompanied by two oboes and an oboe da caccia which play in unison. Fourth, the latter aria is preceded by a recitative for bass, whose text has been extended by Bach himself.

The Gospel of the day is John 3, which tells about the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus. The latter, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, is fascinated by Jesus's actions, but is afraid of the reactions of his colleagues, and therefore he approaches Jesus at night. The contrast between night and dark is one of the subjects of this cantata. In the Sunday readings the Old Testament did not play any role, but in the texts of the cantatas we find many references to episodes in it. Here that is the case in the first recitative: "There the sun had to stand still for Joshua, so long until the victory was fully accomplished, but here Nicodemus wishes: 'Oh, if only I saw it setting!'" (The story can be found in Joshua 10). In the text, the believer puts himself into the shoes of Nicodemus, for instance in the second recitative: "So marvel not, o Master, why I question you by night! (...) I comfort myself: You take up and accept my heart and spirit into life". Here Bach adds a reference to the best-known verse from the Gospel of John (ch 3, vs 16): "For all but who believe in you shall not be lost". The alto aria ends with a laudation on the Trinity. The same happens in the closing chorale, a stanza from Was alle Weisheit in der Welt (Paul Gerhardt, 1653). It is sung here on the melody of Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam. The soloists in this cantata don't have much opportunity to shine, but both Monika Mauch and Terry Wey give excellent accounts of their short arias.

Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange (BWV 155) is an early cantata, which was first performed at the second Sunday after Epiphany, 19 January 1716, in Weimar. The text is from the pen of Salomo Franck. It is not always very clear to what extent a cantata text is connected to the Gospel of a Sunday. Sometimes it includes only minor references to it, and that is the case here. The Gospel is again from John, this time chapter 2, which reports about the wedding at Cana. Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, writes: "In essence, the poet has drawn from the Gospel text a single idea: Jesus keeps Himself hidden, for His hour has not yet come, but the soul may hope that, at the right time, He will be at hand with His solace." The text includes references to wine in the two recitatives. In many sacred cantatas from the baroque era we find a journey of the believer from distress to solace through the faith in Jesus and his salvation. That is also the case here: the work opens with an accompanied recitative for soprano: "My God, how long, ah, how long? My misery is too great! I see no end at all to pain and sorrow". He is answered by alto and tenor in a duet: "You must have faith, you must hope, you must be serene in God". The two voices sing largely in homophony to a basso continuo and a virtuosic obbligato part for bassoon. The bass recitative urges the soul to be content, as Jesus will turn tears into "wine of comfort and joy". The soprano then returns and urges his heart to cast himself "into the loving arms of the Highest". This aria has no dacapo. The closing chorale is a stanza from Es ist das Heil uns kommen her (Paul Speratus, 1524).

This cantata was again performed in Leipzig in 1724, but Rudolf Lutz apparently based his performance on the first of 1716. He opted for a line-up of one voice per part; the chorale is sung by the four soloists. Likewise the instrumental ensemble consists of two violins, one viola, cello, violone, bassoon and organ. The pitch is not mentioned in the booklet, but it seems that the performance is in the high Chorton, which was common in Weimar. That is especially notable in the soprano part; Julia Neumann deals with it very well. The different feelings of the soprano come off to full extent. In the duet Margot Oitzinger and Julius Pfeifer are a perfect match. Raphael Jud has a nice, warm voice and performs the recitative in a satisfying declamatory manner. Donna Agrell guarantees for a brilliant execution of the obbligato bassoon part.

The third and last cantata on this disc was written for Sunday Sexagesima, the second Sunday before Lent. The Gospel of that Sunday was the parable of the sower (Luke 8). It is, as Jesus later explained himself, about someone sowing the Word of God, and this explains the choice of text for Bach's cantata, which is based on Luther's hymn about the importance of the Word of God: Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (BWV 126): "Uphold us, Lord, by your Word". In Bach's time, the hymn comprised several stanzas: the first three by Luther, the next two by Justus Jonas (1493-1555), whereas the sixth and last is a compilation of words by Luther and Johann Walter. The unknown author of the libretto retained the stanzas 1, 3 (with recitative insertions) and 6, and paraphrased 2, 4 and 5 in the form of recitatives and arias. The cantata opens with the first stanza of Luther's hymn, which reflects the state of his time: "[Ward] off the murderousness of Pope and Turk". The connection with the Reformation explains why it was performed in 1755 to commemorate the Peace of Augsburg (1555) by Christian Friedrich Penzel, choir prefect and for many years Bach's copyist. The basic scoring is four voices (solo and tutti), two oboes, strings and basso continuo. In the opening chorus Bach adds a virtuosic trumpet part, undoubtedly to be played by the famous trumpeter Johann Gottfried Reiche. It is nice that the booklet includes a few pages on this brilliant performer. The first aria is for tenor and two oboes; it is a prayer to God to send his might from above, in order to delight the church and to dispel the "enemy's bitter mockery". The urgency is emphasized by repeating the closing line of the A part at a higher pitch. Its character is perfectly conveyed by Daniel Johannsen. In the next recitative, the alto and tenor alternately sing the recitativic sections, and together they sing the hymn lines. It is a bit odd that in the latter the soloists and the respective voices from the choir alternate. The second aria is for bass and basso continuo, and has a belligerent character: "Cast to the ground bombastic pride! (...) Let the abyss suddenly devour it". The opening phrase is dominated by a descending figure. One can leave it to Dominik Wörner to explore its features to full extent. In the ensuing recitative for tenor, God is asked to be the church's helper: "Then in peace will blessing's abundance be granted to us". The closing chorale is the sixth stanza: "Grant us peace graciously - Grant our princes and all in authority peace and good government".

Each disc in this series includes three cantatas. In this case this results in a very short playing time. Just under 42 minutes is probably withholding some from purchasing this disc. That would be a shame, as these performances - as I have expressed - are really good. With time this project has established itself as one of the best Bach cantata series available on disc. One does not need to agree with every single decision taken by Rudolf Lutz, such as the organ interludes in the closing chorale of BWV 126, to appreciate what is on offer here. The consistency in the line-up, both with regard to the soloists and the instrumental ensemble, is one of its strengths. The level of singing and playing is consistently high and it is nice that some of the best singers in the early music scene have made themselves available for this project.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Daniel Johannsen
Monika Mauch
Julia Neumann
Margot Oitzinger
Simon Savoy
Manuel Walser
Terry Wey
Dominik Wörner
J.S. Bach-Stiftung

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