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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Cantatas & Arias for Bass

[I] "Solokantaten für Bass"
Thomas E. Bauer, bass
Elisa Rabanus, sopranoa; Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering
rec: Feb 14 - 17, 2013, Cologne-Zollstock, Melanchton-Kirche
Oehms - OC 887 (© 2013) (52'14")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Der Friede sei mit dir (BWV 158)a; Ich habe genung (BWV 82); Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56)

Michael Niesemann, Clara Geuchen, Mark Baigent, oboe; Pauline Nobes, Frauke Heiwolt, Mark Schimmelmann, Christof Boerner, Christian Friedrich, Julia Scheerer, violin; Rachel Isserlis, viola; Helga Löhrer, cello; Timo Hoppe, double bass; Christian Rieger, organ

[II] "Fürchte dich nicht! - Bass arias and sinfonias"
Christian Hilz, bass
Capella Hilaria
rec: April 24 - 26, 2012, Kempten, St Mang Kirche
Ars Produktion - ARS 38 523 (© 2013) (66'31")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats (BWV 42) (sinfonia); Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) (Großer Herr); Der Herr denket an uns (BWV 196) (sinfonia); Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen (BWV 66) (Lasset dem Höchsten); Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen (BWV 43) (Er ist's, der ganz allein); Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir (BWV 73) (Herr, so du willt); Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) (sinfonia); Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn (BWV 157) (Ja, ja, ich halte Jesum feste); Liebster Gott, wann werd ich sterben (BWV 8) (Doch weichet, ihr tollen, vergeblichen Sorgen); Schau, lieber Gott, wie meine Feind (BWV 153) (Fürchte dich nicht); Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36) (Willkommen, werter Schatz); Sehet, wir gehn himauf gen Jerusalem (BWV 159) (Es ist vollbracht); St John Passion (BWV 245) (Betrachte, meine Seel); St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) (Am Abend, da es kühle war - Mache dich, mein Herze rein); Wachet, betet, betet, wachet! (BWV 70) (Seligster Erquickungstag); Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten (BWV 59) (Die Welt mit allen Königreichen)

Martin Patscheider, trumpet; Marion Treupel-Franck, transverse flute; Saskia Fikentscher, Christine Allanic, oboe, oboe da caccia; Makiko Kurabayashi, bassoon; Susanne Schütz, Matan Dagan, Ulrike Cramer, Susanne Mattle, violin; Jürgen Brennich, viola; Gyöngy Erödi, cello; Günter Holzhausen, double bass; Frank Müller, organ


Johann Sebastian Bach didn't leave that many solo cantatas. It seems that it largely depended on the availability of particularly skilled singers whether he turned to the form of the solo cantata. It is telling that the two most famous solo cantatas for bass which are recorded here are from the annual cycle of 1726/27. This cycle also includes various other solo cantatas. Ich habe genung and Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen are among Bach's most beloved cantatas. Der Friede sei mit dir is lesser known; it also raises various questions. No autograph has been preserved, and it is even impossible to say for which time of the ecclesiastical year it was composed. There have been suggestions that it is a fragment of a larger work or a compilation of extracts from various works by a later hand.

Thomas E. Bauer is a versatile singer with a wide repertoire which ranges from the polyphony of the renaissance to contemporary music. In this recording he proves his skills as an interpreter of Bach's sacred music. He interprets with sensibility and seems well aware of the character of the various cantatas. Some of the recitatives he performs in a quite dramatic manner, for instance 'Mein Wandel auf der Welt' from the Kreuzstab cantata. The same goes for the arioso which opens Cantata 158, Der Friede sei mit dir. 'Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen' from Ich habe genung (BWV 82) is beautifully sung; the tempo is on the fast side, but I didn't experience it as too fast. The text receives the attention it deserves and the rhythm is well exposed. In some recitatives I had wished more liberty in the treatment of the rhythm at the service of the text. Bauer also has a slight vibrato which is not very obtrusive but which I had preferred to be absent. His low register is not as strong as one would wish.

This recording includes some notable features. One of them is the playing of the basso continuo. In his liner-notes Christoph Spering writes that he is convinced that almost all Bach's vocal music should be played on a 16-foot base (with double bass or violone) unless he indicates the contrary. The organ continuo is not played here on a large organ, but is still quite strong in sound. Moreover, in most cases Spering has opted for a 'long recitative accompaniment'. This means that a bass chord is held until the harmony changes. In Cantata 56 the short accompaniment is practised. Spering believes that there are strong arguments in favour of the latter practice - which is most common today - but that the long accompaniment may also have been used. He believes that even Bach didn't have a single standard in this matter. The third issue is the performance of the appoggiaturas. The appoggiatura is a melodic ornament: usually a note one step above or below the 'main' note. The standard rule in the baroque period seems to have been that it should fall on the beat and take half the value of the main note. I have no idea why Spering opted for a different interpretation; the issue is not mentioned in the liner-notes.

Lastly, the chorales are sung by a choir of twelve singers. Spering states that he doesn't share the view that Bach's sacred music was usually performed with one voice per part. The performances of the chorales are a bit disappointing: they are very slow and after every line a pause is taken. Too little attention is given to the text. The aria 'Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde' (BWV 158) is intertwined with a chorale scored for soprano. It is nicely sung by Elisa Rabanus whose voice blends perfectly with the oboe. This aria has a virtuosic obbligato part for the violin which is given a fine performance by Pauline Nobes.

This disc is especially interesting because of the various performance practices mentioned above. It is nice to hear them applied in a recording, but they have in no way convinced me. However, considering the recordings which are available I don't know if these performances are up to the competition.

The second disc demonstrates how many interesting bass arias are included in Bach's sacred works. Obviously some are very famous, such as the arias from the Passions and the Christmas Oratorio, and the aria from Cantata 36 is also one of Bach's better-known. However, there are many cantatas which are hardly known and are not that often performed and recorded. Among them are Cantata 70 from which the remarkable aria 'Seligster Erquickungstag' is taken. It comprises three sections: two adagio-episodes with basso continuo alone embrace a section with the tempo indication presto in which the bass is accompanied by trumpet and strings. Another beautiful and technically demanding aria is 'Doch weichet, ihr tollen, vergeblichen Sorgen' from Cantata 8, with an obbligato part for the transverse flute. Apart from the question whether it is advisable to isolate these arias from their context, a programme like this can be useful to pay attention to lesser-known gems from Bach's sacred oeuvre. This disc would have been more interesting if the well-known arias had been omitted and more unfamiliar pieces had been selected.

I have to admit that I don't like Christian Hilz's voice very much. In my opinion it is rather colourless and bland. That is a matter of taste, though. I don't particularly like Thomas Bauer's voice either, but he does good things with it, and you can't deny the expression which he brings to his performances. That is different here. Hilz's interpretations are largely devoid of expression. He just sings the notes and there is too little difference between the individual arias. 'Willkommen, werter Schatz' (Cantata 36) is rather flat, 'Großer Herr' from the Christmas Oratorio lacks authority and there are few dynamic accents. Hilz doesn't do anything with the text at the end of 'Herr, so du willt' (Cantata 73) and the arioso 'Betrachte, meine Seel' - one of the most beautiful parts from the St John Passion - is colourless and lacks subtlety. There is hardly any contrast between the line "Nun will ich eilen" (Now I will hasten to give thanks to my Jesus) and the preceding and following lines in 'Es ist volbracht' from Cantata 159. It is also a mystery to me how someone can sing the long-held notes in the aria from Cantata 8 with hardly any dynamic shading.

The instrumental ensemble is alright, but not more than that. I should mention positively the contributions of the flautist Marion Treupel-Franck and the trumpeter Martin Patscheider. However, they can't save this disc. The inclusion of unfamiliar arias seems to me the only reason to recommend this disc. However, if you want to hear them, you are well advised to look for a complete recording of the cantatas from which they are taken.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Chorus Musicus Köln
Christian Hilz

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