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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Cantatas for alto

[I] "Cantates BWV 170 & 35"
Damien Guillon, altoa; Maude Gratton, organb
Le Banquet Célestec
Dir: Damien Guillon
rec: Nov 23 - 27, 2011, Strassbourg, Église Réformée du Bouclier
ZigZag Territoires - ZZT305 [2012] (73'07")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics: translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Jean-Marc Philippe, oboe; Patrick Beaugiraud, oboe, oboe d'amore; Rodrigo Gutierrez, tenor oboe; Baptiste Lopez, Caroline Bayet, violin; Deirdre Dowling, viola; Ageet Zweistra, cello; Thomas de Pierrefeu, double bass; Julien Debordes, bassoon; Kevin Manent, harpsichord; Maude Gratton, organ

[II] "Alto Cantatas"
Maarten Engeltjes, altod; Vincent van Laar, organe
Concerto d'Amsterdamf
Dir: Klaas Stok
rec: Oct 2008, Dordrecht, Grote Kerk
Quintone - Q 08007 [2009] (60'25")
Liner-notes: E/N; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Onno Verschoor, Mario Topper, Frédérique Brillouin, oboe; Mariette Holtrop, Stefano Rossi, Tjamke Roelofs, Hans Lub, Ruth Noyon, Anu Gehlert, violin; Annabelle Ferdinand, John Wilson Meyer, viola; Saskia van der Wel, Wilma van der Wardt, cello; Jan Hollestelle, double bass Wouter Verschuren, bassoon; Reitze Smits, harpsichord; Vincent van Laar, organ

Fantasia and fugue in g minor (BWV 542)b; Geist und Seele wird verwirret (BWV 35); Sonata in d minor (BWV 527)b; Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170); Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54)df

In contrast to other composers of his time - Telemann, for instance - Bach composed only a relatively small number of cantatas for solo voice. They belong among his most frequently-performed. That is certainly the case with his cantatas for alto. His oeuvre includes three such cantatas without the participation of other voices: BWV 35, 54 and 170. Also for alto solo is Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169), but this closes with a four-part chorale setting. In various recordings other solo cantatas turn up. The famous cantata Ich habe genung (BWV 82), which was originally scored for bass solo, also exists in a later version for alto. Bekennen will ich seinen Namen (BWV 200) is a single aria, which is probably from a lost cantata. Lastly, Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde (BWV 53) has been included in the Schmieder catalogue, but is now generally considered spurious, and was probably written by Georg Melchior Hoffmann.

The three cantatas which are included on the present two discs use a text by the poet Georg Christian Lehms. He studied at Leipzig University and became court librarian in Darmstadt. His librettos were not only used by Bach, but also by, for instance, Graupner and Telemann. Lehms' libretti only consist of madrigalian texts - free poetry - and omit any literal quotations from the Bible. There are also no chorales. There are twelve years between the composing of cantata 54 and the other two. Cantata 54 dates from 1714; Bach's compositions from this period bear some traits of the sacred concerto of the 17th century. In this case it is the five-part texture of the instrumental ensemble, with two viola parts, which refers to the past.

The two other cantatas were both written in 1726 and performed within a period of two months. It is likely that at that time Bach had a specially skilled singer at his disposal. Both cantatas have an obbligato part for the organ. It is often assumed that this part was played by Bach's eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann. In his liner-notes to Damien Guillon's recording Gilles Cantagrel takes this for granted, but there is no firm evidence for this assumption. The two recordings have in common that they both use a large organ for these parts as well as in the basso continuo. Both add a harpsichord to the basso continuo group.

Maarten Engeltjes recorded all three cantatas, Guillon just two. I have no idea why he didn't record Cantata 54 as well. Instead we get two organ works; I can't see any direct connection between them and the cantatas.

Cantata 54 is a rather short work: two arias embracing a recitative. It is a highly expressive piece. The first aria - "Resist sin indeed, or else its poison takes hold upon you" - begins with hammering chords in the strings. The performance of Concerto d'Amsterdam is too feeble, and so is Maarten Engeltjes' singing. He has a beautiful and sweet voice, but that is probably not the most suitable feature for a cantata like this. He makes too little of the text, and many key words here as well as in the next recitative are underexposed.

That is one of the things which set the two performances apart. Damien Guillon explores every detail of the text and makes the most of the contrasts within a cantata, a recitative or an aria. The recitative 'Die Welt, das Sündenhaus' from Cantata 170 is a striking example of the difference between the two interpretations. Several key words are set to low notes, and as the lower end of Guillon's tessitura is much stronger than Engeltjes' his exposure of these words is more outspoken and has a greater impact. The contrast between the first section and the second - beginning with the words "righteous God, how far man is alienated from you" - is clearly emphasized, but largely overlooked by Engeltjes. The second aria is the most expressive of the three. The text - "How I surely pity the perverted hearts that are so very contrary to you" - is illustrated by the obbligato organ part which comes across perfectly in Maude Gratton's performance, also thanks to her registration. In comparison Vincent van Laar plays it nicely, but his performance doesn't go under your skin, as Ms Gratton's does.

Cantata 35 is largely built from previously existing material. It is divided into two parts which both begin with an instrumental piece with obbligato organ, called concerto and sinfonia respectively. The tempi Maude Gratton and the players of Le Banquet Céleste have chosen are swifter than Vincent van Laar and Concerto d'Amsterdam, and rightly so. In particularly the sinfonia which opens the second part receives a sparkling performance from Ms Gratton. In the first aria Guillon's performance is characterised by marked dynamic accents, which are largely absent in Engeltjes' interpretation. The former also gives a strongly differentiated reading of the recitative, for instance speeding up the tempo on "so flieht Vernunft und auch Verstand davon" (then reason and comprehension flee away from me). Engeltjes's interpretation is much more modest, and doesn't leave a lasting impression. Here and in the other recitatives on this disc he too strictly adheres to the rhythm of the music, whereas in fact the rhythm of the text comes first. In the aria 'Gott hat alles wohlgemacht' the dance rhythm comes off perfectly in Guillon's performance; the scoring of the basso continuo with cello, double bass and bassoon is quite effective. In contrast Concerto d'Amsterdam falls a bit short here with the harpsichord playing with the buff stop. The closing aria has again the character of a dance which is well realised in Guillon's performance; the tempo is spot on. Engeltjes and Concerto d'Amsterdam are slower, and because of too rigid dynamic accents it is a bit too snappy. Here the aria doesn't really feel like a dance.

You won't be surprised that I strongly prefer Damien Guillon's performances to those by Maarten Engeltjes and Concerto d'Amsterdam. I don't want to take anything away from the latter's obvious qualities: Engeltjes sings beautifully and the orchestra's playing is technically assured and stylish. I also realise that there are differences of view in regard to the way the text in Bach's music should be expressed. Damien Guillon apparently takes a more radical view. Even so, the fact that Bach's cantatas were written as a kind of 'sermon on music' suggests that the text has to be exposed quite drastically, very much in the style of the Lutheran preachers of the time. Their sermons were anything but feeble. From that angle I believe that Guillon is closer to Bach's intentions than Engeltjes. I even rate his performances of these cantatas among the very best on the market.

His sense of drama shines through in Maude Gratton's performances of the two organ works, especially the Fantasia and fugue in g minor (BWV 542). The Fantasia is a pretty gloomy piece, full of harsh dissonances, which come off with full power. That is the effect of the organ's tuning, but also of Ms Gratton's rhetorical and gestural interpretation. The fugue is in a more positive mood and is given a dazzling performance. There is just a shade too much staccato playing in the theme, though. The Sonata in d minor (BWV 527) is played just as well, once again with appropriate registrations. The pedal part probably could have had a bit more presence.

These are tiny blots on a moving and exciting recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Maarten Engeltjes
Damien Guillon
Maude Gratton
Concerto d'Amsterdam
Le Banquet Céleste

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