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Johann Sebastian BACH: Sacred cantatas

[I] "Ich habe genug - Cantatas BWV 82, 32 & 106"
Dunedin Consort
Dir: John Butt
rec: Dec 3 - 6, 2020, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Linn Records - CKD 672 (© 2021) (66'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus) (BWV 106)abce; Ich habe genug (BWV 82)d; Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (BWV 32)ad

Joanne Lunn, sopranoa; Katie Bray, contraltob; Hugo Hymas, tenorc; Matthew Brookd, Robert Daviese, bass
László Rózsa, Oonagh Lee, recorder; Alexandra Bellamy, oboe; Huw Daniel, Sarah Bevan-Baker, Rebecca Livermore, Kristin Deeken, violin; John Crockatt, viola; Emily Ashton, viola da gamba; Jonathan Manson, viola da gamba, cello; William Hunt, violone; James Johnstone, organ

[II] "Ich bin vergnügt ... - Kantaten BWV 51, 82, 84"
Miriam Feuersinger, soprano
Capricornus Consort Basel
rec: March 8 - 11, 2021, Binningen (CH), Katholische Kirche Heilig Kreuz
Christophorus - CHR 77459 (© 2022) (68'51")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (BWV 709); Ich bin in mir vergnügt (BWV 84); Ich habe genug (BWV 82); Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (BWV 51); Sonata for transverse flute, violin and bc in G (BWV 1038); Trio Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (BWV 655)

Tomoko Mukoyama, transverse flute; Katharina Arfken, oboe; Ute Hartwich, trumpet; Peter Barczi, Eva Borhi, violin; Matthias Jäggi, viola; Daniel Rosin, cello; Michael Bürgin, violone; Julian Behr, theorbo; David Blunden, organ


As most readers undoubtedly know, there is a difference of opinion among Bach scholars and performers about the number of singers that Bach employed in performances of his sacred vocal music. Some believe that the performance of one voice per part was the standard; only in some cases additional singers may have participated. Others disagree and take a line-up of up to sixteen voices in the tutti as the common way Bach performed his cantatas. This debate does not concern the cantatas performed on the two discs to be reviewed here. Miriam Feuersinger recorded three of Bach's solo cantatas, whereas John Butt's recording includes also one of them, and in addition we get one of Bach's dialogue cantatas - which are all written for soprano and bass - and one of Bach's earliest cantatas, which today is almost always performed with one voice per part.

Butt selected three cantatas from different stages in Bach's career. The disc opens with Ich habe genug (BWV 82), written for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (or Candlemas) on 2 February 1727. Its central theme is the longing for death and eternal life of the believer, now that Jesus has come. Its background is the canticle of Simeon, which as Nunc dimittis has become a part of liturgy of the Christian Church: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace ... for mine eyes have seen thy salvation". It seems that Bach liked this cantata very much. He reworked it three times: there is a second version for soprano, a third for mezzosoprano and a fourth for bass again, this time with an oboe da caccia as obbligato instrument, instead of the oboe of the first version. And in addition the first recitative, 'Ich habe genug', and the second aria, 'Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen', were included in the Clavierbüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach, its scoring being reduced to voice and basso continuo. It isn't just the music which Bach must have liked, but probably in the first place its subject: the longing for death, being a transition to eternal life and a salvation from sin, is a frequently returning issue in Bach's sacred music. The performance is largely disappointing. Matthew Brook's German pronunciation is correct, but not really idiomatic. He uses too much vibrato and sings too much legato, there are too few dynamic accents and there is too little differentation between good and bad notes. The recitatives are rhythmically too strict. The last aria is not as joyful as the text and the dance rhythm (a passepied) suggest.

The second work, Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (BWV 32), is called a Concerto in Dialogo and is written for the first Sunday after Epiphany; its first performance was on 13 January 1726. The text was written by Georg Christian Lehms. The Gospel of the day is from Luke 2, which tells about Jesus in the temple. This story is an expression of Jesus's desire to be with his Father. That motif is taken up in the opening aria of the soprano: "Dearest Jesus, my desire, tell me, where do I find you?" Here the soprano represents the soul and the bass sings words either by Jesus himself or put into his mouth. The recitative is a dictum - Jesus says to his parents: "Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" In the ensuing aria this is extended with the words, addressed to the faithful: "Here in my Father's abode a distressed spirit finds me". In the next recitative we find a true dialogue between the soul and Jesus. They join in the duet 'Nun verschwinden alle Plagen' - "Now all torments vanish". This cantata receives a much better performance, and that is largely due to Joanne Lunn, whose performance of the opening aria is perfect in every aspect, for instance with regard to dynamic accents and an idiomatic treatment of the text. The longing for Jesus is incisively expressed. Apparently her singing had a positive effect on Matthew Brook, as he is much more convincing than in the previous cantata. Although his German is not really idiomatic here as well, and in the closing duet the two voices don't blend that well, this duet is pretty good in tempo, dynamic differentiation and an expression of the text.

The disc closes with Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit, the so-called Actus Tragicus. It probably dates from 1708, when Bach worked in Mühlhausen. The text is a compilation of biblical verses and hymn stanzas. The are no recitatives and arias: the text is divided into solo and tutti sections. The instrumental scoring is very modest: two recorders, two viole da gamba and bc. In this cantata Bach mixes old and new elements. The instrumentation refers to the 17th century, when recorders and viole da gamba were frequently applied in sacred music. Bach only uses biblical texts, without any free poetry. He also makes use of the aria, which was to become one of the main parts of sacred cantatas in the 18th century. The juxtaposition of old and new is also symbolic: it refers to the shift from the Old to the New Testament, connected with Law and Gospel respectively. The performance reflects the two faces of this recording and therefore the lack of stylistic consistency. The opening sinfonia is a bit too slow. The chorus 'Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit' suffers from the dominance of Joanne Lunn. In particular the alto is hardly audible. Hugo Hymas does well in 'Ach Herr, lehre uns bedenken', but uses a bit too much vibrato. Robert Davies is a bit bland in 'Bestelle dein Haus'; "wirst sterben" is not clearly articulated. 'Es ist der alte Bund' is spoiled by the pretty large vibrato of Katie Bray; Joanne Lunn is impressive in the arioso 'Ja, komm, Herr Jesu'. Katie Bray's vibrato is a little less wide in her aria 'In deine Hände' and the chorale 'Mit Fried und Freud', but even so, it is still far too much. Davies tends to be a little pathetic here. The closing chorus is alright, but not more.

On balance, the lack of stylistic consistency is the main problem here. Only the dialogue cantata BWV 32 is satisfying.

The second disc is entirely devoted to solo cantatas for soprano. Miriam Feuersinger starts the same way as John Butt: with a performance of Ich habe genug (here the original spelling is used: "genung", and that is how Ms Feuersinger pronounces it). This is the second version of this cantata, in which the solo part is for soprano and the oboe is replaced by the transverse flute. Although it is not unknown and has been recorded several times, it has not the same status as the original version for bass. Overall this is a much better performance than that by Matthew Brook, although it is not entirely fair to compare them because of the different versions. Feuersinger's performances are definitely more idiomatic, which is hardly surprising considering that she is a native German speaker. The recitatives come off better, but are still not as rhythmically free as they should be. The last aria's character comes off clearly better here than in John Butt's recording. The two other arias are sung nicely, but I find the performances a little too straightforward and not as expressive as I had hoped for. That is probably due to a sometimes slightly too fast tempo, but especially to a lack of dynamic inflection.

In comparison the two other cantatas are more satisfying. Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke (BWV 84) is probably the least-known of the solo cantatas; it was first performed in February 1727, probably on a text by Friedrich Henrici (Picander). The gospel of the day is the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20) but the connection between that reading and the text of the cantata is rather loose. The tenor of the latter is that one should be content with what God gives, because He owes man nothing. The instrumental scoring emphasizes the rather intimate character of this cantata: oboe, strings and basso continuo; in the second aria the first violin has an obbligato part. Notable is also the second recitative which is accompanied, probably in order to make it stand out and emphasize its message. The chorale is in four parts; it seems obvious to perform it with one voice per part, but here it was decided to sing the upper part and perform the lower parts instrumentally. The rather carefree character of this cantata asks for a fluent and sparkling performance, and that is exactly what it receives here. The dialogue between Feuersinger and the obbligato instruments is ideal.

Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (BWV 51) probably dates from 1730 and is one of Bach's most unusual and most virtuosic cantatas. It is in praise of God, which is the reason it contains a virtuosic trumpet part. This refers to the ceremonial function of the trumpet, which in the baroque era was especially used for music in praise of God and of kings and queens, his representatives on earth. There can be hardly any doubt that the trumpet part was played by Gottfried Reiche, the virtuoso trumpeter who had become senior Stadtmusicus in Leipzig in 1719. For him Bach has written several trumpet parts in his cantatas which are testimonies of his great skills. It is much more difficult to say with any certainty who has performed the equally demanding soprano part. Bach always used trebles in his church cantatas, but it is also possible that he now and then made use of adult male sopranos, singing with their natural voice. This cantata also may have been sung out of any liturgical context. It is for the 15th Sunday after Trinity but Bach added in ogni tempo, meaning that it can be sung at every occasion. Whoever may have sung it, he (she?) must have been a virtuosic singer with a large range. The performance by Miriam Feuersinger seems to me hard to surpass. She has the perfect voice for it: brilliant, flexible, with a strong high register. The lower part of her tessitura is not that strong, but that does not compromise my appreciation of this performance. The chorale, often problematic for an interpreter, is perfectly realised. The trunpet part is also very well played, but it is a shame that the performers did not decide to use a trumpet without holes.

The cantatas are separated by instrumental pieces, a trio sonata and two chorale-based organ works in transcriptions for strings. They are well played, just as the ensemble is the perfect partner of Miriam Feuersinger in the cantatas.

As far as the recording is concerned, I would have liked a little less reverberation. It is not that much of a problem in BWV 51, but the other two cantatas are more intimate in character, and there the reverberation has a negative effect.

Overall, this is a disc that is a nice addition to any collection of Bach recordings.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Miriam Feuersinger
Capricornus Consort Basel
Dunedin Consort

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