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"Jesu meine Freude"

Ensemble BachWerkVokal
Dir: Gordon Safari

rec: June 29 - July 1 & Oct 3 - 4, 2020, Salzburg-Gnigl, Stadtpfarrkirche
MDG - 923 2207-6 (© 2021) (65'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list
Score JS Bach
Score Krebs

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Jesu, meine Freude a 5 (BWV 227); Johann friedrich DOLES (1715-1797): Jesu, meine Freude a 4; Johann Ludwig KREBS (1713-1780): Jesu, meine Freude (KWV 110); Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Jesu, meine Freude (TWV 1,966)

Electra Lochhead, Zsófia Szabó, soprano; Katrin Heles, Tamara Obermayr, contralto; Alexander Hüttner, Maximilian Kiener, tenor; Jakob Hoffmann, Max Tavella, bass
Elisabeth Wirth, Jonathan Volbers, Felix Gutschi, recorder; Youngjin Hur, recorder, bassoon; Shai Kribus, Stefan Peindl, oboe; Marcin Osiak, Nagi Tsutsui, Florian Moser, Ulrike Fischer, violin; Caroline Luy, Juan Manuel Araque Rueda, viola; Hannah Vinzens, cello; Josef Radauer, Theresa Schilling, violone; Hans Brüderl, lute; Christopher Zehrer, harpsichord; Stephan Pohlhammer, Gordon Safari, organ

Jesu, meine Freude is one of the most beloved hymns in Protestant Germany. It also has found its way across the world in translations, for instance in hymn books. No wonder that many composers has arranged it or used it for larger works, such as cantatas. The present disc includes two motets and two cantatas based on this hymn.

The author of the text is Johann Franck, a poet and politician, who wrote it in 1650. It is in six stanzas; the opening phrase returns at the end. The hymn first appeared in 1653 in Praxis pietatis melica, a hymnal by Johann Crüger, which was published in 1653. Crüger is also the composer of the melody. The word "pietatis" is an indication of the character of the hymn, because it is very much rooted in Lutheran pietism. The first stanza makes that abundantly clear by calling Jesus "my treasure" and "my bridegroom". The text is not entirely original, but rather a parody of a secular song.

The heart of the programme are two motets. The first is the only well-known piece performed here. Bach's motet is one of several he composed for special occasions, in particular funerals. That may also be the case with this motet, but that is not known for sure. It is unique in several respects. First, the other motets are for four or eight voices - the latter split into two choirs - but Jesu meine Freude is for five voices. Second, the six stanzas of the hymn are separated by quotations from the eighth chapter of the letter of St Paul to the Romans, and in two of these Bach reduced the number of voices to three. These insertions, very likely included by Bach himself, give us insight in Bach's theological interpretation of the hymn. Third, musically speaking, the motet is symmetrical: the sixth section - "Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich" (But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his) - is in the centre. Bach's motets are frequently performed and have been recorded many times, but it is understandable that it could not be omitted here, as it is by far the best-known arrangement of this hymn. It is often performed with one voice per part, but here the five parts are divided over the eight singers of the ensemble. Notable is the way they emphasize the words "kracht und blitzt" (section 3), but I wonder whether this - especially the way the basso continuo is realized - is a bit too much of a good thing.

Johann Friedrich Doles is a representative of Lutheran church music of the generation of the Bach sons. He was one of Bach's pupils, and in 1755 he was appointed Thomaskantor in Leipzig. His sacred music is unmistakably influenced by Bach, but stylistically it is very much in line with the aesthetics of his time. That is also the case with his setting of Jesu, meine Freude. For a start, he did not set the original text of Johann Franck's hymn, but rather a contemporary reworking of it, from the pen of Johann Adolf Schlegel, who added a seventh stanza to Franck's six. It goes too far to make a detailed comparison here, but the first stanza is indicative. The words which reflect the spirit of Pietism have been removed; there is no mention of "my bridegroom" and Jesus is also not called "God's lamb". The orginial stanza ends with the words: "[Besides] you on earth nothing shall be dearer to me". Schlegel's adaptation has: "[Without] you I can never become entirely happy on earth". In Franck's version, the second stanza describes the protection of Jesus against threats by Satan, enemies, thunder, hell and sin. In Schlegel's version, the elements Satan, hell and sin have disappeared, and only the threats of Nature have remained. It's not just the language that has changed; we see here a difference in religious doctrine. Doles treats the chorale melody in four of the seven stanzas as cantus firmus. In the last, the tenor sings short notes, moving nervously upwards and downwards, expressing the text which is about fear and trouble. The other three stanzas are set to entirely new material.

There are also stylistic differences between the two cantatas, by Telemann and Krebs respectively. That comes all the more to the fore as the two composers set the same text, from the pen of Erdmann Neumeister. Telemann's cantata is part of an annual cycle in which he set texts by Neumeister, which are inspired by French poetry. Hence the cycle is called Französischer Jahrgang, which was performed during the ecclesiastical year 1714/15. The French element here is that the hymn is used as a refrain, as the rondeau in French music. Neumeister only uses the first stanza. The cantata opens with the first three lines (known as Stollen), which is followed by an aria for bass. Next is the second Stollen, followed by an aria for soprano and then the last lines of the stanza, the so-called Abgesang, are sung. Next is a chorus with a dictum, a quotation from the Bible - here Psalm 73: "Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe" (Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee). It is followed by a recitative for alto and another aria for bass. The cantata ends with 'Wie bin ich doch so herzlich froh', a stanza from the hymn Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. The first aria for bass includes marked accents on the word "weg" (away [with all earthy pleasures]), and extended coloratura on the first syllable of "Eitelkeit" (vanity). The soprano is accompanied by four recorders and basso continuo; they play short notes staccato to illustrate the words "klopfet an" (knock [at his heart]). It has no dacapo which makes much sense, as the last phrase refers to "my bridegroom", which returns in the ensuing Abgesang of the hymn. The second bass aria opens with the words "Schlage bald, gewünschte Stunde" (Sound shortly, blest hour of parting); the strings imitate the sound of funeral bells.

Johann Ludwig Krebs was one of Bach's favourite pupils. Some of his organ works show so much similarity with those of his teacher that it is impossible to say who is the composer. In his vocal works Krebs is very much in line with his time, and the cantata Jesu, meine Freude is a perfect example. As I wrote, he uses the same text by Neumeister, but omits some parts of it. The opening stanza is sung here from end to finish, without any insertion of arias. It has the form of a chorus as we know it from Bach's cantatas, but is stylistically very different. It is in fact an instrumental sinfonia, in which the hymn is sung as cantus firmus by the choir, largely in homophony. The biblical quotation is also omitted; the chorus is immediately followed by a recitative, here for bass, and an aria for soprano. The latter is very much in the style of contemporary opera. It has an obbligato part for oboe, and the strings here depict the funeral bells by playing pizzicato. The cantata ends with the same chorale as Telemann's setting.

Telemann's cantata and Doles's motet are first recordings; Krebs's cantata has been recorded as part of a complete recording of his sacred works (Querstand, 2012). I would call Telemann's cantata a masterpiece, considering the way he has set the text. It once again proves how many treasures still can be discovered in his large oeuvre. Doles is in the process of being taken more seriously as a composer of sacred music, and that should also happen to Krebs. The programme that Gordon Safari has put together, is highly instructive and musically compelling, documenting the inspiration of a much-beloved chorale, still sung across the world. BachWerkVokal is doing an admirable job here. The ensemble is immaculate and the individual singers deliver good performances in their respective solos. The instrumental contributions are also first-class. It is just a shame that the booklet does not include English translations of the lyrics. That should not withhold anyone from including this disc in his collection. If you like German sacred music, you should not hesitate to purchase this disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

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