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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Dialogkantaten für Sopran und Bass"

Johanna Winkel, soprano; Thomas E. Bauer, bass
Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering

rec: June 17 - 19, 2014, Cologne-Zollstock, Melanchthon-Kirche
Oehms - OC 1815 (© 2015) (51'16")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (BWV 58); Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (BWV 32); Selig ist der Mann (BWV 57)

[CMK] Christine Beatrix Fischer, Sabine Laubach, Ingeborg Schilling, soprano; Dagmar Brinken, Barbara Gepp, Brynne MacLeod, contralto; Jakob Buch, Stephan Hensen, Robert Sedlak, tenor; Karsten Lehl, Patricio Ramos-Pereira, Carsten Siedentop, bass
[DNO] Markus Deuter, Clata Geuchen, oboe; Mathieu Loux, taille; Anton Steck, Anita Knöferle, Christof Boerner, Pia Grutschus, Karin Dean, Alexey Fokin, violin; Antje Sabinski, viola; Michal Stahel, cello; Timo Hoppe, double bass; Christian Rieger, organ

The oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach includes three cantatas in the form of a dialogue between two singers: a soprano and a bass. The dialogue has a long history which goes back to the Middle Ages. In sacred music the liturgical play is good example of a dialogue. Such pieces were mostly performed at the main feasts of the ecclesiastical year, such as Christmas and Easter. The biblical stories connected to them were ideally suited to be set as dialogues, for instance the meeting between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary and that between Mary Magdalene and the risen Jesus on Easter morning.

Obviously the emergence of opera - which also left its mark on sacred music, especially in Italy - was a strong incentive for the composition of dialogues. Heinrich Schütz, for instance, composed several sacred concertos with the description of dialogus (or, in Italian, dialogo). Another composer who was under the influence of the Italian style was Marc-Antoine Charpentier. He composed a number of dialogues which are close to the genre of the oratorio of which his teacher Giacomo Carissimi was the main exponent in the mid-17th century. In Germany Johann Philipp Förtsch, who was active as a composer of church music in the 1670s and 1680s, had a special liking of dialogues. It is notable that at the same time he played a role in the Hamburg Opera and wrote several opera librettos. He used particularly episodes from the New Testament for his dialogues, such as Jesus's parody of the Pharisee and the publican and the confrontation between St Stephen and the Jews (Acts of the Apostles).

The latter's fate was remembered on the second day of Christmas, also known as St Stephen. Bach's cantata Selig ist der Mann (BWV 57) is written for this feast. It opens with a dictum, sung by the bass: "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for after he is tested, he will receive the Crown of Life" (James 1,12). The word "crown" is stephanos in Greek (the original language of the New Testament) and that clearly refers to St Stephen. In the ensuing recitative we find a reference to Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, who was murdered by his brother Cain. In the Christian tradition he was considered the first martyr of the Old Testament, like Stephen was the first of the New Testament. Whereas the dialogue by Förtsch is about the event itself, in Bach's cantata we find a more general reflection on the meaning of the story. There are two 'roles' here as well, but these are not strictly connected to the Bible. The bass represents the vox Dei (the voice of God), the soprano Anima - the soul, meaning the faithful, comparable with the daughter of Zion in other sacred music. Even the closing chorale is part of the dialogue: "Direct yourself, beloved, according to my pleasure, and believe that I remain always and forever your soul's friend".

Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (BWV 58) is for the Sunday after New Year. The Gospel of this Sunday is from Matthew 2, which tells about the flight of Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus to Egypt. The Epistle is connected to this episode: in 1 Peter 4 the apostle writes about the suffering of the Christian. In this cantata temporal suffering is juxtaposed to heavenly joy. As the first recitative puts it: "Though the evil world persecutes you, you nonetheless have God as your friend". Here there are no 'roles'. The opening duet is a kind of 'inner dialogue' within the soul: the soprano sings the first stanza of the hymn which gave the cantata its title (Martin Moller, 1587) whereas the bass tries to settle his soul: "Just patience, patience, my heart (...). [The] way of eternal Salvation leads to joy after pain". In the ensuing recitative the bass ends with words put into the mouth of God: "He says: though mountain and hill sink down, (...) yet I will surely neither leave nor forsake you". This indicates that the bass part does not represent here the vox Dei. It is probably telling that Bach at first assigned this part to an alto in the score and gave it to the bass while writing out the parts.

Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (BWV 32) is called a Concerto in Dialogo and is written for the first Sunday after Epiphany. 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 by Jesus 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 is the second disc which the German bass Thomas E. Bauer has recorded with Christoph Spering. I had mixed feeelings about the first, which included the cantatas for bass solo. I find his voice rather heavy; a lighter and more flexible voice would be preferable. Another minus is his incessant vibrato which is not very wide but regrettable nevertheless. Unfortunately Johanna Winkel is not free of that either, for instance in the first recitative from Cantata 57. She keeps it much better in check in the aria 'Ich bin vergnügt in meinem Leiden' (BWV 58) and in the opening aria from Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen it is almost completely absent. Why this inconsistency? In general the recitatives are rhythmically too strict in time. Sometimes the text is hard to understand, for instance in the opening aria from Selig ist der Mann. The second bass aria, 'Ja, ja, ich kann die Feinde schlagen', is performed at such a high speed that Bach's depiction of the word "schlagen" (strike) can hardly be explored. Spering's views on the performance of the chorales have not changed: he still performs them with a full choir. Even if one believes that Bach did use a small choir in the choruses and chorales it seems unlikely that he did so in cantatas like these.

This disc has to offer various nice moments, for instance the soprano aria from Cantata 58 which I mentioned before. But as a whole this recording left me rather unsatisfied.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Johanna Winkel
Chorus Musicus Köln
Das Neue Orchester

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