musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Sacred cantatas

[I] "Du treuer Gott - Leipzig Cantatas BWV 101 - 115 - 103"
Dorothee Mields, soprano; Damien Guillon, alto; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Peter Kooij, bass
Collegium Vocale Gent
Dir: Philippe Herreweghe
rec: Jan 29 - 31, 2016, Berlin, Funkhaus
PHI - LPH027 (© 2017) (62'26")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ihr werdet weinen und heulen (BWV 103); Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit (BWV 115); Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101)

Dorothee Mields, Kirsten Witmer, Dominique Verkinderen, soprano; Cécile Pilorger, contralto; Damien Guillon, Alexander Schneider, alto; Thomas Hobbs, Stephan Gähler, Johannes Gaubitz, tenor; Peter Kooij, Matthias Lutze, Bart Vandewege, bass
Jan Van Hoecke, flauto piccolo; Patrick Beuckels, transverse flute; Marcel Ponseele, Taka Kitazato, oboe d'amore; Timothée Oudinot, oboe da caccia; Julien Debordes, bassoon; Rupprecht Johannes Drees, trumpet; Bart Cypers, horn; Gebhard David, cornett; Simen Van Mechelen, Claire McIntyre, Joost Swinkels, sackbut; Christine Busch, Baptiste Lopez, Regine Schröder, Caroline Bayet, Adrian Chamorro, Marieke Bouche, violin; Deirdre Dowling, Kaat De Cock, viola; Ageet Zweistra, Harm-Jan Schwitters, cello; Miriam Shalinsky, violone; Maude Gratton, organ

[II] "Sonn und Schild - Cantatas BWV 4 - 79 - 80"
Dorothee Mields, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Peter Kooij, bass
Collegium Vocale Gent
Dir: Philippe Herreweghe
rec: Jan 23 - 27, 2017, Berlin, Jesus-Christus-Kirche
PHI - LPH030 (© 2018) (58'53")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4); Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80); Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (BWV 79)

Dorothee Mields, Magdalena Podkoscielna, Dominique Verkinderen, soprano; Cécile Pilorger, contralto; Alex Potter, Alexander Schneider, alto; Thomas Hobbs, Stephan Gähler, Johannes Gaubitz, tenor; Peter Kooij, Matthias Lutze, Bart Vandewege, bass
Marcel Ponseele, Taka Kitazato, Timothée Oudinot, oboe; Julien Debordes, bassoon; Bart Cypers, Jeroen Billiet, horn; Bruce Dickey, cornett; Simen Van Mechelen, Claire McIntyre, Joost Swinkels, sackbut; Christine Busch, Baptiste Lopez, Dietlind Mayer, Caroline Bayet, Adrian Chamorro, Marieke Bouche, violin; Deirdre Dowling, Kaat De Cock, viola; Ageet Zweistra, Harm-Jan Schwitters, cello; Miriam Shalinsky, double bass; Maude Gratton, organ; Peppie Wiersma, timpani


The sacred cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach are available in several complete recordings. Philippe Herreweghe never aimed at adding another one to the catalogue. Although he turns to other composers and even other periods in music history, either the renaissance or the 19th century, Bach continues to play a central role in his activities, and this explains the regular release of recordings of Bach cantatas, now on his very own label. Recently he added two new discs to his impressive Bach discography.

In both recordings the chorale, which has its origins in the 16th century and was more or less invented by Martin Luther, takes a central place. The title of the first disc, "Du treuer Gott", is derived from the first cantata in the programme, Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101). From June 1724 to March 1725 Bach composed a chorale cantata every week. This particular cantata was performed on the 10th Sunday after Trinity, on 13 August 1724. The starting point is a hymn which Martin Moller wrote in 1584 during the plague in Leipzig. The choice of this chorale fit this particular Sunday, as the Gospel was taken from Luke 19, where Jesus prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem. This marks the entire cantata: all the sections are in a minor key. In Bach's chorale cantatas the first and last stanzas are included unaltered, the first as opening chorus, the last in the form of a harmonization. The other stanzas are adapted to recitatives and arias by an unknown hand. However, in this cantata the lyrics of some of the intermediate stanzas are quoted verbatim in the two recitatives and in the duet for soprano and alto. The bass aria also opens with a quotation from the hymn: "Warum willst du so zornig sein?" Notable in the instrumental scoring is the addition of a cornett and three sackbuts, playing colla voce in the opening chorus - a relic of times long gone. The arias include obbligato parts for two oboes and taille, oboe da caccia and transverse flute. The latter partners the tenor in the first aria; in a later version Bach replaced it by a violin. Peter Kooij is brilliant in the bass aria, using the agility of his voice to realise the coloratura. Dorothee Mields and Damien Guillon are an excellent match in the duet.

Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit (BWV 115) is for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity and was performed on 5 November 1724. The Gospel of that Sunday is taken from Matthew 18, the parabel of the unfaithful steward. The libretto picks up one element from this episode: "[The] king's demand for settlement catches the unfaithful servant unawares, which teaches us to be prepared when the Lord comes and demands settlement of us" (Alfred Dürr). This is expressed in the chorale, from the pen of Johann Burchard Freystein (1695), whose first stanza says: "Make ready, my spirit, watch, supplicate, and pray that the evil time does not unexpectedly come upon you". In the opening chorus the chorale melody is in the upper voice, which is supported by a horn; the strings play in unison. The alto aria includes an obbligato part for oboe d'amore, the soprano aria has the form of a quartet with transverse flute, cello piccolo and basso continuo. The alto aria is characterised by a marked contrast in the text, which is illustrated in the music: on the one hand the "slumbering soul", on the other the warning that "punishment may suddenly wake you up". This comes off perfectly in the performance by Damien Guillon. Dorothee Mields delivers a subtle interpretation of the aria 'Bete auch dabei': "But pray too, even amidst your watch!" This is preceded by a fine speechlike performance of the recitative by Peter Kooij.

Ihr werdet weinen und heulen (BWV 103) is for Sunday Jubilate, the third Sunday after Easter, whose Gospel is from John 16, in which Jesus is quoted, saying: "Your sorrow shall be turned into joy". It was performed on 22 April 1725 and is the first of a series of nine cantata librettos from the pen of Mariane von Ziegler, which Bach set to music. The cantata opens with a dictum, in which the contrast between weeping and joy plays a significant part, illustrated here by the juxtaposition of the four-part tutti and bass solo, and this then dominates the entire cantata. The instrumental scoring of the opening chorus is notable for its inclusion of a flauto piccolo, a soprano recorder in d'', which has also an obbligato part in the alto aria 'Kein Arzt ist außer dir zu finden', wonderfully sung by Guillon. Thomas Hobbs delivers a convincing performance of the much more joyful and extroverted aria with trumpet and oboe d'amore, 'Erholet euch, betrübte Sinnen'.

The second disc seems to lack any coherence: two cantatas for Reformation Day (BWV 79 and 80), and a cantata for Easter (BWV 4). Moreover, they are from very different periods in Bach's life. Christ lag in Todesbanden probably dates from his time in Mühlhausen (1707/08) and is stylistically close to the 17th century. However, here we hear a performance in a later version, in which Bach adds cornett and sackbuts, playing colla voce, like in Cantata BWV 101 mentioned above. This can be considered another chorale cantata; in fact it is the last of the above-mentioned cycle of chorale cantatas of 1724/25. However, it is different in that here all the stanzas remain unaltered. Notable is also its architecture: it opens with a sinfonia, which is followed by two solo pieces (duet and aria), a tutti section, two further solo pieces (two arias) and another tutti section.

This cantata is here embraced by the two cantatas for Reformation Day. In recent times I have reviewed several recordings of these two cantatas, obviously inspired by the commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation in 2017. Herreweghe has performed this cantata a number of times in the past, and mostly included in the opening chorus the additional parts for trumpets and timpani from the pen of Bach's son Wilhelm Friedemann. However, these were set to a new Latin text, and were never intended to be performed with the original cantata text. A performance with these parts is unhistorical, and I note with satisfaction that Herreweghe has omitted them here. Dorothee Mields and Peter Kooij are perfect partners in the duet 'Alles, was von Gott geboren'. The former delivers a delicious performance of 'Komm in mein Herzenshaus'; the contrast between the A and B parts comes off perfectly, as Mields fully explores the urgency of the closing line of the latter: "Away, vile horror of sin!". The cantata closes with the last stanza from Luther's hymn, but before that we get a fine duet of Alex Potter and Thomas Hobbs, "Wie selig sind doch die, die Gott im Munde tragen". Michael Maul, in his liner-notes, comes up with an interesting explanation as why this cantata's scoring is relatively modest. "[Since] the Elector of Saxony Augustus II the Strong had converted in 1697 - a precondition for gaining the Polish throne - the territory which had given birth to the Reformation had been ruled by a Catholic. The people of Saxony came to terms with this paradoxical state of affairs. A non-aggression pact was in force between the Catholic ruler and the Protestant people. The sovereign authorities of the State regularly exhorted the clergy (and with moderate success) to avoid any kind of insult towards or mockery of the Catholics in their sermons (...). In return, Lutheranism as the unofficial state religion would not be disturbed, and the annual Reformation festival could continue to be celebrated everywhere - nevertheless with all due reserve, which for music meant without timpani and trumpets!"

However, within the limits apparently posed upon him, the cantata has a quite belligerent character, which is due to the nature of Luther's hymn (although far less so than what has been made of it in later times). Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild (BWV 79) is quite different. Notable is that here the instrumental scoring includes a pair of horns and timpani; they participate in the opening chorus and return in the chorale 'Nun danket alle Gott', the third section of this cantata, as well as in the closing chorale. The horns are not playing colla voce, but have obbligato parts. The opening chorus is a dictum: the text is from Psalm 84 (vs 11). Next is an aria for alto with an obbligato oboe part (in a later version replaced by a transverse flute). The other solo section is a beautiful duet of soprano and bass, 'Gott, ach Gott, verlaß die Deinen nimmermehr'.

Philippe Herreweghe is one of those Bach interpreters who don't follow the concept of 'one voice per part'. However, over the years he has reduced the number of singers; the tutti are performed with twelve singers. Notable is that the soloists take part in the tutti, or in this case we probably have to put it differently: some of the members of the Collegium Vocale take care of the solo parts, as they often also participate in other performances, in which they don't have any solo parts to sing. It is one of the best vocal ensembles around, and basically each of its members is able to perform as a soloist. As Herreweghe mostly uses the same singers, there is a strong amount of stylistic coherence in his performances, and these two discs bear witness to that once again. The solo parts are very well sung, and so are the tutti sections. The fine players of the instrumental ensemble considerably contribute to the level of these performances. These six cantatas are all pretty well known, although BWV 101 is probably not that often performed. Even so, these discs are welcome additions to the Bach discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Collegium Vocale Gent

CD Reviews