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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Meins Lebens Licht - Cantatas BWV 45-198 & Motet BWV 118"

Dorothee Mields, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Peter Kooij, bass
Collegium Vocale Gent
Dir: Philippe Herreweghe

rec: Jan 23 - 25, 2020, Amsterdam, Waalse Kerk
PHI - LPH 035 (© 2021) (58'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL; lyrics - translations: E/F/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist (BWV 45); Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl 'Trauerode' (BWV 198); Meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118)

Dorothee Mields, Annelies Brants, Chiyuki Okamura, Magdalena Podkoscielna, soprano; Cécile Pilorger, contralto; Alex Potter, Alexander Schneider, Bart Uvyn, alto; Thomas Hobbs, Johannes Gaubitz, Vincent Lesage, Hitoshi Tamada, tenor; Peter Kooij, Philip Kaven, Robert van der Vinne, Bart Vandewege, bass
Patrick Beuckels, Amélie Michel, transverse flute; Marcel Ponseele, Taka Kitazato, oboe; Julien Debordes, bassoon; Christine Busch, Meng Han, Maria Roca, Dietlind Mayer, Verena Sommer, Lotta Suvanto, violin; Deidre Dowling, Kaat De Cock, viola; Ageet Zweistra, Harm-Jan Schwitters, cello; Romina Lischka, Nicholas Milne, viola da gamba; Miriam Shalinsky, double bass; Matthias Spaeter, Thomas Boysen, lute; Maude Gratton, organ

Philippe Herreweghe may not have the intention of recording all of Bach's cantatas, he continues recording them and he may well have covered the majority of the corpus of Bach's sacred works. It has to be said, though, that on his own label PHI he is also recording some cantatas that he has recorded before for other labels, in particular Harmonia mundi. The Trauerode (BWV 198) is one of them.

The latest of his Bach cantata discs is a mixture of pieces of different character and from different stages in Bach's career. The liner-notes don't give any reasons why these pieces have been brought together on one disc. There seems to be no connection between them, except that O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht may well have been written for a funeral, just like most of Bach's other motets, which connects it with the Trauerode.

The motet has been ranked among the cantatas in Schmieder's catalogue, because it was thought to be the only surviving section of a cantata. However, Bach himself called it a motet, and its texture is not fundamentally different from the motet as it was written by him and by other members of his family. It has been preserved in two versions. The early version may date from 1736/37 and requires a cornett and three sackbuts, which is a clear link to the past, when these instruments were often used in this combination in sacred music, playing colla voce. Furthermore are two instruments required which Bach called lituo, which is thought to refer to a high-pitched horn. In this recording we have the second version, probably from 1746/47, in which the cornett and sackbuts are replaced by strings and basso continuo, with three oboes and bassoon ad libitum. The litui are kept, but for reasons that are not given, these are entirely omitted in this recording.

The Trauerode is one of Bach's best-known vocal works, partly because of its quality, but also because it has some specific features, and because it very likely was the basis for Bach's St Mark Passion, of which only the text has been preserved. The cantata was written at the occasion of the death of Christine Eberhardine, Electress of Saxony, who - in contrast to her husband, who had converted to Catholicism in order to be crowned King of Poland - had always stayed true to her Lutheran faith. This was one of the reasons that her death on 5 September 1727 caused great sadness among the Saxon people. This is eloquently expressed in the first recitative: "Your Saxony, your Meissen, filled with dismay, stand numb before your royal tomb. The eye weeps, the tongue cries out: 'My grief can be called indescribable'". A noble student, Hans Carl von Kirchbach, planned to hold a public oration, and commissioned the poet Johann Chistoph Gottsched to write the text of an Ode, and Bach to set it to music. The cantata consists of two sections; in between the oration would be held. Bach treated the text with considerable freedom: Gottsched had divided his text into nine stanzas of eight lines each, but Bach decided to divide them over a sequence of recitatives, arias and choruses, in which the original texture was largely ignored. The instrumental scoring is a mixture of 'old' and new: the past is represented by the two viole da gamba. In the 17th century those instruments were frequently used in music of a mourning nature, such as lamentos. Bach also used two lutes, which is quite unusual in his oeuvre, and these can probably also be considered a relict of the past. Modern fashion is represented by the two transverse flutes and the oboi d'amore. The text of the tenor aria that opens the second part, has given food for controversy. Bach's handwriting is nearly illegible, and has been transcribed as "Dreckbild" (vile image) in the Neue Bach-Ausgabe. Several scholars, among them Alfred Dürr, believe that this is a mistake, and that it should be "Denkbild" (mental image). This is the word Gottsched used, but as Bach sometimes did not hesitate to change words in a libretto, we can't be absolutely sure that he has not done that here too. In this recording Herreweghe follows the NBA, but this issue should have been discussed - or at least mentioned - in the booklet. I also need to mention that the booklet includes a serious error: the second aria (track 13) has here the same text as the first (track 11); the translations are correct.

The first work on the programme is Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist, which is part of the third annual cantata cycle and was performed on 11 August 1726, the eighth Sunday after Trinity. It consists of two parts, which both open with a dictum, a quotation from the Bible. The text of the opening chorus is one of the best-known from the Old Testament, and is taken from the prophet Micah: "You have been told, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you, namely: to keep God's Word, to cultivate love, and to be humble towards your God". The Gospel of that Sunday was taken from Matthew 7, the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus warns against false prophets. The verses 22 and 23 are quoted in the bass arioso that opens the second part: "There will be many who say to me on that day [the day of his second coming]: Lord, Lord! Have we not prophesied in your name? (...) Then I will acknowledge to them: I have never known you; depart from me, you evil-doers!" The instrumental scoring is for two transverse flutes, two oboi d'amore, strings and basso continuo. The first aria is for tenor, who is accompanied by strings; Bach uses here harmonic means to express this aria's content, which includes the words "Qual und Hohn" (torment and scorn) that are singled out. The booklet does not indicate that this aria is the end of the first part. The bass arioso opens the second part; it is a very vivid and dramatic setting of the words that I quoted above. The marked rhythm also contributes to its effect. It is followed by an aria for alto, with an obbligato part for the flute. Dürr refers here to the aria's "consolatory character". That depends on how one sees it, as the second section sounds pretty serious: "For he must burn for ever who merely with his mouth calls him Lord".

As one may have gathered by now, there are certainly some issues here. However, I have nothing but praise for the performances. All participants are in excellent form. I like the speechlike manner in which the recitatives are performed - not unexpected, as this is one of the hallmarks of Herreweghe's interpretations. He also pays utmost attention to the text. Listen to the way Thomas Hobbs sings the words "Furcht", "Demut" and "Liebe" (BWV 45,2). The arioso 'Es werden zu mir sagen' (BWV 45,4) is one of the highlights; Peter Kooij treats it almost like an operatic rage aria, and is aptly supported by the strings. The urging character of the opening chorus from the Trauerode is perfectly realised, and the tempo is spot-on. Dorothee Mields is excellent in 'Verstummt, ihr holden Saiten' (BWV 198,3). Alex Potter shows admirable breath control in 'Wie starb die Heldin so vergnügt' (BWV 198,5), where he has to sing some extremely long notes.

This disc is a most welcome addition to the Bach discography of Philippe Herreweghe.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Thomas Hobbs
Peter Kooij
Alex Potter
Collegium Vocale Gent

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