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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Ruhm und Glück - Geburtstagskantaten BWV 36a & 66a" (Fame and Happiness - Birthday Cantatas)

Gudrun Sidonie Otto, soprano; Wiebke Lehmkuhl, contralto; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Carsten Krüger, bass
Mitteldeutsche Hofmusik
Dir: Alexander Ferdinand Grychtolik

rec: Sept 8, 2012 (live), Köthen, Bach-Kirche St. Agnus
Rondeau - ROP6058 (© 2013) (65'21")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Der Himmel dacht' auf Anhalts Ruhm und Glück (BWV 66a); Steigt freudig in die Luft (BWV 36a)

Uwe Hartwich, trumpet; Martin Jelev, oboe; Eduard Wesley, oboe, oboe d'amore; Adrian Rovatkay, bassoon; Claudia Mende, Heinrich Kubitschek, violin; Swantje Hoffmann, viola, viola d'amore; Lucile Perrin, cello; Hans Koch, violone; Alexander Ferdinand Grychtolik, Aleksandra Magdalena Grychtolik, harpsichord

During his career Johann Sebastian Bach composed a considerable number of cantatas for special occasions, such as birthdays and weddings, or cantatas which have the character of a serenade. Some were written for members of the royalty or aristocracy, others - especially during his years in Leipzig - are connected to the University. This corpus of cantatas is generally ranked among the 'secular cantatas'. These don't belong to the most popular part of Bach's oeuvre, and the number of recordings of such works is not comparable to that of the sacred cantatas. Some of them have achieved great fame, though, such as the Kaffeekantate (BWV 211), the wedding cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202) and Non sa che sia dolore (BWV 209). The secular cantatas are sometimes considered as of less importance to Bach, but several interpreters who have performed and recorded them have emphasized that Bach took their composition just as seriously as the writing of sacred music. So does Alexander Ferdinand Grychtolik, the director of the performances at the present disc. "Bach set to work on such occasional compositions with the same standards as those known to audiences from his other works".

One reason why this part of Bach's oeuvre is less well observed is that a large portion of it has been lost. As it was intended for just one performance and could not be used - at least not unaltered - for a second time this kind of music wasn't kept as was the sacred music which could be performed at another time, probably with only slight alterations. Fortunately scholars have been able to connect various sacred cantatas to their secular origins, of which in many cases only the text has been preserved. Attempts have been made to reconstruct some of those originals, but that is not easy. When Bach used pre-existing music for a new text he had to make alterations in order to make the music fit the text. The two cantatas on this disc have not been reconstructed before, and they show what kind of problems performers have to solve in order to make a performance feasible.

Steigt freudig in die Luft is one of four versions of largely the same cantata, catalogued as BWV 36, 36a, 36b and 36c. The former version (BWV 36) is best-known as a cantata for the first Sunday of Advent, Schwingt freudig euch empor. The first versions seem to date from 1725 (BWV 36a and 36c), whereas the fourth version was probably composed in 1735. The occasion for the composition of BWV 36a is known: the birthday of the second wife of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, Charlotte Friederike Amalie of Nassau Siegen (1702-1785). The music of the cantata is completely lost, but the text has survived and can be found in the Ernst-Scherzhaffte und Satyrische Gedichte by Christian Friedrich Henrici, better known as Picander, who also wrote the text of Bach's St Matthew Passion. For the performances in 2012 which have been recorded here Grychtolik adapted the music from BWV 36c, the only secular version of which the music has been preserved. The main problem was the reconstruction of the four recitatives: the texts of BWV 36a are so different from those of BWV 36c that one has to assume that Bach has written completely new recitatives. Grychtolik has written recitatives of his own, in the style of Bach.

The history of Der Himmel dacht' auf Anhalts Ruhm und Glück (BWV 66a) is a little less complicated, but a reconstruction causes more problems than in the case of BWV 36a. It is a serenata which was performed at Cöthen castle on the evening of 10 December 1718. That morning a sacred cantata had been performed, Lobet den Herrn, alle seine Heerscharen (BWV Anh 5), at the occasion of the birthday of Prince Leopold. The music and text of the sacred cantata are lost, the text of BWV 66a has been preserved, written by a then famous poet, Christian Friedrich Hunold, also known as Menantes. Bach later used the largest part of this cantata for Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen (BWV 66), a cantata for the second Day of Easter, first performed in April 1724. The problem with the reconstruction is that the original cantata includes an aria which Bach did not reuse and therefore can't be reconstructed on the basis of the sacred reworking. In this reconstruction the vocal scoring has also changed. In the sacred cantata the solo parts are for alto, tenor and bass, but here there are only two roles, called Fama and Die Glückseligkeit Anhalts (Anhalt's Happiness). These are allocated to soprano and alto respectively. For the recitatives the procedure is the same as in the previous cantata. That leaves the aria of Fama, 'Beglücktes Land von süßer Ruh und Stille'. Grychtolik has written a new aria "in historical style". For several reasons he has made use of the aria 'Mein Freund ist mein' from the cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140); the aria includes an obbligato part for the oboe.

A basic question in regard to this disc is whether reconstructions like these make sense. It is hard to accept that so many pieces by some of the best composers have been lost or have come down to us incomplete. It is understandable that performers try to make them ready for performance. Sometimes that is quite possible, for instance when arias from a cantata have been preserved, but recitatives have been lost, or if just one part of a motet is missing. In the case that almost the complete music is lost, one may ask what is won with a reconstruction. Musically speaking these reconstructions don't add anything to the corpus of Bach's music. As the texts are known, we can get some idea of what kind of texts inspired Bach to music we know in its sacred face-lift. However, actually hearing such music with secular texts gives a different perspective, although it isn't that easy to forget the better-known sacred versions while listening.

The reconstructions which are presented here are quite convincing. Grychtolik has written recitatives which sound pretty 'authentic' in my ears; I have heard recitatives which were far less like Bach. Obviously the newly-composed aria is harder to judge and will be much more a matter of taste. I quite liked it, and it confirms by impression that Grychtolik has a good understanding of Bach's idiom.

I would have liked these reconstructions being recorded in the studio. This live recording has some serious shortcomings which have diminished my enjoyment. The main problems are the contributions of soprano and bass. Both are experienced singers but in this recording they probably didn't have a really good day. It seems that Gudrun Sidonie Otto has technical problems with the aria 'Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen' in cantata BWV 36a. She sings with restraint, undoubtedly inspired by the text, but as a result her singing is insecure and hesitant. The staccato singing in the B part is rather odd. Carsten Krüger is technically good, but not very inspired and a bit stiff in his recitative and aria in the same cantata. Hans Jörg Mammel makes by far the best impression. In the cantata BWV 66a it is Wiebke Lehmkuhl who steals the show with a fine performance of her aria 'Traget ihr Lüfte den Jubel von hinnen'. Ms Otto is slightly better here, but sounds stressed in the upper tones of her part, and her voice doesn't blend that well with Ms Lehmkuhl's. The instrumentalists are fine, and Eduard Wesley should be especially mentioned for his beautiful playing of the oboe.

Despite the above-mentioned shortcomings Bach lovers surely won't want to do without this disc. From a historical perspective it is interesting to have these reconstructions, and musically they are rather convincing.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Alexander Ferdinand Grychtolik

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