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"Actus Tragicus - Kantaten und Motetten auf dem Weg zu Johann Sebastian Bach" (Actus Tragicus - Cantatas and Motets on the way to Bach)

Himlische Cantorey; Knabenchor Hannover; Barockensemble L'Arco
Dir: Jörg Breiding

rec: June 8, 2007 (live), Hanover, Galerie Herrenhausen
Rondeau - ROP7005 (© 2008) (61'17")

Johann BACH (1604-1673) (attr): Unser Leben ist ein Schatten; Johann Ludwig BACH (1677-1731): Unsere Trübsal, die zeitlich und leicht ist; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131); Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit 'Actus Tragicus' (BWV 106); Johann SCHELLE (1648-1701): Herr, lehre uns bedenken

[HC] Veronika Winter, soprano; Anne Bierwirth, contralto; Henning Kaiser, tenor; Ralf Grobe, bass
[Knabenchor Hannover, chorus latens] Johannes Scholz, alto; Eiko Saathoff, tenor; Michael Jäckel, bass
[L'Arco] Elisabeth Schwanda, Annette Barryman, recorder; Saskia Fikentscher, oboe; Christian Walter, bassoon; Christoph Heidemann, Birgit Fischer, violin; Irmelin Heiseke, Barbara Messmer, viola da gamba; Martin Seemann, cello; Cordula Cordes, violone; Dennis Götte, chitarrone; Thomas Grunwald-Deyda, organ

The music on this disc is about death and salvation, or rather the connection between the two, which is a central issue in the Christian faith. It turns up frequently in the sacred music through the ages, but it seems to have been particularly important in Protestant Germany. That can't be really surprising as the salvation of human beings through Jesus' passion and death was the core of the teachings of Martin Luther.

An important part of the Lutheran liturgy was the hymn, to be sung by the congregation in the vernacular. And some of the most beloved hymns are used by the composers who are represented on this disc. Two cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, which he composed early in his career, embrace two motets by other members of his family and a cantata by Johann Schelle, one of Bach's predecessors as Thomaskantor in Leipzig.

The disc opens with what is one of Bach's most famous cantatas, Gottes Zeit is die allerbeste Zeit, the so-called Actus Tragicus. It probably dates from 1708, when Bach worked in Mühlhausen. The text is a compilation of biblical verses and hymn stanzas. The are no recitatives and arias: the text is divided into solo and tutti sections. The instrumental scoring is very modest: two recorders, two viole da gamba and bc. This points into the direction of a performance with one voice per part, but here the tutti are sung by a choir.

The instrumental parts are well played, but could have been sharper articulated, with a stronger differentation between good and bad notes. That is already the case in the opening Sonatina, but also in most other sections. In the tenor solo, 'Ach Herr, lehre uns bedenken', there is a little too much legato playing. Henning Kaiser sings his part beautifully, and so does Ralf Grobe in 'Bestelle dein Haus'. Here the instrumental parts come off better. The choir shows its qualities in 'Es ist der alte Bund', which is excellently articulated and contains clear dynamic accents. The soprano solo is embedded in the tutti, and there is hardly a female soprano who fits better into a boys' choir than Veronika Winter, because of her boyish voice. She delivers a splendid interpretation. 'In deine Hände' is equally well sung by Anne Bierwirth, also someone with a voice one could take for a boys' voice. The bass solo 'Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradiese sein' lacks a bit of subtlety; it is also a bit loud. The cantata closes with the chorus 'Glorie, Lob und, Ehr und Herrlichkeit' is a bit disappointing as the rhythm is a little feeble.

Johann Sebastian Bach is always impressive in his text expression, as is his relative Johann Ludwig. That shows his motet Unsere Trübsal, die zeitlich und leicht ist, where he creates an effective contrast within the first line, between "unsere Trübsal" (our affliction) and the words "zeitlich und leicht" (temporary and light). The choir beautifully realises this contrasts, in particular by singing the latter words with lightness and subtlety. Also beautiful is how Johann Ludwig Bach sets the word "ewige" (eternal) in the next line: first a long-held note, then a long and lively melisma.

A very beautiful cantata follows next. Johann Schelle was Thomaskantor from 1677 to 1701. In this capacity he replaced the Latin compositions, written by Italian masters, by pieces on German texts. Often these took the form of a cantata, and in addition to the cantata on texts from the Gospels he introduced the chorale cantata.
His cantata Herr, lehre uns bedenken is set for three voices - two sopranos and bass -, violin, violetta, viola da gamba and bc. After the dictum which opens the cantata (Psalm 90, 12) the solo voices sing four stanzas by an unknown poet, the first and last for three voices, the second for soprano solo and the third for bass solo. Between the stanzas the instruments quote various hymns: 'Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist', 'Ach Herr, lass dein lieb' Engelein' and 'Wenn ich einmal sollt scheiden'. The three soloists - Anne Bierwirth sings the second soprano part which is a bit lower than the first - give very nice performances, and the hymns are well executed by the instrumentalists.

Unser Leben ist ein Schatten is a motet which is often attributed to Johann Bach, but could also be written by Johann Michael Bach. It is for two choirs, the second of which is consisting of alto, tenor and bass, here sung by three members of the choir. They give good performances, and I liked especially the voice of the boy alto. This second choir is a chorus latens and should not be visible. It had been nice if this intended effect had been made audible on disc, for instance by putting it more behind in the spectrum. That is not the case, and as a result the effect is nullified. The tutti should have been more speechlike, and I also feel the closing section is a bit too fast.

Lastly the second work by Johann Sebastian Bach, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131). It is probably the earliest extant cantata by Bach, and dates from 1707/08. Even more than the Actus tragicus is has little to do with the cantata type Bach used to write later on in his career. One could argue that it has been developed from the motet: the five episodes are closely connected. Like the Actus Tragicus its structure is symmetrical: the first, third and fifth sections are scored for the tutti, the second and fourth are arias for solo voice (bass and tenor respectively) and a chorale for soprano (here sung by the sopranos from the choir). The instrumental scoring is again small-scaled: oboe, bassoon, violin, 2 viole da gamba and bc.

The tutti sections given good accounts by the choir: in the first section the contrasts are well exposed, and there is some good articulation. In the closing section - a prelude and fugue - the dance-like rhythm comes off very well. Ralf Grobe gives a good performance of the aria 'So du willt, Herr, Sünde zurechnen'. Henning Kaiser is a bit shaky in his aria 'Meine Seele wartet auf den Herrn', and he could have been more expressive.

All in all, this is a most interesting programme of music about one of the main subjects in the German Lutheran tradition. Form a historical point of view probably all music on this disc should be performed with solo voices rather than a choir. On the other hand, the participation of boys in the performance is in line with what was common practice in the 17th and early 18th centuries. And the Knabenchor Hannover is an excellent choir, and in particular in this kind of repertoire difficult to surpass. The adult soloists adapt their singing successfully to the sound of the choir.

The booklet contains informative programme notes in German and English, and the lyrics are also translated in English.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Himlische Cantorey
Knabenchor Hannover
Barockensemble L'Arco

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