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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Easter Oratorio (BWV 249)

[I] "Easter Oratorio - Actus Tragicus"
Hannah Morrison, soprano; Meg Bragle, contralto; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass
The Monteverdi Choir; The English Baroque Soloists
Dir: John Eliot Gardiner
rec: June 24 - 26, 2013, London, Cadogan Hall
Soli Deo Gloria - SDG 719 (© 2014) (60'15")
Liner-notes: E/F/D; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Easter Oratorio (Kommt, eilet und laufet) (BWV 249); Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit 'Actus Tragicus' (BWV 106)

[II] "Osteroratorium BWV 249 - Himmelfahrtsoratorium BWV 11"
Joanne Lunn, soprano; Elisabeth Jansson, contraltob; David Allsopp, altoa; Samuel Bodena, Jan Kobowb, tenor; Tobias Berndta, Gotthold Schwarzb, bass
Kammerchor Stuttgart; Barockorchester Stuttgart
Dir: Frieder Bernius
rec: July 23 - 25, 2004, Schwäbisch-Gmünd, Augustinuskircheb; May 15 - 16, 2014, Gönningen, Peter und Paul Kirchea
Carus - 83.290 (R)b (© 2005/2015) (66'56")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Ascension Oratorio (Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen) (BWV 11)a; Easter Oratorio (Koomt, eilet und laufet) (BWV 249)b


In today's performance practice the Easter Oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach takes around 40 minutes. That is not enough to fill a disc. So what to choose to make the playing time more acceptable? Carus released a disc in which the Easter Oratorio is followed by the Ascension Oratorio (BWV 11). This is a logical option from a biblical point of view. When Jesus, after his resurrection, meets Mary Magdalene at the sepulchre she wants to hold him, but he says: "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father." In the next weeks he spends much time to prepare his disciples for his ascension. The connection between these two events is also reflected in the libretto Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu by Karl Wilhelm Ramler, which was set by Georg Philipp Telemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

As almost all of Bach's sacred music was written for specific Sundays or feast days of the ecclesiastical year he could not include these two subjects in one single work. But his two oratorios ideally complement each other. They have appeared together in recordings by Gustav Leonhardt, Masaaki Suzuki and Matthew Halls. But this Carus release is bad news for those who have purchased Frieder Bernius' recording of the Easter Oratorio when it was released in 2005 on a disc which also included two compositions by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. They have to decide whether they want to add this disc to their collection, considering that it includes almost 40 minutes of music they already have.

John Eliot Gardiner took a different decision: the Easter Oratorio is preceded by Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (BWV 106), also known as Actus Tragicus. There are good arguments for that option as well. It is a funeral cantata whose tenor is the transition from death to a new life which is only made possible by Jesus' suffering and death. There is even a direct link with the events of Good Friday. The third section includes two of Jesus' Words from the Cross: "Today you shall be with me in paradise" and "Into your hands I commit my spirit". The cantata ends with a chorale which expresses the hope of eternal life: "May the power of God make us victorious through Jesus Christ. Amen".

"It has often puzzled me why the Easter Oratorio BWV 249 is sometimes considered the ugly (or at least forgotten) duckling among Bach's choral works", John Eliot Gardiner writes in the liner-notes to his recording. To call it a "forgotten" work seems a little exaggerated. It is true that, in comparison to Bach's Passions, the Easter Oratorio doesn't get that much attention. That is probably due to the fact that most people are hardly aware of the course of the ecclesiastical year. The last cantata of Bach's Christmas Oratorio is seldom performed at the time for which it was intended (Epiphany). In the consciousness of many people Christmas is over after the first day of the year. During Passiontide only Passion music is performed and Easter is over after Easter Monday. That leaves little time for a performance of Easter music. It is not only Bach's Easter Oratorio which suffers from that but also, for instance, the Auferstehungshistorie by Schütz. It is probably also true that few Bach lovers reckon this work among their favourite compositions. However, there is certainly no lack of recordings, although it is not as often recorded as other large-scale works, such as the Passions, the Christmas Oratorio and the Mass in B minor.

The Easter Oratorio was first performed on 1 April 1725 in Leipzig. It was a reworking of a cantata which Bach had written for the birthday of Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weißenfels in February of that year which has been lost. The text had been written by Christian Friedrich Henrici, better known as Picander, and it is likely that he also adapted the text for the Easter Oratorio. Only the recitatives were entirely new. There are four roles in this piece, representing characters which appear in the resurrection story as told in the gospels: Mary, the mother of James (soprano), Mary Magdalene (alto), Peter (tenor) and John (bass). The original score doesn't mention any character, but it seems they are mentioned in the parts of the first version (which I couldn't check). Two further versions date from 1738 and from between 1743 and 1746 respectively. In these any reference to characters has disappeared. Gardiner recorded the latest version like most of his colleagues; I have never heard a recording of the first version in which the third section - following the sinfonia in two movements - is a duet for tenor and bass (more about that later).

One could argue that the Easter Oratorio should be ranked among Bach's cantatas. Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (BWV 11), on the other hand, is often considered a cantata, and because of that was given the number 11 in the Schmieder catalogue. But there are good reasons to call it an oratorio, especially because of the tenor taking the role of the Evangelist who reports about Jesus' ascension. That said, in the 17th and 18th centuries there was no clear difference between the various genres. In Bach's Christmas Oratorio, a sequence of six cantatas, the tenor also takes the role of Evangelist and Carl Philipp Emanuel referred to his oratorio Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu as his 'Ramler cantata'. The Ascension Oratorio is of a much later date than the Easter Oratorio, and was written in 1735. It is also partially based on older material from secular works, written in 1725 and 1732 respectively.

Let us turn to the performances.

The Actus Tragicus is an early work and probably dates from 1707 when Bach worked at Mühlhausen. It is questionable whether he had a choir at his disposal. Irrespective of where one stands in the one-voice-to-a-part debate it seems likely that the early cantatas were performed by soloists rather than a choir. The texture of this cantata in which soli and tutti are strongly interwoven also points into that direction. For his recording Gardiner reduced his Monteverdi Choir to twelve singers, including the four soloists. That is less than ideal but apart from that the performance is pretty good. Nicholas Mulroy shines in 'Ach, Herr, lehre uns bedenken'; his diction and pronunciation are excellent. The diction is less than ideal in 'Bestelle dein Haus', sung by Peter Harvey, especially in his treatment of the verb "wirst". Hannah Morrison and Meg Bragle deliver good interpretations, although the latter is a bit bland. As a consequence of this 'choral' performance the cantus firmus in the arioso and chorale 'Heute wirst du mit mir im Paradies sein' is sung by the three altos from the choir. This is another element which seems to require a performance by solo voice. The instrumental parts are played with the right amount of sensitivity.

The Easter Oratorio also receives an overall good performance. Hannah Morrison sings the long aria beautifully; she has a very nice voice, and the text comes off very well. Nicholas Mulroy delivers a good account of 'Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer' but the low notes are a bit weak. I also would have liked more dynamic shading on the long notes in 'Schlummer'. Meg Bragle sings 'Saget, saget mir geschwinde' with great flair. Peter Harvey is only involved in the recitatives. In the last recitative he is responsible for a strange slip of the tongue as he sings "unser Jesus weder lebt" instead of wieder. Obviously nobody noticed that which is even stranger. The recitatives could have been taken a little faster. The two choruses are sung with considerable power and that suits their content pretty well. The Monteverdi Choir is almost twice as large here: 23 singers, including three of the four soloists (the exception is Peter Harvey). As a result the choral parts are less transparent here than in the Actus Tragicus. But that is also the effect of the vibrato which is present in several of the voices. A choir like the Collegium Vocale shows much more homogeneity. I also have to say that these are typically British performances, especially in regard to the treatment of dynamics and the differentiation between good and bad notes - or rather the insufficiency of it. Partly due to that I found the adagio from the sinfonia a bit dull. The performances are also damaged by the very dry acoustic; a little more reverberation would have done this recording a world of good.

One issue needs to be mentioned: the B part of the soprano aria is sung to a different text than usual. It is not explained in the booklet, and it is rather odd that the English and French translations are based on the text which is mostly sung. The Bach Cantatas Website doesn't indicate that there are textual differences between the various versions. I can't bring any light into this matter.

The performances under Frieder Bernius' direction are anything but British. As far as choir and orchestra are concerned I strongly prefer the Kammerchor and the Barockorchester Stuttgart. With 22 singers the choir is of the same size as the Monteverdi Choir but it is more homogeneous and produces a more transparent sound. In regard to the audibility of the text, though, it can't quite compete with the Collegium Vocale. The adagio from the sinfonia of the Easter Oratorio is much better here than in Gardiner's recording: the playing is more speech-like and has a stronger expressive impact. Joanne Lunn delivers wonderful performances of the soprano arias in both oratorios. I can't choose between her and Hannah Morrison. But I prefer Meg Bragle to Elisabeth Jansson in 'Saget, saget mir geschwinde' (BWV 249). Her performance is more energetic and I don't like Ms Jansson's vibrato, even though it is not very wide. David Allsopp shows strong emotional involvement in his performance of 'Ach, bleibe doch' (BWV 11). Jan Kobow gives a good performance of 'Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer' but the low notes don't come off any better here than Nicholas Mulroy's performance, and here I miss some dynamic shading too. The recitatives are better than in Gardiner's performance of the Easter Oratorio, especially as they are a bit faster and taken with more rhythmic freedom. In the Ascension Oratorio I am not that impressed by the contributions of Samuel Boden and Tobias Berndt, and again the problem is that they use too much vibrato.

In regard to Bernius' performance of the Easter Oratorio there is also an issue which needs to be discussed. In the earliest version of this work 'Kommt, eilet und laufet' is a duet for tenor and bass. In later versions Bach turned this movement into a chorus but maintained the duet in the B part. In Bernius' performance we get a mixture of these versions: the A part is sung by tenor and bass, and so is the B part, but the da capo of the A part is then sung by the choir. In his book on Bach's cantatas Alfred Dürr states in a footnote: "The usual practice today of starting the movement as a duet and ending it as a chorus is based on a pure misunderstanding which originated with Wilhelm Rust. In the BG edition (21/3, 1874) he united the two versions, but only to avoid printing the work twice, not to establish an unauthorized version for our use." It is not a 'usual practice' anymore: I checked the recordings of Leonhardt, Herreweghe, Brüggen, McCreesh and Halls and neither of them starts this section with a duet. I have no idea whether Bernius deliberately opted for a 'hybrid version' as one could call it or this is the result of an astonishing misinterpretation of the sources. In any case, this issue seriously damages the value of this recording from a historical point of view.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

David Allsopp
Tobias Berndt
Samuel Boden
Meg Bragle
Jan Kobow
Hannah Morrison
Peter Harvey
Joanne Lunn
Nicholas Mulroy
Kammerchor & Barockorchester Stuttgart
Monteverdi Choir & Orchestras

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