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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Cantatas and arias for bass solo

[I] Arias for bass
Benjamin Appl, baritone
Concerto Köln
rec: April 13 - 16, 2018, Wuppertal, Kulturzentrum Immanuelskirche
Sony - 19075851622 (© 2018) (67'43")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) (sinfonia); Die Elenden sollen essen (BWV 75) (sinfonia); Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde (BWV 201) (Zu Tanze, zu Sprunge); Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147) (Jesus bleibet meine Freude); Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest (BWV 194) (Was des Höchsten Glanz erfüllt); Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) (sinfonia); Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (BWV 156) (sinfonia); Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet (BWV 212) (sinfonia); Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36) (Willkommen, werter Schatz); Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem (BWV 159) (Es ist vollbracht); Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden (BWV 88) (Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden); St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) (Am Abend da es kühle war - Mache dich, mein Herze, rein, rec & aria; Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder); Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! (BWV 214) (Kron und Preis gekrönter Damen); Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (BWV 70) (Ach, soll nicht dieser große Tag - Seligster Erquickungstag, rec & aria); Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (BWV 100) (Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan); Gottfried Heinrich STÖLZEL (1690-1749): Diomedes (Bist du bei mir)

Daniel Lanthier, Marie Reith, Kristin Linde, oboe, oboe d'amore, oboe da caccia; Lorenzo Alpert, bassoon; Alessandro Denabian, Jörg Schulteß, horn; Hannes Rux, trumpet; Mayumi Hirasaki, Frauke Pöhl, Wolfgang von Kessinger, Hedwig van der Linde, Jörg Buschhaus, Antje Engel, Stephan Sänger, violin; Chiharu Abe, violin, viola; Aino Hildebrandt, Gabrielle Kancachian, Claudia Steeb, viola; Jan Kunkel, John Semon, cello; Jean-Michel Forest, double bass; Elisabeth Seitz, dulcimer; Michael Dücker, lute; Markus Märkl, harpsichord, organ

[II] "Cantatas and arias for Bass"
Dominik Wörner, bass
Magdalena Harer, sopranoa; Franz Vitzthum, altob; Nils Giebelhausen, tenorc
Dir: Alfredo Bernardini
rec: Jan 19 - 22, 2019, Kirchheim/Weinstrasse, Protestantische Kirche
Arcana - A 466 (© 2019) (62'17")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (BWV 26) (An irdische Schätze das Herze zu hängen); Der Friede sei mit dir (BWV 158)a; Ich habe genung (BWV 82); Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56)abc; Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott (BWV 101) (Warum willst du so zornig sein); O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20) (Gott ist gerecht)

Alfredo Bernardini, Paolo Grazzi, oboe; Emiliano Rodolfi, oboe, oboe da caccia; Alberto Grazzi, bassoon; Olivia Centurioni, Rossella Croce, violin; Teresa Ceccato, viola; Gaetano Nasillo, cello; Paolo Zuccheri, violone; Anna Fontana, harpsichord, organ; Andreas Gräsle, organ


In general, I am not very much in favour of recital discs with arias from operas or cantatas. In the case of opera arias, one could argue that in baroque opera the connection between an aria and its dramatic context is rather loose. This is confirmed by the fact that sometimes arias from one opera were included in another. The names of the characters of a particular opera are mostly not mentioned. Johann Sebastian Bach's cantatas are an entirely different case. The librettos show a strong amount of coherence. It was not without a reason that they were considered the musical pendant of the sermon. Just like the sermon, a cantata was rooted in classical rhetorics. From that perspective, isolating an aria from its context is rather unsatisfying. One can explain the latter in the booklet, and many listeners may know the entire cantata, but that is only a small compensation for the lack of context. The coherence within a cantata has also its effect on the way it is performed. Tempi, for instance, cannot be chosen at random, or according to the taste of the performers. The tempo chosen for the opening choir has its effect then on the tempi in the rest of the work. In several arias on the disc Benjamin Appl recorded with Concerto Köln, I felt that the tempo may well have been different, if it had been sung as part of a performance of the entire work.

Another issue here is the way the programme has been put together. Some years ago, I reviewed a disc of arias from sacred cantatas, performed by Daniel Johannsen, whose programme was constructed in an intelligent way. Both in its content and musically it made much sense. That is not the case with Appl's recital, I'm afraid. According to the liner-notes, "[in] basic outline, the selection follows the Lutheran liturgical calender (...)". Not really. Two arias from the St Matthew Passion, 'Mache dich, mein Herze, rein' and 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder', are separated by an aria from Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, a cantata for Sunday Estomihi, the last Sunday before Lent. And a recitative and aria from Wachet! betet! betet! wachtet!, a cantata for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, and first performed at 21 November 1723, is followed by the sinfonia from the Easter cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden. So far for following the liturgical calender. The second aria from the St Matthew Passion is followed by extracts from two secular cantatas (BWV 212 and 201 respectively). This creates a strong contrast, but in a bad way. This is an example of poor programming.

The performances don't give me reason to welcome this disc either. To be honest, I don't find Benjamin Appl's voice very attractive or even interesting. Obviously, that is a very personal judgement, and others may have an entirely different opinion. However, whether one likes his voice or not, from a stylistic point of view these performances are not very satisifying. Dynamically, Appl's singing is rather flat. Yes, there are dynamic differences, between one phrase and the other, but not in the way of a distinction between good and bad notes. These performances are not rhetorical and speechlike. Too often a phrase is sung the same way from start to finish. The very first item, the aria 'Willkommen, werter Schatz', from Schwingt freudig euch empor, bears witness to that. There are too few accents in 'Was des Höchsten Glanz erfüllet', from Höchsterwünschtes Freudenfest. I know Concerto Köln as a fine ensemble, but here I am quite disappointed about its performances. In 'Es ist vollbracht' (Sehet, wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem) and the sinfonia from Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe, the oboe does hardly speak and is too undifferentiated.

It is praiseworthy that Appl tries to sing expressively. Unfortunately, this makes him turn to an operatic approach in 'Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder', which makes it almost caricatural. It is more appropriate in 'Zu Tanze, zu Sprunge' from Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde, but his singing of "wack-wack-wack-elt" is rather odd, to put it mildly. In the opening cantata of Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden, the hunting motifs in the B part don't come really off. That goes for both the vocal and the instrumental parts.

The addition of the aria Bist du bei mir is also unlucky. It is not by Bach, but by Stölzel, and the singing does not do it real justice. As a bonus track, the performers have added one of Bach's evergreens, known as 'Jesu, joy of man's desiring'. The arrangement performed here does not make much sense, and is musically utterly unconvincing. I also should not forget to mention that in the sinfonia to Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet, the performers decided to include a dulcimer. Bach does not require this instrument, and it is questionable whether it played any role in his musical world.

The second disc's programme is more conventional, so to speak. It includes all of Bach's solo cantatas for bass, which are among his most popular creations in the field of sacred music, and are performed frequently. There is certainly no lack of recordings either, but this disc has something additional in the form of three arias from other cantatas.

Ich habe genung and Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen were written as part of the third annual cycle of church cantatas in 1726/27. It is very likely these two cantatas were to be sung by Johann Christoph Samuel Lipsius, who was a law student at Leipzig University at the time, and who regularly sang the bass parts in Bach's cantatas. During the years 1725 to 1727 the Leipzig city council paid him 12 Talers per year in recognition of his commitment. For a long time the author of their librettos was not known. Fairly recently the musicologist Christine Blanken discovered the author of these two cantatas. She found a manuscript in the city library of Nuremberg which includes the texts of twelve cantatas written by Christoph Birkmann (1703-1771), a theologian who was from 1724 to 1727 a student at Leipzig University. The common feature of his libretti is that they are written from the perspective of the believer. That is why the word "ich" (I) takes an important part in his texts. The two cantatas performed here even begin with that word. The other texts by Birkmann which Bach set to music are BWV 49, 52, 55, 56, 98 and 169. They are all part of Bach's third annual cantata cycle. Blanken suggests that the cooperation with the young librettist - who studied theology and mathematics - was a great source of inspiration for Bach.

Not much needs to be said about the individual cantatas. Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen is written for the 19th Sunday after Trinity. Its subject is the devout Christian shouldering his cross until he is taken into the promised land. Ich habe genung is a cantata for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (or Candlemas) on 2 February. Its central theme is the longing for death and eternal life of the believer, now that Jesus has come. Its background is the canticle of Simeon, which as Nunc dimittis has become a part of liturgy of the Christian Church. This cantata has been preserved in four versions. Here we get the last, in which the second aria, 'Schlummert ein', has an obbligato part for the oboe da caccia. The third cantata, Der Friede sei mit dir, is a bit of a puzzle. No authograph exists, and it is impossible to date this work. Although the second and third movement are thematically comparable to the cantata Ich habe genung, the manuscript copy mentions both Candlemas and the third day of Easter as the days for which it was written. From a textual point of view this is rather strange, as the second and third sections are difficult to link to Easter and the first and fourth can hardly be associated to Candlemas. This has been reason to suggest the cantata in its present form could be a compilation of pieces from otherwise unknown cantatas, put together by someone else.

The problem of discs devoted to Bach's solo cantatas for bass, is that there is not enough material to fill a disc. On a previous recording by Dominik Wörner, he added the secular cantata Amore traditore. Evidently, the disadvantage is that it is so different in character from the rest of the programme. Here we get three arias from other sacred cantatas instead. O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort, part of the cycle of chorale cantatas of 1724/25, is for the 1st Sunday after Trinity; the gospel of that day is from Luke 16, the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus. The bass aria sums up the moral of the story: "God is just in his deeds: For the short-term sins of this world he has ordained such long pain". The bass is accompanied by three oboes and basso continuo; they underline the pregnant rhythm of this piece.

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig is from the same cycle, and is written for the 24th Sunday after Trinity. The gospel of the day is from Matthew 9, the raising from the dead of Jairus's daughter. However, as this cantata is based on the chorale of its title, the connection between the text and the gospel is rather loose. The first stanza of the chorale sums up its tenor: "Ah, how fleeting, ah, how empty is the life of man". The bass aria draws the conclusion: "To set one's heart on earthly treasures is a seduction of the foolish world". Probably to express that seduction, Bach uses here the form of a dance, a bourrée. Again, the bass is accompanied by three oboes.

For the last aria we go back to the 19th Sunday after Trinity; Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott is again from the 1724/25 cycle. The gospel of the day is from Luke 19, where Jesus prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem. The opening chorus is a setting of the first stanza of the chorale: "Take from us, Lord, you faithful God, the severe punishment and great distress that we with countless sins have altogether deserved". The bass aria, with two oboes and taille, reacts to the prophecy: "Why would you be so angry? The flames of your zeal already strike together over our heads." This aria is quite dramatic, expressing God's anger. Halfway the instruments turn to the chorale melody. It was a nice gesture to quote the corresponding stanza of the chorale in the booklet.

Dominik Wörner is a seasoned interpreter of German baroque sacred music, and plays a leading role in the exploration of the sacred oeuvre of Christoph Graupner. He has a pretty powerful voice which can be a bit harsh sometimes, but he is also able to produce a gentle and almost sweet sound. In this recording he uses the various colours of his voice intelligently and effectively at the service of expression. I already referred to his previous recording of the cantatas for bass solo, which did not entirely satisfy me. These performances are much better and I reckon them among the best in this part of Bach's oeuvre. The oboes play a prominent role in this recording, and as Alfredo Bernardini is one of the best representatives of the baroque oboe, it cannot surprise that the oboe parts are brilliantly executed. His colleagues are his equals, among them Emiliano Rodolfo, who plays the obbligato oboe da caccia part in the second aria from Cantata 82.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Benjamin Appl
Dominik Wörner
Concerto Köln

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