musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Jesu, meine Freude - German Baroque Cantatas Vol. 2"

Gli Angeli Genève
Dir: Stephan MacLeod

rec: Jan 8 - 11, 2009, Geneva, Studio Ernest-Ansermet
Sony - 88697627402 (© 2009) (78'45")

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Jesu, meine Freude, motet a 5 (BWV 227); Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen (BWV 81); Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (BWV 180); Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Jesu, meine Freude (BuxWV 60); Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (TWV 1,1253/1254) (ed. S. MacLeod)

[*solo, # ripieno] Hana Blazikova(*), Julla Von Landsberg (*#), soprano; Pascal Bertin (*#), alto; Marie-Hélène Essade (#), contralto; Valerio Contaldo (#), Jan Kobow (*#), tenor; Stephan MacLeod (*), Gaston Sister (#), bass

One of the fruit of the Reformation in Germany has been the creation of hymns in the vernacular. Some of them have been become very popular and were used by many composers in music for the liturgy. Two of the most beloved chorales - as they are also known - are the thread of this disc: 'Jesu, meine Freude' and 'Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele'.

The choice of music for this recording offers the possibility to compare how one and the same chorale is treated by two different composers or by one composer in two different forms.

The cantata Jesu, meine Freude by Buxtehude and the motet on the same chorale by Bach show many similarities in the way the text is treated. Repetition of words and general pauses are used by both composers to emphasize elements in the text, in Buxtehude's cantata, for instance, "ach" in the second section (Ach, wie lang, ach lange), and "weg" in the fifth (Weg mit allen Schätzen). Most famous in Bach's motet is "nichts" (es ist nun nichts Verdammliches). The word "trotz" (trotz dem alten Drachen) is treated in exactly the same way by both composers. It is no surprise that in the passage about the "Erd und Abgrund" (earth and abyss) we hear descending motifs; on the word "Abgrund" Buxtehude even writes an octave leap downwards.

The cantata by Buxtehude is given a very fine performance. In particular the two sopranos have beautiful voices, and Stephan MacLeod sings with good expression, although I am not that impressed by his voice. Their voices also blend very well, and that is also the case with the vocal ensemble as whole as the performance of the motet shows. In this work there are several passages where the expression of the text is a bit too moderate, for instance on the words "kracht und blitzt" (section 3). The word "nichts" (section 2) is, as in most performances, sung piano, for which I can't see any justification. Considering the fact that reinforcement is the purpose of the repetition it would be more logical to give it more rather than less emphasis. The centre of the motet is section 6: 'Ihr aber seid nicht fleischlich', which is performed here at a remarkably moderate tempo. In my view the text and the lively setting require a faster tempo.

Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen is a cantata Bach composed for the 4th Sunday after Trinity. Its inclusion in the programme is justified because of the closing chorale, which is a stanza from 'Jesu, meine Freude' (Unter deinen Schirmen). The text says: "Under your protection I am safe from the storms of all enemies". This links up with the theme of the cantata which is about Jesus and the storm at sea (Matthew 8, 26). The cantata begins with an aria for alto on the text: "Jesus sleeps, what can I hope for?" There are some long-held notes - for instance on "schläft" - which Pascal Bertin masters quite well, and he also usess his chest register for the lowest notes.
In the tenor aria 'Die schäumenden Wellen' the strings depict "the foaming waves from Belial's streams", but here they do so a bit too tamely. The bass aria 'Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer' is another expressive piece which is sung nicely by Stephan MacLeod.

The other two compositions in the programme are about the other chorale, 'Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele', written for Holy Supper. Bach's cantata begins with a chorale, which is then followed by a masterly aria for tenor, transverse flute and bc, in which the text is brilliantly translated into music. The tenor part is very demanding, and Jan Kobow meets the requirements impressively. The flute part is beautifully played by Jan De Winne. The following recitative turns into an adaptation of the chorale. Hana Blazikova has one of the most gorgeous voices I have heard in some time, and she not only sings very well, she also delivers the text perfectly. This is how a recitative and a chorale should be sung. Equally beautiful is the aria 'Lebens Sonne, Licht der Sinnen'.

The last item is a bit odd as it is a compilation of two pieces by Telemann on this chorale which have not been published yet. "We realised that our two undeniably splendid Telemann works would not, as such, hold their own against the Bach cantata. So we carried on looking; then we decided to follow what, in Telemann’s age, was fairly standard practice but nowadays is not quite done: we put together a collage of our favourite parts from the two compositions." I had liked to decide for myself whether Telemann can't compete with Bach. I don't think that is the right approach anyway. Taking things as they are we hear some fine music here, but the compilation as such - two chorale settings framing an aria for soprano and a recitative for bass with chorale - is not very satisfying.

The concept of this disc is interesting and revealing. The choice of music is generally good, with the exception of the Telemann compilation. The performances are mostly good as well, but there are a number of passages where they are a bit short on expression. In general I think the features of the repertoire on this disc could have been more thoroughly explored. I also don't quite understand why ripienists are added to the soloists. In all pieces on this disc the tutti could have been sung by the four soloists. And especially the use of ripienists in Bach's motet is hard to justify.

This is a so-called 'enhanced CD'. The elaborate liner notes are in a pdf-file which is on the disc. These are partly prepared as part of an education project.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Gli Angeli Genève

CD Reviews