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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Solo cantatas for soprano

[I] "Cantatas"
Martina Janková, soprano
Collegium 1704
Dir: Václav Luks
rec: Sept 30 - Oct 1, 2012, Opava, Sv. Vojtech
Supraphon - SU 4134-2 (© 2013) (59'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/Cz; lyrics - translations: E/F/Cz
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ich habe genung (BWV 82a); Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen (BWV 51); Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202)

Julie Braná, transverse flute; Xenia Löffler, oboe; Jaroslav Roucek, trumpet; Helena Zemanová, Eva Borhi, Merkéta Knittlová, Iweta Schwarzová, Jana Chtylová, Jan Hádek, Martina Stillerová, Veronika Manová, violin; Peter Barczi, Frantisek Kuncl, viola; Libor Masek, Hana Fleková, cello; Ludek Braný, double bass; Pablo Kornfeld, harpsichord, organ

[II] "Kantaten für Solo-Sopran" (Cantatas for soprano solo)
Dorothee Mields, soprano
L'Orfeo Barockorchester
Dir: Michi Gaigg
rec: Dec 9 - 11, 2014, Stuttgart, SWR Funkstudio
Carus - 83.309 (© 2015) (67'46")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn' ihn (BWV 1127) (vs 1, 4, 8, 12); Ich bin in mir vergnügt (BWV 204); Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199)

Claire Genewein, transverse flute; Carin van Heerden, Philipp Wagner, oboe; Michi Gaigg, Julia Huber-Warzecha, Sabine Reiter, Martin Kalista, Elisabeth Wiesbauer, Petra Samhaber, violin; Lucas Schurig-Breuss, Daniela Henzinger, viola; Anja Ederle, cello; Nikolaus Broda, bassoon; Maria Vahervuo, double bass; Simon Linné, lute; Reinhard Führer, harpsichord, organ


The number of solo cantatas in Bach's oeuvre is limited. They belong to two categories: sacred and secular. Among the former Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen is the best-known, in the latter category it is especially the wedding cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten which is frequently performed. The two discs to be reviewed here both offer a mixture of cantatas from both genres.

Martina Janková and the Collegium 1704 open with Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202). Its scoring for solo soprano partly explains its popularity; few singers can resist the temptation to perform it in concert and to record it on disc. Nothing is known about the origin of this piece. It was clearly written for a wedding, but for whose wedding? The author of the text has also remained anonymous. The cantata is known through a copy from 1730 but scholars are not unanimous in regard to the date of composition. One option is Bach's time in Cöthen but it may also have been written during his early years in Leipzig. The text refers to the end of winter and the beginning of spring which gives some idea about the time of the year it was first performed. The instrumental scoring is modest: oboe, strings and bc.

Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, is another popular cantata in Bach's oeuvre. It dates probably from 1730 and is one of his most unusual and most virtuosic cantatas. It is in praise of God, which is the reason it contains a virtuosic trumpet part. This refers to the ceremonial function of the trumpet, which in the baroque era was especially used for music in praise of God and of kings and queens, his representatives on earth. There can be hardly any doubt that the trumpet part was played by Gottfried Reiche, the virtuoso trumpeter who had become senior Stadtmusicus in Leipzig in 1719. For him Bach has written several trumpet parts in his cantatas which are testimonies of his great skills. It is much more difficult to say with any certainty who has performed the equally demanding soprano part. Bach always used trebles in his church cantatas, but it is also possible that he now and then made use of adult male sopranos, singing with their natural voice. This cantata also may have been sung out of any liturgical context. It is for the 15th Sunday after Trinity but Bach added in ogni tempo, meaning that it can be sung at every occasion. Whoever may have sung it, he (she?) must have been a virtuosic singer with a large range.

Ich habe genung is another Bach evergreen but that probably doesn't go for the soprano version. It is from 1727 and is intended for the Feast of the Purification. It was originally written for bass, with an orchestra of oboe, strings and bc. Bach must have loved this piece very much as there are three further versions, among them the one heard here, for soprano, transverse flute, strings and bc which probably dates from 1731 (or maybe 1730). The second recitative and the second aria were also included in the second Clavierbüchlein of Anna Magdalena Bach, in an arrangement for solo voice and bc.

Martina Janková has a nice voice but it is a shame that her singing is marred by a narrow but incessant vibrato, a kind of tremolo which goes a little on my nerves. It has a damaging effect, for instance, in the opening aria of Cantata 51 where her voice doesn't really blend with the trumpet. In Cantata 202 the recitatives should have been taken with more rhythmic freedom. I find the tempi often unsatisfying. The opening aria from Cantata 202 is pretty slow; I felt that sometimes the music came to a standstill. The same goes for the aria 'Ich habe genug' from Cantata 82. As a result the coloratura on "Freuden" is unnaturally emphatic. On the other hand, the arias from Cantata 51 are rather fast and as a result Ms Janková's diction suffers; it also has a negative effect on her pronunciation which otherwise is pretty good, although not perfect. Probably the worst part of this disc is the Alleluja from the latter cantata: it is rushed and in the orchestra the accents are exaggerated and chopped off. The swaying rhythm of the second aria, 'Höchster, mache deine Güte', doesn't really come off.

Overall, I am not impressed by this recording. There are enough interpretations on the market which are more satisfying.

The programme of Dorothee Mields is a little less 'conventional', so to speak. Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut is pretty well known but Ich bin in mir vergnügt is not that often performed. The aria Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn' ihn was discovered only fairly recently. However, that is probably not the only reason it hasn't been recorded that often, as we shall see.

Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199) was written for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, and probably first performed in August 1713 or 1714 in Weimar. It is scored for soprano, oboe, strings and bc. The text links up with the Gospel of the day which is the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. This is another cantata Bach held in high esteem: he returned to it several times, during his time in Cöthen (1717-1723) and in Leipzig 1723. In these versions he changed part of the instrumental scoring: the obbligato viola part in the chorale 'Ich, dein betrübtes Kind' was given to a viola da gamba, a cello or a cello piccolo. Here the first version is performed but at the low pitch (Kammerton) which Bach used in most of his Leipzig cantatas. That is rather odd: in Weimar and Cöthen Bach almost certainly performed sacred music at the high Chorton (a'=c465 Hz).

Ich bin in mir vergnügt is an example of a moral cantata and reflects the spirit of the time: many poems and periodicals included recommendations on how to behave. In this cantata the message is to be content with one's destiny. As the first aria puts it: "To be calm and self-contented is the greatest treasure in the world". Although this work is ranked among the secular cantatas it includes religious elements, for instance in the third aria: "My soul, be content with whatever God ordains". And the last aria refers to "heavenly" and "divine contentment". The scoring is for solo soprano and strings, with two additional oboes in the first aria, obbligato parts for violin and transverse flute in the second and third respectively, and parts for flute and two oboes in the concluding aria.

Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn' ihn was discovered in 2005. The manuscript omits the name of the composer but the Bach scholar Michael Maul recognized Bach's handwriting and because of that there can be no doubt that this is a work from Bach's pen. It is the appendix to a printed form of congratulations to Duke Wilhelm Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar on the occasion of his 51st birthday in October 1713. The text of the poem is by Johann Anthon Mylius, superintendent of Buttstädt. It is based on the theme of the Duke's motto "Omnia cum Deo et nihil sine eo" - Everything with God and nothing without him. It is a strophic piece in twelve stanzas to the same music. Every stanza opens with an introduction in the basso continuo. Then the soprano enters, dwelling on the first two lines - every stanza has a slightly different version of the same standard text - and then continuing with the rest of the text. At the end of the stanza the opening line - the same as the title of the piece - is repeated. Then the strings - here with oboes playing colla parte - perform a ritornello. The fact that these twelve stanzas are sung and played to the same music is probably the main reason it has not been recorded that often since its rediscovery. Here every stanza takes a little less than four minutes which means that a complete recording would last about 45 minutes.

Dorothee Mields is one of the best sopranos in the world of early music these days. She has many fine recordings to her credit, although I am not impressed by some of her ventures into dubious arrangements of, for instance, Purcell's music (with Wolfgang Katschner). Sometimes she also uses more vibrato than is justified but here she is on her best behaviour and as a result these are almost ideal performances of the two cantatas. Her diction, articulation and delivery are exemplary and her voice matches the obbligato instruments in the arias perfectly. 'Ruhig und in sich zufrieden', the first aria from Cantata 204, receives an excellent performances, also thanks to the impressive and breathing style of playing of the oboists. The dark mood of the first half of Cantata 199 comes off nicely; 'Tief gebückt und voller Reue' is full of expression. One could probably argue that the joy of the second part is a little underexposed and could have been a bit more exuberant. However, the only really serious blot on this production is the low pitch in Cantata 199 which is historically untenable.
I personally would have preferred another cantata rather than the four stanzas from the aria Alles mit Gott for the simple reason that a selection from a larger piece is always a little unsatisfactory. However, again the singing is excellent, and so is the playing of the ritornelli. Let's hope this recording doesn't prevent Ms Mields from recording the complete twelve stanzas some day.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Martina Janková
Collegium 1704
L'Orfeo Barockorchester

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