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Johann Sebastian BACH & Georg Philipp TELEMANN: "Cantatas for baritone"

Christoph Prégardien, baritone
Vox Orchester
Dir: Lorenzo Ghirlanda

rec: March 25 - 26, 2017 (live), Tesserete, Chiesa prepositurale di S. Stefano
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19075834122 (© 2017) (67'16")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list
Score JS Bach

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56); Johann Friedrich FASCH (1688-1758): Overture in g minor (FWV K,g2) (overture); Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen (Der sterbende Jesus) (TWV 1,983); Overture in d minor (TWV 55,d3) (overture); Was gibt du denn, o meine Seele (TWV 1,1510)
[encore] George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Concerto grosso in a minor, op. 6,4 (larghetto affettuoso)

Paolo Grazzi, Antonello Cola, Jan Nigges, oboe; Sanghee Lee, bassoon; Jonas Zschenderlein, Antonio de Sarlo, Jakob Lehmann, Matilde Tosetti, Christian Voß, Sophia Rasche, Anna Kaiser, Won-ki Kim, violin; Yoko Tanaka, Shuyuan Cheng, viola; Karl Simko, Konstanze Waidosch, cello; Jussif Barakat, double bass; Alexander von Heißen, harpsichord

The solo cantatas for bass by Johann Sebastian Bach are among the most popular and most often recorded sacred works of the baroque era. However, their number is rather limited, and hardly enough to fill a disc. It is a token of the growing appreciation of Bach's colleague Georg Philipp Telemann that singers turn towards his oeuvre to find some material for their voice. In recent years some of Telemann's cantatas have found their way into the repertoire of basses, such as Klaus Mertens - a great promoter of Telemann's vocal music - and Peter Kooij. It is now recognized that Telemann's cantatas are in no way inferior to those by Bach from the angle of text expression. The present disc attests to that.

The two cantatas by Telemann included here have been recorded before, and Bach's cantata Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen is one of his most beloved works. From that perspective there is nothing remarkable about this disc. It is rather the name of the soloist which draws attention. For many years Christoph Prégardien was one of the leading tenors in the early music scene. His repertoire was wide, ranging from the early baroque period to our time. In his oeuvre the German Lied plays a major role. In recent years he seems to have reduced his activities as a singer a little, and started to conduct, for instance recently the Netherlands Bach Society. That is not remarkable, as other singers have done the same. In contrast, it does not happen very often that a singer moves to a different range. But exactly that is what happens here. That is to say: as far as I know Prégardien continues to sing as a tenor, but here he explores the lower range of his voice. It has to be said that the cantatas recorded here don't ask for a real bass; there are no very deep notes, and these cantatas are perfectly suited for a baritone.

The first is from the pen of Telemann. Was gibst du denn, o meine Seele is written for the 23rd Sunday after Trinity. The Epistle of this Sunday is from Philippians 3, in which Paul states that the citizenship of the faithful is in heaven. The Gospel is from Matthew 22, which is about the Pharisees' trick question to Jesus, whether it is right to pay tribute to Caesar. The tenor of Telemann's cantata is expressed in the opening chorale, on the melody of 'Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten' (Georg Neumark, 1657): "What then do you give, O my soul, to God, who daily gives you everything? (...) Give him your heart alone". In the next recitative the heart is urged to "assume God's image" and to "throw away what is called world and sinfulness". The next aria follows it up: "Renew your senses, multiply love, and seek in faith what pleases Jesus". The believer then states his determination "to make room in my heart's home for no other but Jesus alone". The following aria says that Satan has lost: "Satan, now you can accomplish nothing, away with your lust". The closing chorale, on the melody of 'O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden', refers to Jesus' Passion: "His blood he has shed for me, poor little worm. That I might be redeemed he suffered much agony and pain. How could there be greater love on this earth?"

One of Telemann's best-known cantatas is Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen, intended for Passiontide. It is impossible to put an exact date to it, but it was written during Telemann's time in Frankfurt, since the only complete source of this cantata is a copy by his successor in Frankfurt, Johann Balthasar König. The poet is unknown, and it is suggested the text could have been written by Telemann himself. Its content shows a strong similarity to the Passion-Oratorio, which aims at making the audience feel sympathy with the suffering Jesus. This is expressed in the first aria: "Jesus lies breathing his last; ah, he is closing his eyes. Why does bitter pain not also break my weary heart - since I see God's only Son lying pale and weak before me?" And the second aria expresses a strong identification with Jesus: "My dearest Saviour, might I but pale with you. With what desire and longing would I even today lie down by you and embrace you so very tenderly". This aria is set to a very slow tempo. In the next recitative the will of God is put in the centre: if it is God's will that I have to stay in this world, my consolation shall be that after my death the Saviour shall lead me to eternal life. And this leads to the closing aria of a much brighter character, with lively rhythms, ascending figures and coloratura: "My spirit rejoices that it someday there above shall praise you with happy jubilation - there where you are praised without end".

Lastly, Bach's cantata Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen, written for the 19th Sunday after Trinity. Its subject is the devout Christian's shouldering his cross until he is taken into the promised land. The first aria is a vivid depiction of the believer walking under the heavy burden of the cross. The next recitative has an obbligato part for the cello, which expresses the waves which the text talks about. Here the journey of the believer through the world is compared to a boattrip. The cello falls silent when the text refers to the end of the boattrip as the Christian leaves the boat and enters his city: heaven. Next follows a joyful aria in which the believer expresses his relief that his cross will be taken off his shoulders. Another recitative follows and the cantata closes with a four-part chorale.

I was a little sceptical at first, when I started listening to this disc, but I am really impressed by Prégardien's interpretations. He easily holds his ground with the stiff competition of singers who have made a career in the baritone range. Prégardien explores the texts and their meaning to the full, emphasizes the contrasts, for instance in the first aria of Was gibst du denn, between the A and the B part. The A part has a belligerent character: "Shatter the bonds, smother the urges, curse the lusts of the sinful world", and that comes off perfectly in the performances by Prégardien and the Vox Orchester. Bach's cantata also receives an incisive performance, which includes several little details that make it stand apart from other performances.

The orchestra can show its skills in the overtures from orchestral suites by Telemann and Johann Friedrich Fasch. They are played with zest and energy, with strong dynamic accents. I look forward to further recordings of this relatively young ensemble, which I expect to have a bright future. By including Fasch the performers want to emphasize the connections between these three contemporaries.

This is a live recording, and includes the applause of the audience and an encore. It would have been better if the applause had been removed. The encore is nicely played, but - as is so often the case with encores - has little connection with the main programme.

However, the main thing is that the vocal and instrumental works are given excellent performances. This disc is a fine acquisition for every music collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Christoph Prégardien
Vox Orchester

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