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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Eternity - Cantatas BWV 20, 93, 3, 10, 116, 124"

Yeree Suh, sopranoa; Leandro Marziotteb, Benno Schachtnerc, alto; Benedikt Kristjánssond, Georg Poplutze, tenor; Tobias Berndtf, Daniel Ochoag, bass
Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering

rec: Feb 3 - 12, 2018, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19075874862 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (1.50'13")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (BWV 3)abdg; Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 116)acdf; Meine Seel erhebt den Herren (BWV 10)abeg; Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht (BWV 124)acef; O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20)bdg; Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (BWV 93)aceg

[CMC] Santa Bulatova, Anna Sophie Brosig, Sabine Laubach, Elisa Rabanus, Ingeborg Schilling, soprano; Franziska Gündert, Natalie Hüskens, Angelika Wied, contralto; Stefan Kunath, Nils Stefan, alto; Jo Holzwarth, Thomas Jakobs, Ferdinand Junghänel, Bruno Michalke, Fabian Strotmann, tenor; Benjamin Hewat-Craw, Johannes Hill, Karsten Lehl, Andreas Post, Christian Walter, bass
[DNO] Michael Niesemann, Clara Blessing, Benjamin Völkel, oboe; Alexander Golde, bassoon, contrabassoon; Hannes Rux, trumpet; Karin Stock, tromba da tirarsi; Olivier Picon, corno da tirarsi; Uwe Haase, trombone; Elisabeth Weber, Christof Boerner, Katja Grüttner, Christine Wasgindt, Petar Mancev, Christian Friedrich, Mark Schimmelmann, violin; Antje Sabinski, Christian Goosses, viola; Davit Melkonyan, cello; Timo Hoppe, double bass; Andreas Gilger, harpsichord; Carsten Lohff, organ

The German conductor Christoph Spering is in the process of recording cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach. Several recordings have been reviewed on this site. They are released separately, and nowhere is there any indication that they are part of a project. Whether it will result in a complete recording is anybody's guess. The sequel reviewed here is devoted to the annual cycle of chorale cantatas which Bach wrote between Trinity Sunday 1724 and Easter 1725.

The cantatas and their performances will be reviewed here in chronological order. Aspects of performance practice - most of them generally applied to all performances - will be discussed where it is due.

The chorale cantatas are all based on a hymn which was commonly known at the time. The procedure is generally the same: the first and last stanzas of the hymn are used unchanged in the opening chorus and the closing chorale setting respectively. The other stanzas are arranged in various forms. They can be paraphrased in the form of an aria. The recitatives are either paraphrases of one or more stanzas, and sometimes phrases from the hymn are included, either on the melody on which it was sung in the church or with new music.

The first disc opens appropriately with the first cantata from the cycle, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort (BWV 20). It is written for the first Sunday after Trinity and was first performed on 11 June 1724. It is divided into two parts, and is scored for four voices and an ensemble of tromba da tirarsi, three oboes, strings and basso continuo. It is based on a hymn by Johann Rist of 1642. The gospel of this Sunday was from Luke 16, the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus. The choice of this hymn makes sense as it is about eternity (hence the title of this production) and has a strong memento mori tenor. Undoubtedly Bach used the form of a French overture in the opening chorus with a reason, as this cantata opens a cycle. It is followed by a recitative for tenor. Benedikt Kristjánsson has already made a name for himself in the performance of baroque music, and he shows his skills here. Unfortunately, it is rhythmically too strict - a shortcoming of these recordings in general, although the treatment of the rhythm is somewhat variable. He then delivers a very fine performance of the aria 'Ewigkeit, du machet mir bange'. Notable here is the coloratura on the words "Flammen" (flames) and "brennen" (burn). Next are a recitative and an aria for bass, sung by Daniel Ochoa. I have heard him before in Spering's Bach recordings, and I don't find his voice particularly attractive. He is quite expressive in his recitative, but his voice is rather harsh, and that is especially problematic in the aria. Leandro Marziotte's performance of the alto aria is quite nice. The first part ends with a chorale, and this is sung in a manner which Spering prefers, as he states in the booklet: "It strikes us as entirely sensible to perform the simple four-part cantional movements in an undramatic way unrelated to any biblical action. They express the reflections of a devout Christian, even if we may assume that in Leipzig the congregation did not play an active part here". Obviously we will never know for sure how these chorale settings were sung. Considering that Bach varied the harmony of his chorale settings, it seems rather likely that he did connect them to the respective cantata. I find the treatment of the fermates rather unsatisfactory. The second part opens with another bass aria with an obbligato trumpet; there is a good balance between Ochoa and the trumpet. In the duet the Marziotte and Kristjánsson blend very well.

Meine Seel erhebt den Herren (BWV 10) was written for the Feast of the Visitation, which refers to the visit of Mary to her cousin Elisabeth. At this occasion she sings the canticle that has become known as the Magnificat. It was first performed on 2 July 1724. It is scored for four voices, trumpet, two oboes, strings and basso continuo. It is not based on a German hymn, but rather on the plainchant melody in the ninth tone, which was sung in Leipzig in the four-part harmonization by Johann Hermann Schein (from his Cantional, 1627). In the opening chorus, the chorale melody is in the soprano, supported by the trumpet. It is followed by one of Bach's best-known arias, 'Herr, der du stark und mächtig bist', in which the soprano is accompanied by two oboes and strings. It is performed in a pretty fast tempo, which seems a bit too fast, at the cost of its effect. Yeree Suh sings rather well, but her voice is not that strong and she is a bit overpowered by the oboes. Ochoa rightly uses his power in the aria 'Gewaltige stößt Gott vom Stuhl'.

One week later, on 9 July 1724, Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten (BWV 93) was performed. That Sunday was the fifth after Trinity, and the hymn is one of the best-known, then and now. It is from the pen of Georg Neumark (1641). The cantata has a symmetric form: it opens with a chorus and closes with a chorale - both using unchanged stanzas from the hymn - and in the centre is a duet for soprano and alto, again on an unaltered stanza from the hymn. Both halves consist of a recitative - into which lines from the hymn are inserted - and an aria. The first aria is for tenor; Georg Poplutz, an experienced performer of German baroque repertoire, demonstrates here his qualities in the tessitura of his voice - the high notes come off perfectly - and his excellent diction. Each single word is understandable. In the duet in the centre Yeree Suh and Benno Schachtner are a perfect match. The balance of soprano and oboe in the second aria is just right. Returning to the opening chorus: it is notable that each line of the hymn is introduced by a concertante vocal passage, and this strongly points in the direction of a solo performance. A piece like this may well be a good musical argument (which is not the same as a historical argument) in favour of a performance with one voice per part (possibly with one additional ripienist per voice). However, that is something Spering obviously does not believe in.

On 26 November 1724 Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 116) was performed. It was the 25th Sunday after Trinity and the last before Advent. This explains the choice of the gospel of the day, from Matthew 24, about the temptations at the end of the world. The hymn, by Jakob Ebert (1601), is a logical choice. Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, thus sums up its tenor: "The text of the chosen hymn bewails the deserved misfortune that has befallen mankind and prays for forgiveness and for deliverance from all dangers, among which the misery of war is named the greatest". The scoring is for four voices, horn (which supports the sopranos in the opening chorus), two oboi d'amore, strings and basso continuo. The oboe d'amore has an obbligato part in the first aria, which is for alto. It receives an expressive performance from Benno Schachtner, who deals well with the coloratura. In the trio the voices of Suh, Kristjánsson and Tobias Berndt blend well.

The last two cantatas were performed in January 1725. On 7 January, the first Sunday after Epiphany, Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht (BWV 124) was performed. It is based on a hymn by Christian Keymann (1658). The gospel of the day is from Luke 2, about the twelve-year old Jesus in the temple. It is not easy to grasp the connection between the hymn and the gospel. Dürr offers a suggestion, which I don't find very convincing. In the scoring we again find an oboe d'amore, which has an obbligato part in the only aria, which is for tenor. Georg Poplutz is at his very best here. There is quite some text expression in this aria, which comes off to full extent. Before the chorale ends the cantata, soprano and alto sing a beautiful duet, excellently performed here by Suh and Schachtner.

Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (BWV 3) was performed one week later. It is based on a hymn by Martin Moller (1587), which is a reworking of an old Latin hymn, Jesu dulcis memoria. The scoring includes two oboi d'amore, which play a leading role in the opening chorus, and return in the duet before the closing chorale. Notable is the second section, a recitative, sung in alternation by the four soloists, who together sing lines from one of the hymn's stanzas. The bass has the last say in the recitative and then sings an aria. Ochoa is much better here than in other cantatas; he produces a smoother sound and his interpretation is more sensitive, which fits this aria rather well. Suh and Marziotte sing a nice duet towards the end.

As one may have gathered, I have mixed feelings about these performances. Overall, the quality of singing and playing is excellent. However, I have some reservations about in particular some contributions by Daniel Ochoa, and also some decisions with regard to performance practice. I have mentioned most of them, but I should add that I find it rather odd that Spering took the decision to make use of a contrabassoon in many movements, even though this instrument became only available to Bach in the late 1730s. Personal preferences should never prevail over historical evidence.

If I understand the language in which the liner-notes were originally written, I use to read them. Therefore I have not checked the English translations, but I noted some serious errors in the notes on cantata BWV 124. It is for the first Sunday after Epiphany 1725, but the notes say: "the first Sunday after Trinity, which in 1724 fell on 7 January". This is unacceptable in a production intended for the international market, where many people may not understand German.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Benedikt Kristjánsson
Leandro Marziotte
Daniel Ochoa
Georg Poplutz
Benno Schachtner
Yeree Suh
Chorus Musicus Köln & Das Neue Orchester

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