musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Praise - Cantatas BWV 26, 41, 95, 115, 137, 140"

Dorothee Mields, sopranoa; Natalie Hüskensb, Olivia Vermeulenc, contralto; Benedikt Kristjánssond, Georg Poplutze, tenor; Tobias Berndtf, Daniel Ochoag, bass
Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering

rec:Feb 28 - March 9, 2019, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19439709082 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (1.58'00")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (BWV 26)acdg; Christus, der ist mein Leben (BWV 95)adg; Jesu, nun sei gepreiset (BWV 41)acdf; Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehre (BWV 137)acdf; Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit (BWV 115)aceg; Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140)abef

[CMC] Merle Bader, Anna Sophie Brosig, Sabine Laubach, Elisa Rabanus, Ingeborg Schilling, soprano; Franziska Gündert, Natalie Hüskens, Juliane Wenzel, Angelika Wied, contralto; Stefan Kunath, alto; Thomas Jakobs, Ferdinand Junghänel, Bruno Michalke, Fabian Strotmann, Friedrich Custodio Spieser, tenor; Benjamin Hewat-Craw, Johannes Hill, Andreas Post, Felix Rathgeber, Christian Walter, bass
[DNO] Michael Schmidt-Casdorff, transverse flute; Clara Blessing, Marie-Therese Reith, Roberto De Franceschi, oboe; Rebecca Mertens, bassoon; Alexander Golde, bassoon, contrabassoon; Ute Hartwich, Sebastian Kuhn, Ute Rothkirch, trumpet; Olivier Picon, horn; Elisabeth Weber, Christof Boerner, Katja Grüttner, Petar Mancev, Almut Frenzel, Zsuzsana Czentnar, Frauke Heiwolt, violin; Antje Sabinski, Christian Goosses, viola; Davit Melkonyan, cello, cello piccolo; Timo Hoppe, double bass; Michael Borgstede, harpsichord; Andreas Gilger, organ; Friedhelm May, timpani

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 the second that is devoted to the annual cycle of chorale cantatas which Bach wrote between Trinity Sunday 1724 and Easter 1725. The previous sequel was released under the title 'Eternity'.

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.

Christus, der ist mein Leben (BWV 95) does not entirely fit into the concept of this sequel. First, it was performed on 12 September 1723, during Bach's first year in Leipzig. Second, it is not based on a single hymn: the four stanzas are all taken from different hymns. Three are included in the opening chorus, which has a rather unusual texture. The first section consists of the opening stanza of Christus, der ist mein Leben (Jena, 1609), which is followed by a solo for tenor - a mixture of arioso and recitative - that leads to the first stanza of Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (Martin Luther, 1524). A recitative for soprano leads attacca to the third hymn, the first stanza of Valet will ich dir geben (Valerius Herberger, 1613), scored for soprano - who sings the melody nearly unaltered - with two oboi d'amore and basso continuo. Then follows a recitative for tenor, who also sings the aria 'Ach, schlage doch bald, sel'ge Stunde'. Again the two oboi d'amore act as obbligato instruments; the closing figures follow each other in both instruments, which suggests the ringing of death bells. The same effect comes from the strings which play pizzicato. This is an eloquent illustration of the text: "Ah, strike soon, blessed hour, the very last bell-stroke!" The bass sings a recitative, and the cantata closes with the fourth hymn, 'Weil du vom Tod erstanden bist', the fourth stanza of Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist (Nikolaus Herman, 1560). The Gospel of the day is from Luke 7, which tells the story about the raising from the dead of the youth at Nain. The connection between the Gospel and the text of the cantata is rather loose. It is one of many cantatas from the German Baroque, which express the longing for death. The tenor of this work is that the faithful can be sure that once they will be raised from the dead, like the youth from Nain. The bass recitative refers to this: "My death is but a sleep, by which the body (...) comes to rest. (...) So I can now with a joyful mind found my blessed resurrection upon my Saviour". The main soloist here is Benedikt Kristjánsson, who delivers a very beautiful performance of the aria.

Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit is a cantata for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, and was first performed on 5 November 1724. It is based on a hymn by Johann Burchard Freystein (1695), sung on the melody of Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn. The Gospel of the day is from Matthew 18, where Jesus tells the parable of the unfaithful steward. There is no very close connection between the hymn and this episode; the cantata emphasizes the importance of praying and of being vigilant, as is expressed in the first half of the first stanza of the hymn: "Make ready, my spirit, watch, supplicate, and pray that the evil time does not unexpectedly come upon you". This may be connected to one element in the parable: the steward does not expect his master coming home. It is further worked out in the aria following the opening chorus: "Ah, slumbering soul, what? do you still rest? Rouse yourself!" The hymn comprises ten stanzas; as usual, the first and last are included unaltered, whereas the stanzas in between are arranged to arias and recitatives. The instrumental scoring is rather intimate, in line with the content of the cantata: transverse flute, oboe d'amore, strings and basso continuo. In the opening chorus the upper voice takes care of the cantus firmus, supported by a horn. In the first aria the alto is partnered by oboe d'amore and strings. The tempo is moderate (marked adagio) and written in a siciliano rhythm, in accordance with the tenor of the text, but turns to a livelier tempo at the opening of the B-section: "Punishment may suddenly wake you up". The second aria, for soprano, with transverse flute, cello piccolo and basso continuo, creating a quartet texture, opens with a literal quotation from the hymn: "But pray too, even amidst your watch!" The tempo is molto adagio. Olivia Vermeulen is a little disappointing in the first aria, due to too much vibrato, and the lower notes are a bit weak. Dorothee Mields is more convincing in her aria, which she sings with the subtlety the text requires.

Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig (BWV 26) is written for Sunday 19th November 1724, which was the 24th Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel of that day was from Matthew 9, where Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus from the dead. This gives food for thought about the transience of human life, as expressed in the opening chorale: "Ah how fleeting, ah how empty is the life of man". It is the opening stanza of a hymn by Michael Franck (1652). The opening chorus and the chorale harmonization at the end are literal quotations of the hymn, whereas the stanzas in between are paraphrased by the unknown librettist in the form of two recitatives, each of them following an aria. The scoring is for four voices (solo and tutti) and an ensemble of horn, transverse flute, three oboes, strings and basso continuo. In the opening chorus the sopranos sing the cantus firmus, supported by the horn. It is followed by an aria for tenor, with obbligato parts for transverse flute and violin, in which the text is eloquently illustrated through tempo and musical figures: "As swiftly as rushing water shoots forth do the days of our life run by". The flexibility of Benedikt Kristjánsson's voice helps to make sure that the message comes across. The second aria is for bass, with three obbligato oboe parts, and expresses the thought that it is a "seduction of the foolish world" to "set one's heart on earthly treasures". It is a typical memento mori aria. Daniel Ochoa has a powerful voice, which is perfectly suited to express the meaning of this aria. I am not greatly pleased by his voice, but that is also a matter of taste.

Jesu, nun sei gepreiset (BWV 41) was written for New Year's Day 1725. That was also the day that the circumcision and naming of Jesus was celebrated. Cantatas for this day often have a certain dichotomy, as the two subjects are not easy to combine. In this cantata the circumcision is altogether ignored. The hymn, from the pen of Johannes Herman and published in 1591, has three stanzas; the first and the third are included unaltered and at full length in the opening chorus and the closing chorale respectively. The second stanza has been adapted by the unknown librettist in the form of two arias, each followed by a recitative. Apparently this hymn, which is little-known today, was popular in Leipzig or may have been a favourite of Bach, as he uses it in two other cantatas for New Year's Day as well (BWV 171, 190). The stanzas are long, and this has made Bach decide to split them into several sections. It is notable that in the chorus and the chorale the last two lines are repeated. The festive character of the hymn and the cantata is emphasized by the instrumental scoring, with three trumpets, timpani and three oboes. The trumpets play an important role in the two tutti sections. In the opening chorus the lines 9 and 10 are singled out in that here the fast tempo turns into an adagio, which can be explained from the content: "So that in good stillness we have completed the old year". Next the three lower parts get involved in a fugue, whereas the upper voice - as in the entire chorus - sings the chorale tune. In the first half of the closing chorus each two lines are followed by a short ritornello. The first aria is for soprano, with three obbligato oboes. Dorothee Mields sings it very well, and it is nice that here she and the three instruments are treated in a consort manner: the balance is such that the soprano does not dominate. The second aria is for tenor, and it is a pretty long one. The obbligato part is for a low string instrument with a range from C to b'; the liner-notes state that Bach may have intended this part for a viola da spalla, "which we have replaced with a violoncello piccolo". It is interesting that Alfred Dürr does not make mention of the viola da spalla (which he may not have known; the register of his book does not mention it) but mentions the violoncello piccolo as the instrument for which it is intended. The tenor also needs a wide range, and Benedikt Kristjánsson's voice is suited for it. It is a shame that he uses a bit too much vibrato. In the closing chorus my doubts about Spering's treatment of the fermatas is confirmed; here I find the pauses often unnatural and against the nature of the chorale.

Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehre (BWV 137) is a cantata for the 12th Sunday after Trinity, and was performed on 19 August 1725. The Gospel of the day is from Mark 7, which tells about the healing of a deaf-mute. Strictly speaking the text that Bach set is not a libretto, as it includes no madrigalian episodes. All five stanzas of the hymn by Joachim Neander (1580) are used unaltered. The scoring is for four voices (solo and tutti) and an ensemble of three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, strings and basso continuo. As is so often the case, in the opening chorus the upper voice takes care of the chorale melody. The second stanza is given to the alto, who sings the melody unaltered; the counterpoint comes from a solo violin and the basso continuo. The third stanza is set as a duet of soprano and bass, with two obbligato oboe parts. Here we find the closest connection between the text and the Gospel of the day, as it includes the line "[Praise the Lord] who has granted you good health and guides you like a friend". The fourth stanza is for tenor, with an obbligato part for either oboe or trumpet; here Spering opted for an oboe. The entire ensemble returns for the closing chorale. In the duet Dorothee Mields and Tobias Berndt are a less than perfect match. Olivia Vermeulen sings the chorale's second stanza beautifully. Benedikt Kristjánsson is excellent in his account of the fourth stanza.

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140) is one of Bach's most famous cantatas, based on one of the best-known hymns. The latter comprises three stanzas and was written by Philipp Nicolai (1599). Here Advent - the expectation of the birth of Jesus - and the longing for the second coming of Christ come together, indicated by the closing line of the last stanza, as it ends with the words "In dulci jubilo" - the opening words of a popular Christmas carol. The cantata was written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, the last before the first Sunday of Advent. However, the ecclesiastical calender includes such a Sunday only when Easter takes place before 27 March. During Bach's period in Leipzig this happened only in 1731 and 1742. The cantata was performed on 25 November 1731, which makes its inclusion in this recording rather odd, given that - according to the booklet - it focuses on chorale cantatas from the annual cycle 1724/25. The cantata is different from most other chorale cantatas in that the three stanzas are kept entirely intact. Apart from the opening chorus and the closing chorale, the second stanza is placed in the centre, scored for tenor, singing the chorale almost unchanged, accompanied by strings playing in unison, and basso continuo. Bach later transcribed it for organ; it is the first of the so-called Schübler Choräle. There are three solo parts: the tenor takes the role of narrator (comparable with the Evangelist in the Passions), whereas the soprano and bass represent the soul and Jesus respectively. The two arias are duets for soprano and bass, and therefore this cantata is not fundamentally different from other duet cantatas by Bach. Like these this cantata is an example of Lutheran (bridal) mysticism. This explains the many images taken from the Old Testament book Song of Songs. It links up with the Gospel of the day (Matthew 25, the parable of the ten virgins) as well as the Epistle of that Sunday (1 Thessalonians 5: Being prepared for the last day). However, the librettist does not go too far in this matter, as Alfred Dürr in his book on Bach's cantatas explains. "The division of the opening words of the sixth movement between the two dialogue partners of Bach's duet - "Mein Freund ist mein"/"Und ich bin sein" ("My Beloved is mine"/"And I am his") - is strictly speaking incorrect. Nor is it rectified by altering the second clause to "und ich bin dein" ("and I am yours"), as in older editions of the cantata (perhaps it would be correct to say, "und du bist mein", "and you are mine"). Evidently, Bach's concern was not with a realistic dialogue but with keeping the biblical quotation intact and disregarding dramatic secondary intentions." The voices of Dorothee Mields and Tobias Berndt are a better match here than in BWV 137. Both duets receive satisfying performances. In the third line of the closing chorale the words "Harfen" (harps) and "Zimbeln" (cymbals) have been swapped; I can't find any source for that.

In my previous reviews of recordings in this project I have expressed by doubts about some aspects, such as the way the fermates in the closing chorales are treated. I am not going to repeat them here. Another one is the use of a contrabassoon, even though that instrument became available for Bach only in the 1730s. If we put these things aside, there is certainly much to enjoy. The best parts are the contributions of Benedikt Kristjánsson, who has developed into one of the finest baroque singers of our time. The lightness and flexibility of his voice are tailor-made for the often demanding arias in Bach's cantatas and oratorios. The other soloists are a bit of a mixed package. Dorothee Mields is an outstanding and stylish singer, but sometimes she tends to use a bit too much vibrato, and here she is not free from it. Olivia Vermeulen is not exactly the voice I would like to hear in this repertoire; her low register is a bit too weak. Both Tobias Berndt and Daniel Ochoa deliver good performances of their respective recitatives and arias, but I don't really like their voices. Looking back at the recordings that have been released so far, the bass section is the least satisfying among the soloists. The choir is a good ensemble, and the ideas of Spering are perfectly realized. However, I prefer a smaller ensemble. The orchestra is first-class, and its members give good accounts of the obbligato parts.

Whatever are my reservations, this project is undoubtedly an interesting contribution to the Bach discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2023)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Benedikt Kristjánsson
Daniel Ochoa
Georg Poplutz
Olivia Vermeulen
Chorus Musicus Köln & Das Neue Orchester

CD Reviews