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Johann Sebastian BACH & Henry PURCELL: "Motetten - Kantaten"

Balthasar-Neumann-Chor, Balthasar-Neumann-Ensemble
Dir: Thomas Hengelbrock

rec: March 23 - 24, 2007, Forstern-Tading, Kirche Mariä Himmelfahrt
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88697115702 (© 2007) (65'52")

Johann Ludwig BACH (1677-1731): Wir wissen, so unser irdisches Haus; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131)a; Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich (BWV 150)b; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Funeral Music on the Death of Queen Mary (Canzonas & Marches, Z 860; In the midst of life, Z 17; Man that is born of a woman, Z 27; Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts, Z 58b); Hear my prayer, O Lord (Z 15); Remember not, Lord, our offences (Z 50)

Tanya Aspelmeierb, Anja Bittner, Annemei Blessing-Leyhausen, Heike Heilmann, Undine Holzwarth, Sibylle Schaible, soprano; Jürgen Bannholzerb, Edzard Burchards, alto; Julie Comparini, Truike van der Poel, contralto; Nils Gibelhausen, Mirko Heimerlb, Tilman Kögel, Hans Jörg Mammela, Marco van de Klundert, tenor; Ralf Grobe, Marek Rzepkaa, Andreas Werner, Hans Wijersb, bass; Josue Melendez, cornett; Matthias Sprinz, Cas Gevers, Ralf Müller, trombone; Henriette Scheytt, Verena Sommer, violin; Claudia Hofert, Jeanette Dorée, viola; Veit Scholz, bassoon; Matthias Müller, violone; Michael Behringer, organ [superscripts refer to soli]

The combination of composers on this disc may be a bit surprising: Bach and Purcell were no contemporaries, Bach almost certainly didn't know Purcell's music, and their works belong to a different tradition. In his programme notes Meinrad Walter states that "they were both influenced by the Reformation with its 'Sola scriptura' principle, as is evident from numerous settings of biblical texts". I think this is stretching things a little: the Church of England isn't as strongly rooted in the Reformation as the German church for which Bach composed his cantatas. On the other hand, in his cantatas Bach uses more free poetry than Purcell in his liturgical music.
Walter's next observation, that "both composers devoted their attention with immense creativity to the biblical inspired and musically inspiring double topic 'the love of life and the art of death'" seems more valid, but I have to add they were certainly not the only ones, and they were anything but unique in this respect. All these considerations apart, there is a strong connection between the compositions brought together, even though they are very different in character.

The Funeral Music on the Death of Queen Mary dates from 1695 and belongs to the most famous part of Purcell's oeuvre. The four instrumental works, originally written for flatt trumpets, are performed here with cornett and trombones, in alternation with the three motets. Hear my prayer, O Lord was also probably conceived as part of funeral music, and is spiced by strong dissonances. The text of Remember, Lord, our offences is a part of the liturgy of the Church of England, and consists of quotations from various Psalms.

Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir is one of the earliest cantatas by Bach and is still rooted in the style of the sacred concerto of the 17th century as the various sections merge into each other. The text consists of the complete Psalm 130 - one of the penitential psalms -, with addition of two stanzas from the hymn 'Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut' (Bartholomäus Ringwaldt, 1588). It was probably written for a penitential service, and therefore it is not connected to death as Purcell's music is. But it fits into the programme as this Psalm speaks about sin and forgiveness, which is also referred to in the motet In the midst of life: "O Lord, who for our sins are justly displeased". The motet Remember not, Lord, our offences is even more specifically about this subject.

Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich is also not connected to death or to a funeral; like the previous cantata no occasion is specified. The text is based on four verses from Psalm 25, to which free poetry is added. There are no chorales. The subject is "cross, storms and other tribulations" of everyday life which the Christian can survive with God's help. The closing chorus sums it up: "My days of constant suffering God still brings to a joyful end".

Between Purcell and Bach is a motet by Johann Ludwig Bach, a distant cousin of Johann Sebastian, who worked in Meiningen. It is written for 8 voices in two choirs. It is an appropriate addition to the programme, as the text says "we search for our house, which is in the heavens". This most likely is a funeral motet, as the two last stanzas of the funeral hymn 'Alle Menschen müssen sterben' (Johann G. Albinus, 1652) are used.

These two ensembles are first-rate, as their previous recordings have shown. We get very good performances here too, in which the text is paid much attention to. There are also clear dynamic accents, which emphasize key elements in the text. One could argue that the articulation in Purcell is perhaps a bit too sharp: there is a difference between English and German, and some German-speaking ensembles have some problems with that. But this is only a minor detail which doesn't diminish the virtue of these performances.

In Bach's cantatas the scoring is a little problematic: the vocal parts are performed with four to six voices per part (6/4/5/4), whereas the ensemble is scored with one voice per part. As a result the balance between voices and instruments, in particular in forte episodes, is less than ideal. The solo parts are sung by members of the ensemble. Hans Jörg Mammel is impressive in the aria 'Meine Seele wartet" (BWV 131), Marek Rzepka does well in the arioso "So du willt" (BWV 131), but I don't like the slight tremolo in his voice. Tanya Aspelmeier could have made a little more in "Doch bin und bleibe ich vergnügt" (BWV 150). The motet by Johann Ludwig Bach is given a splendid performance in which every detail of the text is explored.

Despite the critical remarks I don't hesitate to recommend this disc. The booklet contains programme notes as well as an essay on 'The art of living and the art of dealing with death' by the German philosopher Wilhelm Schmid, whose views have little in common with the views in the world of Purcell and Bach.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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