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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott"

Hannah Morrisona, Johanna Winkelb, soprano; Franziska Gottwaldc, Sophie Harmsend, contralto; Sebastian Kohlheppe, Manuel Königf, tenor; Tobias Berndtg, Daniel Ochoah, bass
Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering

rec: Oct 30 - Nov 3, 2014, Cologne, Melanchtonkirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88875170122 (© 2015) (62'59")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80)adfg; Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80b) (early version; fragm)bh; Johann Sebastian BACH, arr Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784): Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80)bceh; Wilhelm Friedemann BACH: Gaudete, omnes populi (after BWV 80,1); Manebit Verbum Domini (after BWV 80,5)

Martin Luther, in his pursuit of making the congregation sing, wrote a number of hymns, which are still very well known and often sung, such as Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland and Vater unser im Himmelreich. But few are so inextricably linked to him and to Lutheranism - or even Protestantism in general - as Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott. It has received the status of 'national anthem' of Lutheranism, and one could even get the impression that it is a kind of battle hymn. However, that is probably largely due to the way it has been used by later generations, and if we have to believe Christoph Spering one could consider that aspect a result of 19th-century German nationalism.

Luther wrote the text of Ein feste Burg in 1529; the melody is also considered to be written by him. It is a paraphrase of Psalm 46 ("Deus nostra spes et fortitudo", Vulgate; "God is our refuge and strength", King James Version). The exact reason Luther wrote this hymn is not known. Only a few years later it was included in hymn books. In the late 16th and the 17th centuries is was the subject of various arrangements, for instance by Johannes Eccard, Hans-Leo Hassler, Johann Hermann Schein and Melchior Franck. In the course of time its original rhythm disappeared, as in the case of so many other hymns. When Johann Sebastian Bach used it for his cantata BWV 80 it had turned into an isorhythmic chorale.

Bach composed his cantata for Reformation Day, but we don't know in which year. He reworked a cantata which he had written in Weimar, probably in 1715: Alles, was von Gott geboren (BWV 80a). It was written for Sunday Oculi and Bach could not re-use it in its original form, as on this Sunday in Lent no figural music was performed in Leipzig. Nothing of this cantata has survived. In 1723 or 1724 Bach first re-used the music for a cantata for Reformation Day; two parts have come down to us, the opening chorus and a fragment of the first aria with chorale. The chorus is a chorale harmonization of the kind Bach often used to close a cantata. These two remnants of this version have been recorded here for the first time.

The version we now know as Cantata 80 was presumably written between 1728 and 1731. However, it is often performed with additional parts for trumpets and timpani; these parts are from the pen of Bach's eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann and probably date from the late 1730s. This is where the story gets interesting. It is often assumed that Wilhelm Friedemann added the parts to his father's cantata, but that is not the case. He used only two sections: the opening chorus and the chorale 'Und wenn die Welt voll Teufel wär' (No. 5) which he isolated from the cantata. He did not keep the original texts but used Latinised paraphrases.

From 1850, the centenary of Bach's death, the Complete Edition of the Works of Johann Sebastian Bach was published. In 1870 Ein feste Burg appeared as part of this edition. The liner-notes remind us that this was the first year of the Franco-Prussian War. "The editors of the Complete Bach Edition included the two above-mentioned movements in W.F. Bach's instrumentation in the cantata without further comment, placing the German chorale text familiar from the J.S. Bach original beneath the Latin-language hymns. Thus the editors of the old Bach edition published a new work with a deliberate intention: a Bach cantata with trumpets and timpani, festive and heroic in mood, that was in keeping with the political zeitgeist and with Protestant convictions. In terms of both German nationalism and religious history, nothing was apparently more opportune than superimposing W.F. Bach's Latinized hymns with their festive instrumentation upon the original J.S. Bach cantata, thus elevating Luther as well as Bach himself to the status of Protestant monuments in the German national tradition."

This could well be true, and it would not surprise me. However, the motifs behind this decision are hard to prove. Let us treat this interpretation as a possible explanation of how the cantata received the form in which it is still often performed these days. The interesting aspect of this disc is that the cantata is performed here complete in both versions: the original version by J.S. Bach, and the version as it was published in 1870. Christoph Spering also attempted to mark the difference between them in the way he performs them.

He used different soloists and adapted the size of the choir: in the original version the choir is smaller than in WF Bach's version and the line-up of the basso continuo also varies from one version to the other. In an interview in the booklet he states: "The old version, i.e. the version in the 19th century style hitherto generally used, is deliberately presented here in a subjective form on this album - with fairly fast tempi in the opening chorus and the duet that follows (...). The central soprano aria (...), on the other hand, is slow, almost languishing (...)." In the original version the latter is performed "as Bach intended in rapid 12/8 time (...). The result is a joyful Baroque dance of longing for Jesus, and not the lachrymose self-pity of the singing soul".

Spering also criticises modern performers: "It is interesting in this context that entire generations of interpreters, from Karl Richter as a representative of the old German school to Philippe Herreweghe as a combatant of the French and international school of historic performance practice, performed and recorded this 'W.F. Bach version' as if it was the J.S. Bach original. In the process, they believed they were making a concrete musical contribution to the Bach monument, but they were actually disfiguring it". And he adds that since the pioneering recordings of Bach's cantatas by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt - who, by the way, used the original version - "the widespread attitude now is something like "I'll play Bach the way I like it!"" In my view he doesn't entirely do justice to many performers who certainly try to come as closely as possible to Bach's intentions. That said, it is certainly a matter of debate to what extent they are willing to take scientific research into account. But the same can be said about Spering who justifies his use of a chamber choir in Bach's cantatas by referring to the famous Entwurff, but without trying to refute other interpretations of this document.

From the perspective of Bach reception and performance practice this is undoubtedly a highly interesting recording. It presents the two versions face to face for the very first time. As I said the fragments from BWV 80b are also recorded for the first time, and the same seems to be the case with the two sections from the cantata which Wilhelm Friedemann arranged, with their original Latin text.

The performances are pretty good, although there are certainly some issues. The two choruses on Latin texts receive very fine performances. It is quite interesting to hear the well-known music with such different texts. Unfortunately the booklet doesn't offer the literal translations of these texts. These two movements open and close the programme. The second item on this disc is what has been left of the BWV 80b version. The aria for bass with chorale for soprano breaks off halfway, after 2'27", in the middle of a phrase.

The differences between the two versions of Cantata 80 come out well. Considering that the WF Bach version is basically a 19th century creation Spering could have gone a step further and perform it in the style of the mid-19th century, with the appropriate instruments and a larger ensemble. That could have been quite interesting. The aria 'Komm in mein Herzenshaus' is much faster in Bach's original version, but I am not totally convinced that this is the most appropriate speed. I feel that the "longing for Jesus" Spering refers to falls a little short here.

The soloists are generally good, although the basses wouldn't have been my first choice. Both use too much vibrato. Daniel Ochoa in the WF Bach version is a bit weak in the lower part of his tessitura, and the balance between him and both the soprano and the orchestra is less than ideal. It also needs to be said that the recitatives are a bit too strict in time. The sopranos are both excellent, the tenors are good, although not quite at their level. The tenor recitative 'So stehe dann bei Christi blutgefärbter Fahne' ends with an arioso: "Dein Heiland bleibt dein Heil, dein Heiland bleibt dein Hort". In the original version Manuel König sings only "bleibt dein Hort"; is this a slip of the tongue? If it is, it should have been corrected. Lastly, the chorales are too straightforward; there should have been more dynamic differentiation and less legato.

All things said and done, this is a fascinating release and one of the most interesting and valuable contributions to the commemoration of the Reformation. Every Bach lover should add it to his collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Franziska Gottwald
Sebastian Kohlhepp
Hannah Morrison
Daniel Ochoa
Johanna Winkel
Chorus Musicus Köln & Das Neue Orchester

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