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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Luther Kantaten, Vol. 1" (Cantatas for Advent & Christmas)

Lydia Teuscherac, Sarah Wegenerb, soprano; Charlotte Quadt, contraltoc; Benno Schachtner, altoab; Daniel Johannsena, Sebastian Kohlheppbc, tenor; Thomas E. Bauerb, Rafael Fingerlosc, Daniel Ochoaa, bass
Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering

rec: April 21 - 24, 2015c, Feb 2 - 6b/June 6 - 8a, 2016, Cologne-Zollstock, Melanchthon-Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88985320832-1 (© 2016) (63'31")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (BWV 91)a; Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 62)b; Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36)c

At the occasion of the commemoration of 500 years Reformation deutsche harmonia mundi released four discs with cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, in which hymns by Martin Luther play a key role. They were put together in a box, but are also available separately. This gives me the opportunity to review them at different stages, and taking into account the time of the year. I focus here on the first volume, which includes three cantatas for Advent and Christmas.

The programme opens with Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 62), one of two cantatas for the first Sunday of Advent, which are based on one of Luther's best-known and most-beloved hymns for this time of the year. It is based on the Christmas hymn Veni redemptor gentium by Ambrose of Milan (c340-397). The melody is first documented as a Roman Catholic Latin hymn based upon Gregorian chant in manuscript form in Einsiedeln around 1120. Luther's hymn comprises eight stanzas; the first and the last are included unaltered in this cantata, whereas the other stanzas are paraphrased in the intermediate sections: two recitatives and two arias. The opening chorus is a brilliant piece, in which the sopranos sing the cantus firmus, supported by a horn, whereas the other voices provide the counterpoint, with an ensemble of two oboes, strings and basso continuo. In the instrumental prelude the chorale melody is quoted in the basso continuo, which in this recording is clearly audible thanks to the use of a larger organ than is mostly used. Next comes the tenor aria, 'Bewundert, o Menschen, dies große Geheimnis', with two oboes and strings. The tempo is notably fast, and this is one of the features of these performances. The same goes for the aria 'Streite, siege, starker Held', in which the bass is accompanied by strings, playing in unison. In the liner-notes the musical director, Christoph Spering, and the musicologist Norbert Bolín, state: "The tempi of these arias emerge from the basic pulse that already permeates the opening chorus." Despite the tempo, the diction of Sebastian Kohlhepp and Thomas E. Bauer is remarkably good. Unfortunately both use too much vibrato. Bauer's coloratura is excellent, but the strings, although playing well, are a bit too restrained, considering the belligerent character of this aria. The closing chorale is slow, almost without marked dynamic accents, and with a pause after each line. This is based on Spering's view on this part of Bach's chorales, as he states in the booklet: "It seems to me to make total sense to perform the simple four-part cantional movements in a completely undramatic way divorced from any Biblical action. They are an expression and a reflection on the part of a Christian believer, even if, in the case of Leipzig, we must assume that the congregation was not actively involved but merely listened to the chorales while these were being sung by the choir. The fermatas at the end of each line of the chorales are points of repose when the congregation can 'pause and reflect on the words', a point spelled out by contemporary writers on music theory". Whether the chorales were sung this way under Bach's direction is probably hard to prove, and personally I tend to disagree with the way Spering performs them. It seems to me that reflection is perfectly possible with a more dramatic way of singing, in which key moments in the text are expressed. The fermates after every line seem unnatural to me.

Whereas BWV 62 was performed in 1724, at a time when Bach was writing cantatas based on chorales, Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36), also for the first Sunday of Advent, dates from 1731. Most of it was first conceived as a secular cantata, which Bach performed in 1725 at the occasion of the birthday of a teacher. Its sacred version, which also exists in two versions (the later one is recorded here) comprises two parts, performed before and after the sermon respectively. Two chorales are included in this cantata: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland and Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern. The last stanza of the latter is heard in a four-part harmonization at the end of the first part. The former chorale is included three times: a harmonization of the last stanza closes the second part, but two other stanzas are set in concertato manner. The opening stanza is a duet for soprano and alto, both accompanied by an oboe d'amore, in the first part. The oboi d'amore also accompany the tenor in the aria on the sixth stanza, 'Der du bist dem Vater gleich', in the second part. It has the tempo indication molt'Allegro, and that results in a very fast tempo. In the liner-notes we read that the ensuing aria for soprano, 'Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen', is "a special point of repose, its slow tempo proportionate to the pulse of the molt'Allegro in the preceding chorale". It is probably one of the slowest performances I have heard, but the chosen tempo works wonderfully well, also thanks to the fine performance by Lydia Teuscher. The tenor part is again sung by Kohlhepp, and although he is not free of vibrato here, his performance is considerably better than in the previous cantata. The second part opens with the bass aria 'Willkommen, werter Schatz', which is nicely sung by Rafael Fingerlos, a new name to me. I like his relaxed manner of singing; his diction and articulation are excellent, but there could have been more marked dynamic accents.

With Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (BWV 91) we are at the first day of Christmas in 1724. The instrumental scoring fits the festive nature of this day: two horns, timpani, three oboes, strings and bc. The horns play a concertante role in the opening chorus, a setting of the first stanza of the hymn, written by Luther in 1524. Again it is (loosely) based on older material from pre-Reformation times. Bach has used it in several compositions, for instance his Christmas Oratorio. "The highly virtuosic opening chorus contains parts for two concertante horns and, clearly marked alla breve, is intended to be conducted in minims. At first the tempo seems almost insanely fast, but, interestingly, it is easier for the horn players to perform it at this speed than at a slower tempo" (booklet). The tempo is indeed very fast, and that is something one probably has to get used to. It is done brilliantly, though, and the performances of the horn players are very impressive. The tenor aria, 'Gott, dem Erden Kreis zu klein', is performed at almost breackneck speed; Daniel Johannsen deals bravely with this tempo. It is preceded by a recitative which alternates with the second stanza from Luther's hymn. The aria is followed by an accompanied recitative for bass, which turns to an adagio towards the end on the text "He comes to you to lead you before his throne through this vale of tears". The latter words are set to marked dissonances. The soloist, Daniel Ochoa, is also new to me. He tends to be a little too operatic, and his performance here is a bit too pathetic. The recitative is followed by a wonderful duet for soprano and alto, with two violins and bc, exquisitely sung by Lydia Teuscher and Benno Schachtner, whose voices blend perfectly.

I have already mentioned several features of these performances. In the booklet several aspects of performance practice are discussed. Among them, almost inevitably, the issue of the size of the vocal ensemble. Andreas Glöckner takes a clear stand in that he does not believe in the theory of 'one voice per part'. However, he adds that "the question as to exactly how Bach performed his music must for the most part remain unanswered. The evidence is too slender for us to make any definitive pronouncements, and it is unlikely that any new and spectacular documents will come to light that might tell us more about Bach's performing practice. In short, it would be wrong to be dogmatic in the debate over the forces that Bach used, a debate that has occasionally generated a good deal of heat".

In these performances the choir comprises sixteen voices, which more or less has been established as the standard since the early days of historical performance practice. The soloists are part of the choir and take part in the tutti. That is in line with the practice in Bach's days, when there was no formal separation between soli and tutti. The size of the orchestra matches that of the choir: it includes six violins and one or two violas. I already referred to the organ. Unfortunately that instrument is not specified in the booklet. It only says that it is "more or less the size of the Brustwerk available to Bach in his years in Leipzig." We are still far away from the restoration of Bach's performance practice in this department, but that is not easy to realise, for several reasons I won't discuss here. The fact that the organ is more clearly audible here than in other recordings is also due to its positioning in the centre of the ensemble.

An interesting issue is that of the performance of the secco recitatives. Here we have to do with another convention, which has come into existence in the early days of historical performance practie. Today there is little discussion about the question whether the recitatives should be performed with short or long note-values. The former has become the standard, but Spering questions whether that is correct. "Even today there is still no detailed account of the sources relating to the continuo praxis of Bach's day, but these sources have prompted our decision to perform the secco recitatives in the present recording either consistently long of consistenly short within a single cantata". I am all in favour of performances which challenge the habits which have established themselves in historical performance practice. That is in line with the very foundation of that approach to music: taking nothing for granted, but going back to the sources. That said, I find it unsatisfying that some decisions seem to be rather arbitrary. The arguments in favour of long notes in the first recitative from Cantata BWV 91, for instance, don't sound very convincing to me.

As the reader will have noticed, these performances offer plenty opportunities for debate about the performance of Bach's cantatas. This disc is more than just another performance of cantatas which are very well known. From that angle it deserves the attention of any Bach lover. I have already mentioned the good and not so good things in these performances. There is certainly much to enjoy, and for me the pros outweigh the cons. In due course I am going to review the following volumes. I wonder what they have in store.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Rafael Fingerlos
Daniel Johannsen
Sebastian Kohlhepp
Daniel Ochoa
Charlotte Quadt
Benno Schachtner
Sarah Wegener
Chorus Musicus Köln & Das Neue Orchester

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