musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Luther-Kantaten, Vol. 2"

Marie-Sophie Pollaka, Lydia Teuscherc, soprano; Mélodie Ruvio, contraltoa; Benno Schachtner, altobc; Benjamin Brunsa, Daniel Johannsenc, Sebastian Kohlheppb, tenor; Thomas E. Bauerab, Daniel Ochoac, bass
Chorus Musicus Köln; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering

rec: Oct 8 - 12, 2015a, Feb 2 - 6b/June 6 - 8, 2016c, Cologne-Zollstock, Melanchthon-Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88985320832-1 (© 2018) (55'15")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121)a; Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (BWV 125)b; Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit (BWV 14)c

During Advent I reviewed a disc with cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach for that period of the ecclesiastical year, which is part of a set of four discs with cantatas based on hymns by Martin Luther. These are also available separately, and therefore I now turn to the second disc, which includes cantatas for the second day of Christmas, the Feast of the Purification and the fourth Sunday after Epiphany respectively.

Christum, wir sollen loben schon (BWV 121) is a cantata for the second Day of Christmas. This was also St Stephen's Day, in remembrance of the first Christian martyr, but that subject is ignored here. It is one of the cantatas from the chorale cantata cycle of the season 1724/25. The chorale is Martin Luther's German translation of the traditional hymn A solis ortus cardine. As was common practice the first and last stanzas of the hymn are left unaltered, whereas the four other stanzas are adapted to recitatives and arias. The opening chorus has the form of a chorale motet. Notable is that Bach includes the old-fashioned instruments cornett and sackbut, which play colla voce, as was the habit in the days of the stile antico. They return in the closing chorale. In contrast the ensuing aria for tenor is quite modern, thanks to the obbligato part for oboe d'amore. The alto recitative is notable for Bach's harmonic experiment at the end: a sixth-chord of C sharp major is followed not by the expected f sharp minor, but via a diminished seventh to C major. This may well be inspired by the text, which is about the unexpected act of God: "God chooses Himself a pure body as a temple of His honour, So that He may turn to mankind in a wondrous manner." Although the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is not part of the Gospel of the day, the bass aria, 'Johannis freudenvolles Springen', refers to this event. Bass and strings are dominated by rhythms which eloquently depict "John's joyful leaping".

The latter does not come off here. That is largely due to the very fast tempo; this is rather stamping than leaping. It is one of the reasons why the performance of this cantata is not entirely convincing. Another reason is that the opening chorus is a bit short on transparency and as a result the text is hard to understand. Benjamin Bruns does rather well in the aria 'O du von Gott erhöhte Kreatur'; he impresses especially with his fine diction. He does not entirely avoid vibrato, but it is not disturbing. Thomas Bauer's vibrato, on the other hand, is clearly noticeable. The two recitatives are pretty good, and especially Mélodie Ruvio has a very nice voice.

In the course of time Luther's hymn Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin has become particularly associated with funerals. However, it is a German translation of the Canticle of Simeon, known with its Latin title Nunc dimittis. Therefore it is only logical that Bach took it as the starting point of a cantata for the Feast of the Purification (BWV 125). It is again part of the chorale cantata cycle 1724/25, and was performed on 2 February 1725. The libretto keeps the first and last stanza of the hymn. The second stanza is inserted in the bass recitative 'O Wunder, daß ein Herz'; the hymn melody is ornamented. The instrumental scoring is for transverse flute, oboe and oboe d'amore respectively, strings and basso continuo. In the opening chorus the hymn melody is in the upper voice, which is supported by the horn. According to Christoph Spering and Norbert Bolín, in their liner-notes, the aria for alto, 'Ich will auch mit gebrochnen Augen', "is always taken too slowly", but they don't come up with an argument in favour of the faster tempo chosen here. They add that "the aria was presumably performed with cello and double bass alone and with no keyboard instrument". It bears the indication legato per tutto e senza accompag[namento]. That is how it is performed here. The expression of this aria is not lost on Benno Schachtner. In the ensuing recitative with chorale the joy expressed in the text - "O wonder, that one's heart before the flesh's hated tomb and even death's distress, should not be frightened!" - is illustrated by the strings. There is little difference between the free poetic text and the phrases from the hymn. That is partly due to the composition, but it seems to me that Thomas Bauer could have given the hymn lines more emphasis. This accompanied recitative is followed by a duet of tenor and bass, accompanied by two violins and basso continuo, resulting in a quintet. The two voices are a good match, and especially the opening of the B part is perfectly expressed in the performance: "There echoes strongly on and on a word of promise most desired". According to the booklet one of the soloists is the soprano Sarah Wegener, but there is no soprano solo in this cantata; she only participates in the tutti as a member of the choir.

Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit is based on Luther's translation and versification of Psalm 124. Although Bach's cantata BWV 14 is a chorale cantata, it is not part of the chorale cantata cycle. In 1725 Easter was so early that there was no fourth Sunday after Epiphany, for which this cantata is intended. It rather dates from 1735 and was written shortly after the Christmas Oratorio. The opening chorus is a special case. "The opening chorus (...) is taken over word for word from Luther's hymn, its archaic tone heightened by the introduction of a counter-fugue. In other words, the first answer in the exposition is the inversion of the subject and an ascending line is answered with a descending one. This complex four-part fugue begins afresh with each line of the hymn and is held together by Luther's chorale melody, which is heard in unison in the two oboes and horn." Another issue is the obbligato part in the soprano aria, called a corne. par force in the autograph, but also referred to as tromba. It is not entirely clear which instrument is meant. "There is currently no one who can play a horn in G at the required tempo, which is why we have used a trumpet here, a solution that has generally been adopted in the past." (*) The question is whether that "required tempo" is correct. In his recording, Gustav Leonhardt (Teldec) uses a corno da caccia, albeit in a somewhat slower tempo. Lydia Teuscher delivers a good performance. The ensuing tenor recitative and bass aria have survived in the cantata's set of parts, with the indication organo tacet, and therefore they are performed to an accompaniment of cello and double bass. Daniel Johannsen brings out perfectly the agitation of the recitative. The aria is a quartet of bass, two oboes and basso continuo. The character of this aria comes off well in Daniel Ochoa's performance, but - as in the first volume of this series - I find his singing too operatic and would have preferred a bit more subtlety.

In all three cantatas the closing chorales seem too slow to me and I also find the treatment of the fermates rather unnatural. Otherwise the choir is excellent, and so is the instrumental ensemble, whose members give very good accounts of the obbligato parts.

Like the first volume, this disc includes several interesting decisions with regard to performance practice. Whether these are all convincing, is a different matter. But it certainly makes this recording a valuable addition to the Bach discography.

(*) After the publication of this review, I received an email from Matthew Westphal, who suggested that the indication corne. par force may refer to the use of a cornett. "I know that the cornetto was considered extremely old-fashioned by 1735, but it strikes me as at least plausible that Bach wanted a trumpet but, for whatever reason, was forced ("par force") to use a cornetto on the occasion in 1735 for which he wrote down that autograph." This is a very interesting suggestion. The addition "par force" makes sense, as Bach used the cornett in his cantatas only in tutti sections, to play colla voce (except in Cantata BWV 25, where it has an obbligato part in the opening chorus). It would be interesting to hear that particular aria with a cornett, also in regard to the tempo. The question is, whether at the time someone was around who could play the cornett. This issue deserves further research.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Benjamin Bruns
Daniel Johannsen
Sebastian Kohlhepp
Daniel Ochoa
Marie Sophie Pollak
Mélodie Ruvio
Benno Schachtner
Chorus Musicus Köln & Das Neue Orchester

CD Reviews