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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Luther-Kantaten", Vol. 3 & Vol. 4

[I] "Luther-Kantaten Vol. 3"
Marie-Sophie Pollakb, Lydia Teuscherd, soprano; Charlotte Quadtd, Mélodie Ruviob, contralto; Benno Schachtner, altoc; Benjamin Brunsb, Sebastian Kohlheppacd, tenor; Thomas E. Baueracd, Rafael Fingerlosc, bass
Chorus Musicus Kölnacd; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering
rec: April 21 - 24d & Oct 8 - 12b, 2015; Feb 2 - 6, 2016ac, Cologne-Zollstock, Melanchthon-Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88985320832-3 (© 2018) (72'23")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (BWV 2)a; Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4)b; Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (BWV 7)c; Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (BWV 126)d

[II] "Luther-Kantaten Vol. 4"
Hannah Morrisonb, Marie-Sophie Pollaka, Lydia Teuscherc, soprano; Sophie Harmsenb, Charlotte Quadtc, Mélodie Ruvioa, contralto; Benjamin Brunsa, Sebastian Kohlheppc, Manuel Königb, tenor; Thomas E. Bauera, Tobias Berndtb, Rafael Fingerlosc, bass
Chorus Musicus Kölnab; Das Neue Orchester
Dir: Christoph Spering
rec: Oct 30 - Nov 3, 2014b, April 21 - 24c & Oct 8 - 12a, 2015, Cologne-Zollstock, Melanchthon-Kirche
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88985320832-4 (© 2018) (56'44")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 38); Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80); Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61)


At the occasion of the commemoration of 500 years Reformation, deutsche harmonia mundi released a set of four discs devoted to the cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach which are based on hymns by Martin Luther. Recently I have reviewed two of them (*), partly because they liturgically fit the time of the year. This review is about the two remaining discs of this set.

Most chorale cantatas date from 1724 or 1725, the time Bach put together his so-called 'chorale cantata cycle'. There are some exceptions, and Vol. 3 includes one of them. Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) is one of Bach's best-known cantatas, and also one of his earliest, maybe even the very first he has ever written. Stylistically it is still clearly rooted in the 17th century: it is a series of chorale variations per omnes versus. In contrast to later cantatas the stanzas of the hymn are kept intact. They are scored for various combinations of voices and instruments. The performance of this work is also different from what is common in this set. Whereas the other cantatas are performed by soloists and a choir, here the entire work is sung by four solo voices, which also take care of the tutti sections. This is in line with the practice at the time Bach wrote this work. However, Christoph Spering seems to be a little inconsistent here. He himself states that his interpretation "takes us into the realm of speculation". Rather than referring to the time and place this cantata was first performed - probably Weimar - he mentions the fact that in Leipzig Bach performed this cantata with additional sackbuts. These parts - playing colla voce - are omitted here, but he assumes that this cantata was performed with strings alone in Bach's early years in Leipzig in the same high Chorton as in Weimar. The question then is, why he decided to perform it with one voice per part, considering that the starting point of his interpretations is the conviction that in Leipzig Bach made use of a choir. The most dramatic section is the setting of the 5th verse, 'Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm', scored for bass. Thomas Bauer sings it well, despite using too much vibrato, as we expect from him. The tutti are not entirely satisfying: the four singers here are not a fixed ensemble, and that shows.

The three other cantatas on this disc are from the chorale cantata cycle 1724/25. Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (BWV 126) was performed on 4 February 1725, Sunday Sexagesima, the second Sunday before Lent. The Gospel of that Sunday is from Luke 8, the Parable of the Sower. Luther's hymn fits that parable very well, as it is about the power of the Word of God. In Bach's time Luther's hymn had been extended with two stanzas by Justus Jonas, Luther's own translation of the traditional hymn Da pacem Domine (Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich) and a verse by Johann Walter, 'Gib unsern Fürsten und aller Obrigkeit'. In line with common practice in the chorale cantatas, the first and last (in this case the two last) stanzas are kept intact, whereas the others have been arranged in the form of recitatives and arias. The instrumental scoring is for two oboes, strings and basso continuo. In the opening chorus and the closing chorale Bach adds a part for trumpet. In the chorus it plays fanfare motifs. This is followed by a virtuosic tenor aria, which contains some striking text illustration, especially in the B section. It takes advantage of Sebastian Kohlhepp's excellent diction. The bass aria is quite dramatic, with large intervals and descending scale passages. Rafael Fingerlos does not fully explore its character, as his voice is just not powerful enough; the basso continuo is also a bit too harmless.

Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh darein (BWV 2) is based on Luther's adaptation of Psalm 12. The cantata is intended for the second Sunday after Trinity; it is the second cantata of the cycle and was performed on 18 June 1724. The opening chorus is written in the form of a motet, with the cantus firmus in the alto part. As in several other cantatas, Bach adds parts for sackbuts, playing colla voce. However, there is something special here in that Bach requires a soprano sackbut, a highly unusual instrument. In recordings this part is mostly played on the cornett, but Spering uses the appropriate instrument, built for this recording. In this cantata the Word of God is once again in the centre. There are two arias. The first is for alto, with an obbligato part for the violin: "Strike out, O God, the teachings that pervert your Word". The B section includes some notable text expression, which comes out perfectly in Benno Schachtner's interpretation. The second aria is for tenor: "Through fire is silver purified, through the Cross the Word is proven". The singer is accompanied by two violins and two oboes; the latter play colla parte with the violins.

Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam (BWV 7) is a cantata for the Feast of St John the Baptist, and was performed on 24 June 1724. It is the third in the chorale cantata cycle, and here the cantus firmus in the opening chorale is in the tenor part. Although this feast commemorates the birth of St John the Baptist, through the use of Luther's baptismal hymn of 1541 the librettist sheds special light on what has become his best-known activity: baptism, and in particular the scene where Jesus comes to him to be baptized. This comes especially to the fore in the tenor aria in the centre: "The Father's voice made itself heard: The Son, who purchased us with his blood, was baptized as a true man". This cantata is notable for the major role of the violins; the opening chorus includes an obbligato part for the violin, which gives the impression that it is a kind of violin concerto. Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, talks about "two unison concertante violins", but Spering thinks that this part is intended for just one violin. "If I may be allowed to speculate, it is possible that Bach was taking account of a visit to Leipzig by a leading violinist, since not only is the writing for the solo violin especially virtuosic in the opening chorus, but the copyist also copied the great solo passage from the opening chorus into the second violin part, even though we can be certain that this solo was not played by two violins performing in unison. This is an example of the actual performance practice in this period, when the copyist wasted valuable time on copying out a passage that was unnecessary". He has no doubt, though, about the fact that the tenor aria includes two concertante violin parts. The last aria, scored for alto, is unusual in its structure: instead of a dacapo aria, this is a kind of song, with the character of an arioso. Thomas Bauer does a little too much in the first aria with basso continuo; Kohlhepp and Schachtner give fine performances of their respective arias.

The fourth and last disc opens with Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 38), first performed on 29 October 1724. It is based on Martin Luther's arrangement of Psalm 130, one of the penitential psalms, known under its Latin title De profundis clamavi. The first and last stanza are kept unchanged in the opening chorus and the closing chorale harmonization. The other movements are adaptations of the other stanzas, except the last recitative. In the latter Bach has created a connection with the chorale in that he uses the melody as the basso continuo. The consequence is that the soprano has to sing the recitative a battuta, in a fixed rhythm. As in some other chorale cantatas, the opening chorus has the form of a motet, with the instruments playing colla voce. Notable is that Bach here, as in Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh darein (BWV 2), requires a soprano sackbut. The first aria is for tenor, who is accompanied by two obbligato oboes playing in largely parallel motion. The other concertante movement is a trio, a form Bach does not use that often in his cantatas. 'Wenn meine Trübsal als mit Ketten' is for soprano, alto and bass to an accompaniment of basso continuo alone, in which the organ in this performance plays a marked role. The voices don't blend perfectly, which is the effect of Thomas Bauer using too much vibrato. Benjamin Bruns does pretty well in the tenor aria, but here I find his voice a bit too sharp and he uses more vibrato than one would wish.

The second cantata on this disc is Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 80). This performance was also part of a disc entirely devoted to this cantata, and included several fragments as well as Wilhelm Friedemann's arrangements of two movements. I have reviewed it here and I am not going to repeat my comments on the performances.

That brings us to the last cantata, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61). It is the end of the four discs, and with it Spering returns to the beginning of the ecclesiastical year; he calls his project a "cyclical recording". The first disc opened with the second cantata on the same chorale (BWV 62). With BWV 61 we also return to the early years of Bach as a composer of sacred cantatas, because this work was written in 1714 in Weimar. Like Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) it bears the traces of the style of the 17th century, especially with regard to the instrumental scoring in five parts, with two violas. It is more modern than the Easter cantata in that it includes two arias, each preceded by a recitative. The first aria includes a reference to the upcoming new year: "Come, Jesus, come to your church and grant us a blessed New Year". It is followed by a recitative for bass, representing - as so often in Bach's cantatas - the vox Christi: "See, I stand before the door and knock". This is answered in the soprano aria with basso continuo: "Open, my whole heart, Jesus comes and moves in". Lydia Teuscher sings it with the right amount of naďveté. Rafael Fingerlos lacks some firmness in the recitative; Sebastian Kohlhepp does well in his aria. This cantata is performed with one voice per part, and here the voices blend much better than in the trio of BWV 38. Unfortunately Christoph Spering is rather inconsistent here: the date of composition suggests a performance in the high Chorton, but he decided to use the low Kammerton of Bach's Leipzig years.

On balance, this set of four discs which I have reviewed in three episodes, has much to offer, musically but also from the angle of performance practice. Not all aspects in both departments have convinced me, but it is admirable and praiseworthy, when a conductor is willing to challenge established customs in performance practice. Therefore I urge any Bach lover to investigate this set. Despite some issues in the realm of actual performances, especially in the vocal department, the singing and playing is of a high level. In short, this set is a substantial addition to the Bach discography.

(*) Vol. 1; Vol. 2

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Tobias Berndt
Benjamin Bruns
Rafael Fingerlos
Sebastian Kohlhepp
Hannah Morrison
Marie Sophie Pollak
Charlotte Quadt
Mélodie Ruvio
Benno Schachtner
Chorus Musicus Köln & Das Neue Orchester

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