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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Small gifts"

Andreas Scholl, alto; Dorothee Oberlinger, recorder
Ensemble 1700
Dir: Dorothee Oberlinger

rec: Jan 14 - 17, 2017, Neumarkt (D), Reitstadel
deutsche harmonia mundi - 88985428392 (© 2017) (75'45")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, booklet & track-list

Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F (BWV 1047); Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G (BWV 1049); Concerto for recorder, strings and bc in f minor (after Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in f minor, BWV 1056); Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147) (Jesus bleibet meine Freude, chorale); Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV 182) (sonata; Leget euch dem Heiland unter, aria); Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen (BWV 81) (Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen, aria); Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn (BWV 119) (Die Obrigkeit ist Gottes Gabe, aria); Vergnügte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170)

Lorenzo Cavasanti, recorder; Alfredo Bernardini, oboe, oboe d'amore; Wolfgang Gaisböck, trumpet; Dmitry Sinkovsky, Liana Mosca, Bozena Angelova, Evgeny Sviridov, Christian Voss, Adrian Bleyer, violin; Manuel Hofer, Felicitas Speer, viola; Marco Testori, cello; Riccardo Coelati Rama, double bass; Axel Wolf, lute; Olga Watts, harpsichord, organ

The title of this disc may raise questions: the pieces recorded here are not exactly 'small gifts', a term one may use for the pieces collected in personal notebooks, such as the Clavier-Büchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach. In contrast, the programme performed here comprises only substantial works from the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach. The liner-notes explain why this title was chosen: when Bach offered his Brandenburg Concertos he described them in the dedication as the product of the "small talents that Heaven has given me for Music", with that typical humility which was required from a composer who - even if he was highly appreciated - was of a different social class than his employer. Whether such words reflect what Bach actually thought is a different matter. He certainly did not suffer from an inferiority complex.

The thread of the programme is the role of the recorder in Bach's oeuvre. Recorder players may feel that Bach did not treat them fairly. He did not compose a single concerto or sonata for the recorder. In his instrumental music it plays a rather modest role: two of the Brandenburg Concertos include parts for one or two recorders, and that is all there is. These two concertos are included here. As the repertoire for their instrument is rather limited anyway, recorder players are used to perform music which was originally intended for other instruments. Sonatas for the transverse flute can often be adapted to the recorder without too much trouble, apart from the need of transposition in some cases. Violin sonatas can often also be played, provided the composer did not make use of typical violin techniques, such as double stopping. In Bach's oeuvre one can find plenty justification for the practice of arrangement or transcription. The set of harpsichord concertos which Bach created for the weekly performances of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, in which he and his sons participated, is the product of this practice. They were originally written for other solo instruments, such as the oboe or the oboe d'amore and the violin. The fast movements of the Concerto in f minor (BWV 1056) were probably originally written for violin, whereas the slow movement could be based on a lost concerto for oboe d'amore. Here we hear a reduction of the harpsichord part; the use of a fourth flute allowed to keep the original key of f minor.

Whereas Bach was rather economical in his use of the recorder in his instrumental oeuvre, he regularly included it in his sacred music. One of his most famous cantatas, the Actus tragicus (BWV 106), has two recorder parts. For this programme Dorothee Oberlinger opted to connect the recorder to the alto voice. I don't know how many arias for alto and one or two recorders Bach's oeuvre includes, but I wonder why it was decided to perform here Vergnügte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust, which is written for alto solo, but whose instrumental parts omit a recorder. In this recording the recorders participate in the second aria, 'Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen'. They take care of the part for an obbligato organ; that is not so far-fetched, as both the recorder and the organ are wind instruments. Moreover, when Bach revived this cantata towards the end of his life, he replaced the obbligato organ in the closing aria, 'Mir ekelt mehr zu leben', by a transverse flute. Obviously this version is used here, with the recorder playing the flute part.

There was no need for arrangements in the extracts from the cantatas Jesus schlägt, was soll ich hoffen (BWV 81), Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (BWV 182) and Preise, Jerusalem, den Herren (BWV 119). These cantatas date from between 1714 and 1724; at that time the recorder was still very much part of music life. That would change during the next decades. One of Bach's most famous cantatas is Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147), and in particular the closing chorale: 'Jesus bleibet meine Freude'. Here the adaptation has been quite drastic: the chorale melody, which is in the upper voice, is sung by Andreas Scholl, whereas the other parts are divided among trumpet, two recorders, oboe and strings. However, the music itself has also been adapted, as it is played with dotted rhythms.

I find that rather odd and very unsatisfying; it damages the character of the chorale, and that also goes for the tempo of the performance, which is too fast. Fortunately it is the only really disappointing part of this disc. Over the years I have heard recordings of Andreas Scholl which I didn't rate very positively, including some of music by Bach, especially because of his incessant vibrato. In this recording he is not free from that either, but overall I am much more positive about his performances here. Vergnügte Ruh', beliebte Seelenlust receives an expressive performance; the recitatives are particularly good in this department, but the arias also come offf better than I expected. The three single arias from cantatas are also nicely sung. There is certainly no lack of text expression.

Instrumentally there is absolutely nothing to complain. Dorothee Oberlinger is one of the world's best recorder players, and that shows in her contributions of the vocal items. The recorder version of the Concerto in f minor is pretty convincing, and is a nice addition to the recorder repertoire. The two Brandenburg Concertos receive excellent performances, which can compete with the best recordings available. With the likes of Lorenzo Cavasanti, Alfredo Bernardini, Dmitry Sinkovsky and Marco Testori Oberlinger has brought together some of the finest players around.

Even though I think that the vocal works are available in better performances, this disc is well worth being investigated, especially by Bach lovers and recorder aficionados.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Dorothee Oberlinger
Andreas Scholl

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