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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Cantatas BWV 45, 62, 140 & 192

Anne Harley, sopranoa; Deborah Rentz-Moore, contraltob; Pablo Bustos, tenorc; Jonathan Rohrd, Max van Egmonde, bass
Publick Musick Orchestra and Choir
Dir: Thomas Folan

rec: Nov 2005, Rochester, N.Y., St Michael's Church
musica omnia - mo0204 (© ) (79'43")

Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist (BWV 45)bcd; Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 62)abcd; Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140)ace; Nun danket alle Gott (BWV 192)ae

This recording of four cantatas by Bach seems to be put together at random, as I can't see any connection between them. Two of these four cantatas belong to the most popular: BWV 62 and 140. The ensemble's choir consists of four sopranos, five altos, four tenors and four basses, and members of the choir also sing the solo parts. Remarkable is the contribution of Max van Egmond, the Dutch singer who some years ago retired from the stage and now restricts himself to singing in ensembles and teaching. Here he also sings the duets and one recitative in cantatas BWV 192 and 140.

While listening to this disc I was pleased by the level of singing and playing of most participants. This is a good ensemble and they seem to have a fairly good idea of how Bach's music should be performed. According to the booklet Thomas Folan has special interest in German music, so that perhaps explains it. And there are many things to enjoy from a strictly musical point of view. But stylistically there are reasons for criticism and the amount of text expression is too limited. I'll try to explain that below in the light of the performances of the individual cantatas.

The disc starts with Cantata 62, for the 1st Sunday of Advent, one of two cantatas based on the Advent chorale 'Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland'. The opening chorus is well sung and played, and the cantus firmus is clearly audible. But as the dynamic accents are a bit scarce, the performance as a whole is a bit flat. Next follows the tenor aria 'Bewundert, o Menschen, dies große Geheimnis'. Pablo Bustos is the main weakness in the cast of soloists: his German pronunciation is pretty poor, and the slight tremolo in his voice is very unpleasant. In addition he sings too much legato and, again, there are too few dynamic accents. The recitative for bass is sung very well, with the right rhythmic freedom. Jonathan Rohr's pronunciation is a lot better than his colleague's, and his diction is good too. In the aria 'Streite, siege, starker Held' he articulates very well, but the aria is spoilt by the slowish tempo which - in combination with a lack of accents - makes this aria not as powerful as the text requires: "Fight, conquer, o strong champion! Show yourself mighty for us in the flesh! Be active, the power that is in us weak ones strong to make!". Next follows a recitative in which soprano and alto blend well. The closing chorale is - as all chorales in this recording - characterised by a lack of accents and too much legato singing.

A number of features of this performance is present everywhere, therefore I am not going to mention them every time. What is disappointing is the lack in consistency. In Cantata 45 - composed for the 8th Sunday after Trinity -, for instance, the opening chorus is followed by a recitative, which - unlike the bass recitative in BWV 62 - is rhythmically too strict. In baroque music declamation is an essential tool. In this recording there is inconsistency in this respect as well: Jonathan Rohr's declamation is excellent in the arioso 'Es werden viele zu mir sagen', but there is very little of it in the tenor recitative 'Der Höchste läßt mich seinen Willen wissen'. Deborah Rentz-Moore has a very nice voice, and sings the aria 'Wer Gott bekennt' quite beautifully. The obbligato part for the transverse flute is also played well, although too much legato.

Cantata 192, written for an unspecified occasion, is a so-called chorale cantata: all three sections are based on stanzas of the chorale 'Nun danket alle Gott' (Martin Rinckart, 1636). Two choruses frame a duet of soprano and bass. The tutti blocks in the opening chorus are well realised, and although there are too little dynamic accents in the closing chorus, its dance-like character - a gigue - comes out well. Anne Harley and Max van Egmond are no ideal match, as the former tends to overpower the latter. Max van Egmond's voice has clearly diminished in power, probably one of the reasons he only rarely sings and records these days. But otherwise his performance is still very good, in particular in regard to diction and articulation. And the duet is performed with much verve.

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140) for the 27th Sunday after Trinity is one of Bach's best-known cantatas. It is based on the beloved chorale by Philipp Nicolai (1599). This chorale has only three stanzas which are all used unchanged in this cantata. The unknown poet has added free poetry which Bach has set as two recitatives for tenor and bass respectively and two duets for soprano and bass. Again soprano and bass don't ideally match up, but in general the duets are sung well. Here we notice again that Max van Egmond's voice lacks its former strength, but his text expression is still exemplary. In comparison the tenor in his recitative and in the chorale 'Zion hört die Wächter singen' is disappointing, as both diction and pronunciation are pretty bad and there is hardly any expression of the text.
In the booklet Peter Watchorn writes that for this recording the Neue Bach-Ausgabe (NBA) has been used. But then why is the wrong text used in the duet 'Mein Freund ist mein'? The NBA has as the text of the bass "Und ich bin sein" (I am his), whereas here the bass sings "Und ich bin dein" (And I am yours). (Strangely enough the English translation gives the former version.) This has to do with the way the poet (or Bach) makes use of the quotation from the Song of Songs. In his book on Bach's cantatas the German Bach scholar Alfred Dürr writes that even if the text is changed in as it is sung here - which was also in older editions of this cantata - it is strictly speaking wrong. Since I'm pretty sure his book has been used for the preparation of this recording I wonder why his remarks on this subject have been ignored.

Let me sum up. I am convinced this ensemble has good potential and its basic approach to Bach's sacred music is correct. It is just that there are too many loose ends and too little consistency in the way this approach has been put into practice. In particular more attention to a declamation of the text and more dynamic differentiation should help this ensemble to deliver more convincing performances of Bach's cantatas.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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