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Concert reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Cantatas 54, 82 & 156

Lauren Armishaw, soprano; Maarten Engeltjes, alto; Markus Schäfer, tenor; Thomas Bauer, bass
Instrumental ensemble of the Netherlands Bach Society/Lars Ulrik Mortensen
concert: Feb 1, 2014, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Johann Sebastian BACH: Ich habe genung (BWV 82); Ich steh' mit einem Fuß im Grabe (BWV 156); Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54); Nicolaus BRUHNS (1665-1697): Ich habe Lust abzuscheiden; Johann KUHNAU (1660-1722): Ich habe Lust abzuscheiden (Es ist genug, aria); Johann Hermann SCHEIN: Herr, nun lässt du deinen Diener

In the first weekend of February the annual Bach day took place in Utrecht and Amsterdam. It always ends with a concert of cantatas. In Utrecht this concert was given twice as the Geertekerk is considerably smaller than the Cathedral where in previous years the concert took place. I attended the afternoon performance.

Unfortunately I was seated behind the ensemble for the first half. That made it rather difficult to fairly assess the performances; in the second half I moved to the opposite end of the church which made quite a difference. On Sunday night the performance in Amsterdam was transmitted live by radio, which gave me the opportunity to check my impressions of the interpretation.

There was quite a difference between last year's and this year's concert. In regard to the scoring of Bach's cantatas Ton Koopman and Lars Ulrik Mortensen are at the opposing ends of the spectrum. Last year Koopman turned up with his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, joined by four soloists. Mortensen opted for a performance with one voice per part. From the harpsichord he directed four soloists and the instrumental ensemble of the Netherlands Bach Society.

The starting point of the concert was the celebration of the Feast of the Purification of Mary on 2 February. At this occasion Simeon meets baby Jesus in the temple and recognizes him as the promised Saviour. He then prays to God: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace ... for mine eyes have seen thy salvation". Bach composed one of his most famous cantatas for this feast, Ich habe genung (BWV 82). Apparently Bach liked this cantata just as much as modern audiences as it exists in four different versions. In this concert we heard the first version for bass which ended the first part. It was preceded by three pieces on the same subject, by Johann Hermann Schein, Johann Kuhnau and Nicolaus Bruhns. The last cantata of the concert picked up a thought which is strongly present in the canticle of Simeon: death as a passage to eternal life, with the cantata Ich steh' mit einem Fuß im Grabe (BWV 54). Whether Cantata 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde fits the thread of the concert is open to question, also because it is not quite clear for which occasion it was written. Its subject is crystal clear, though: Sin is a deadly poison of the devil which needs to be resisted.

Performing Bach's cantatas with only solo voices seems less complicated than with a choir. However, it often turns out that the opposite is the case. In fact, it is more risky than a performance with a choir. This concert bore witness to that. The soloists have to sing the tutti and this requires a perfect blending of the voices. That is not easy to achieve with four singers who not sing together in ensemble on a regular basis. Time and again it shows that it is impossible to put four singers together and expect them to act as a unity. It is no coincidence that the best performances of Bach's cantatas with solo voices come from fixed ensembles such as Cantus Cölln. Here it was clear right from the start that Lauren Armishaw, Maarten Engeltjes, Markus Schäfer - replacing Jan Kobow who had fallen ill - and Thomas Bauer did not act as an ensemble. In particular the incessant slight vibrato of Armishaw and the wider vibrato of Bauer damaged the tutti episodes, the chorale which ended Cantata 156 and especially the Bruhns cantata which opened the concert. It was a matter of good fortune that these were the only tutti parts of the concert.

Bauer's vibrato spoiled Schein's setting of Simeon's canticle on a German text and the recitatives in Cantata 156. It was also problematic in Ich habe genung which he recently recorded on disc (review). In some way I could appreciate that interpretation, but I was quite disappointed about his performance during the concert. Mortensen had opted for a quite dramatic performance of Bach's cantatas which is basically right. However, sometimes it was counterproductive as here in the famous aria 'Schlummert ein'. There are clear contrasts within this aria, but I felt that those were exaggerated in the performance. The last aria should be joyful but that didn't quite come off as the tempo was too fast and the playing and singing were loud but not very subtle.

Widerstehe doch der Sünde was generally a lot better. I liked the dramatic performance of the first aria, but the strings were a little too present, causing an unsatisfying balance between voice and instruments. A reduction of the number of strings would have been preferable. Maarten Engeltjes delivered the best performance of the concert, even though some of the lower notes didn't come off that well. Cantata 156 opens with a sinfonia with a beautiful obbligato part for the oboe, nicely played by Martin Stadler. The two arias were sung respectively by Maarten Engeltjes - who again did very well - and Markus Schäfer who is a good singer but whose somewhat sharp and penetrating voice one has to get used to.

On balance I was rather unsatisfied by this year's concert, not because the interpretation by Mortensen was off the mark, but mainly because of the unstylish aspects of the performance. A more critical selection of voices is required, especially in performances with one voice per part.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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