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Concert reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): "Belligerent Cantatas"

Maria Keohane, soprano; Maarten Engeltjes, alto; Benjamin Hulett, tenor; Christian Immler, bass
Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven
concert: Oct 3, 2013, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Johann Sebastian BACH: Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (BWV 130); Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft (BWV 50); Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen (BWV 146); Johann KRIEGER (1652-1735): Der Drache bläset Lermen; Johann Hermann SCHEIN (1586-1630): Nun ist das Heyl und die Kraft

At the appropriate time of the year the Netherlands Bach Society gave a series of performances of music which Johann Sebastian Bach composed for the Feast of St Michael (Michaelistag), which is on 29 September. Bach wrote four cantatas for this occasion which was highly important in Lutheran Germany: BWV 130 (Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir), 19 (Es erhub sich ein Streit), 149 (Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg) and 50 (Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft). The first and the last were included in the programme. The reading for this feast was from Revelation, ch 12, which tells about the war of the angels under the leadership of archangel Michael against the devil, here called the Dragon, and his angels. God's army prevails and the devil and his supporters are thrown out of heaven. This is also the subject of Cantata 50 of which only a chorus has been preserved. This chorus is a fugue on the text of the 10th verse from Chapter 12 of Revelation.

Bach scholars are still not sure about the exact character of this piece, whether it was the opening chorus of a cantata or whether it was meant as an independent piece. We today know it in a scoring for two choirs, with three trumpets, timpani, three oboes, strings and bc. The debate also concerns the authenticity of this scoring: some scholars believe that the original was for only one choir, and that this has been adapted by someone else for double choir. This chorus was performed twice during the concert, first in a reconstruction for single choir by Jan Kleinbussink, at the end of the first half in the double-choir version which is mostly performed today. Some years ago Jos van Veldhoven decided to disband the choir of the Bach Society and to perform Bach's vocal works with one voice per part and additional ripienists if necessary. I wonder whether he has changed his view again as this time the choral parts were performed with 16 voices. They were called ripienists in the booklet, but that seems a matter of window dressing. I can't see the difference between a choir of 16 voices and 16 ripienists. I am bringing this up because I think that this chorus would have been more transparent if it had been performed with single voices. In the version for double choir the ripienists were not split into two halves as one may have expected. It were rather the four vocal soloists which acted as the first choir. I was sitting quite close to the stage and could hear the contrast, with a little effort, but I doubt whether the audience farther back have heard the soloists sing as soon as the second choir entered. There was nothing wrong with the singing, though, and the trumpeters were especially impressive.

They had already manifested themselves in the opening piece of the evening, another cantata for the same feast by Johann Krieger, Der Drache bläset Lermen, for bass solo, three trumpets, timpani and bc. It was sung by Christian Immler who delivered an impressive and incisive performance, with the vocal power this piece requires. It is just a shame that only two of the four stanzas were performed. The first aria from Cantata 130 (Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, 'Der alte Drache brennt vor Neid' is not very different from Krieger's work. Immler explored the features of this cantata to the full. Quite different is the second aria, 'Laß, o Fürst der Cherubinen', which emphasizes the angels' protection of the faithful. This is a rather intimate aria, and Benjamin Hulett at first seemed to miss the point. His singing was too loud and lacked sensitivity. The dacapo of the A part was much better. The obbligato part for transverse flute was nicely played by Marten Root. In the closing chorale the soloists were involved again. I don't quite understand why this was the case, considering that they did not participate in the opening chorus.

Before we heard Cantata 50 again, Hulett and the choir sang a piece on the same text, written by Johann Hermann Schein, one of Bach's predecessors as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. Again I felt that a performance with one voice per part would have been preferable, in the interest of a satisfying balance between solo and tutti.

The concert was called "Belligerent cantatas by Bach". This wasn't the most appropriate title: Bach's cantatas for the Feast of St Michael - and the feast itself, for that matter - are not "belligerent". They merely illustrate in music what has been described in the book of Revelations - the word "belligerent" has associations which don't fit the mere description of a battle. Moreover, the second part was completely different. Here we heard a performance of Cantata BWV 146, Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen, written for Sunday Jubilate. It opens with a sinfonia for organ, two oboes, taille, strings and bc. This was definitely one of the finest performances of this sinfonia I have heard, with the organ part excellently played by Leo van Doeselaar and a perfect integration of strings and woodwind. The Affekt of the opening chorus was convincingly conveyed by choir and orchestra. The ensuing alto aria 'Ich will nach dem Himmel zu' was given an expressive performance by Maarten Engeltjes. I also need to mention the obbligato violin part, in truly rhetorical manner played by the orchestra's leader Shunske Sato. This is his first season in this position and he made a great impression with his technically flawless playing and stylish interpretation. The Swedish soprano Maria Keohane has the perfect voice for this kind of repertoire as she showed in the following recitative and aria. Unfortunately she had some problems with the pronunciation as in her recitative she twice sang "war" instead of "wär". That is quite a difference. Notable were the beautiful obbligato parts for transverse flute and two oboi da caccia. After a tenor recitative we heard the superior duet of tenor and bass, 'Wie will ich mich freuen', which was given an excellent interpretation by Benjamin Hulett and Christian Immler, with beautiful obbligato parts played by the two oboists. The closing chorus has been preserved without a text. It was a little odd that the text which was sung was different from the one in the booklet.

Despite my critical remarks I greatly enjoyed these performances of some of Bach's finest works. These will probably the first which will be available online as part of the project of recording Bach's complete oeuvre between now and 2021, when the Bach Society will celebrate its 100th anniversary. From May this next year the first recordings will be available on

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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