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Concert reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Cantatas 132, 185 & 199

Julia Doyle, soprano; Tim Mead, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Dominik Wörner, bass
Instrumental ensemble of the Netherlands Bach Society/Alfredo Bernardini
concert: June 5, 2014, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Johann Sebastian BACH: Barmherziges Herz der ewigen Liebe (BWV 185); Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn (BWV 132); Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199); Christoph GRAUPNER (1683-1760): Mein Herz schwimmt im Blut (GWV 1152/12b) (Mein Herz schwimmt im Blut, rec; Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen, aria)

One important feature of historical performance practice is at which pitch music was played in the baroque era. There were considerable differences between countries and regions, and sometimes even within a specific region. This issue also regards the performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In his time instrumental music was mostly performed at Kammerton (a'=415 Hz) or - in some regions - at the pitch which was common in France (a'=392 Hz). During the 17th century sacred music was performed at Chorton, the pitch of most organs (a'=c465 Hz). Bach had to deal with various pitches. In his years in Weimar he composed cantatas at Chorton, but after taking up his position as Thomaskantor in Leipzig he wrote his cantatas for performances at Kammerton. This explains that several cantatas exist in various versions, reflecting the different pitches in Weimar and Leipzig. For today's interpreters the performance of his cantatas in the original pitch causes considerable problems. It needs careful preparation to perform them properly, as the Italian oboist Alfredo Bernardini explained in the booklet to a concert by the Netherlands Bach Society under his direction.

The programme comprised three cantatas Bach composed in Weimar between 1713 and 1715. It opened with Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199) for the 11th Sunday after Trinity, and probably first performed in August 1713 or 1714. Bach returned to this cantata several times, in Cöthen (between 1717 and 1723) and in Leipzig (1723). It is scored for soprano, oboe, strings and bc. The text links up with the Gospel of the day which is the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The protagonist begins by lamenting about his sinful state, then confesses his sins and asks for forgiveness, finding comfort in Christ's death at the Cross and then expresses the joy about the reconciliation with God in the closing aria. The original version at high pitch is not only a challenge for the players but also for the soprano, technically and in regard to text expression as it is his/her task to deal with the different Affekte in the various stages of this work. Julia Doyle gave a most impressive account of the solo part. Last year I admired her performance of Purcell songs, here she proved that she is also a very fine Bach singer. Although not a native German speaker her pronunciation was outstanding. Even more impressive was her treatment of the text and the way Bach has set it. The recitatives were performed in truly speechlike manner, with the right amount of rhythmic freedom, appropriate dynamic accents and a good feel for the dramatic contrasts. In the aria 'Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen' she reached a maximum of expression through an appropriate timing and helped by the remarkable strength of her low register. Chorales in Bach's cantatas are often taken lightly, sometimes with disastrous results. Not so here: Ms Doyle sang 'Ich, dein betrübtes Kind' perfectly, well articulated and with the correct accents.

It was most interesting to compare Bach's cantata with a setting of the same libretto by Christoph Graupner. At the start of the second half of the concert the opening two movements from his cantata were performed. He deals with the text quite differently, but the result is quite expressive in its own way, especially through an effective use of pauses. It confirmed my positive impression of Graupner's vocal music on the basis of other cantatas, and I can't see any reason for the rather negative comments on Graupner's style in the booklet. Julia Doyle made the most of it, and I am curious to know the whole work.

Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn (BWV 132) is for the fourth Sunday of Advent and dates from 1715. It opens with an aria which refers to the famous verse from Isaiah 40 which is also quoted in the first recitative of Handel's Messiah: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord". This aria is one of Bach's most demanding due to the extended coloraturas and frequent melismas. Julia Doyle showed that she has a perfect breathing technique and once again the expressive features of this aria were fully realized. The bass Dominik Wörner was a soloist with the Netherlands Bach Society for the first time - rather odd, as he is one of the best basses in the realm of early music right now. He proved that in the two arias he sang in this concert. In 'Wer bist du? Frage dein Gewissen', referring to the dialogue between the Pharisees and St John the Baptist, the bass is supported by the basso continuo alone, with the cello sometimes playing a concertante role. Wörner delivered a strongly rhetorical performance: the bass acts here probably as vox Christi asking to the Christians in general: "Who are you? Ask your conscience". Next followed a recitative and aria for alto, sung by Tim Mead. To be honest I have never been really impressed by his singing, often marred by an incessant vibrato. That was absent here, showing how much a singer's performance can be influenced by the wishes of the musical director. It led to really good performances. The soloists blended well in the closing chorale, 'Ertödt uns durch dein Güte'.

The third cantata was Barmherziges Herz der ewigen Liebe (BWV 185) for the fourth Sunday after Trinity. It was written in 1715; Bach reworked it for performances in Leipzig in 1723 and around 1746/47. The libretto is based on the Gospel of the day, a part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus urges to show compassion and not to judge. The cantata opens with a duet of soprano and tenor, in which the protagonist asks for his heart being overtaken by mercy and goodness. The voices of Julia Doyle and Jan Kobow matched well, but the latter seems to have some problems with his high register lately, which were absent earlier in his career. Tim Mead then sang a recitative and the aria 'Sei bemüht in dieser Zeit' with a good amount of text expression. Dominik Wörner had another remarkable aria to sing with a pronounced rhythm which was perfectly realized. The opening phrase, 'Das ist der Christen Kunst' (That is the Christian's art), takes the role of a refrain.

I haven't mentioned Bernardini's role as yet. He was not invited for this concert without a reason: in these three cantatas the oboe plays an extended role, and Bernardini gave impressive performances of those parts, for instance in the opening aria of Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn. But he is not only a brilliant oboist, he also proved himself to be a very good interpreter of Bach's vocal music. All in all, this concert was one of the best I have heard this year. This is the way I would like to hear Bach's cantatas. The choice of soloists was spot-on, and I hope that especially Julia Doyle and Dominik Wörner will return for other projects in the future. And Bernardini should also return, not only as an oboist, but also as a director of the Netherlands Bach Society.

Those who would like to hear the performances of this concert should look at All of Bach where the recording of the concert in Amsterdam of 8 June will be included.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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