musica Dei donum

Concert reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Cantatas for the City Council"

Maria Keohane, soprano; Damien Guillon, alto; Valerio Contaldo, tenor; Lionel Meunier, bass; Shunske Sato, violin; Siebe Henstra, harpsichord; Leo van Doeselaar, organ; Netherlands Bach Society/Jos van Veldhoven
concert: March 13, 2014, Utrecht, Geertekerk

Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille (BWV 120); Mass in B minor (BWV 232) (Dona nobis pacem); Partita for violin in E (BWV 1006) (prelude); Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (BWV 231); Sonata for harpsichord and violin in G (BWV 1019a) (cantabile, ma un poco adagio); Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir (BWV 29)

Johann Sebastian Bach belongs to those composers of the baroque period whose music is most frequently performed and recorded. Even so, there are quite a number of compositions which are hardly known. Some cantatas, for instance, are included in complete recordings but hardly ever recorded independently. That goes, for instance, for the cantatas which Bach wrote at the occasion of the annual election and membership rotation of the city council in Leipzig. One of the reasons could be that today it is hard to find an appropriate time in the year to perform them. In contrast to cantatas for Advent and Christmas, these so-called Ratswahl cantatas seem to have little relevance in our time.

The Netherlands Bach Society had the excellent idea to perform two of these cantatas in the week before the local elections in the Netherlands (19 March). The letter by Johann Sebastian Bach which the musical director, Jos van Veldhoven, quoted at the start of the concert in which the Thomaskantor complains about the cut of subsidies by the city council was not lost on the audience - it sounded very familiar.

The two cantatas performed during this concert - BWV 29 and 120 - are especially interesting because in each of them Bach makes use of older material or includes material he would reuse later. This was explicitly demonstrated during the concert.

In the first part we heard Wir danken dir, Gott (BWV 29). The concert started with the 'Dona nobis pacem' from the B minor Mass, because here Bach falls back to the opening chorus of Cantata 29. It was a little too loud and too heavy, probably largely due to the acoustic of the Geertekerk, which is rather intimate and less suited to large-scale works. Those who were seated further back may have had a different experience. Next we heard Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (BWV 231), a motet which has been considered not authentic, but according to Jos van Veldhoven its authenticity is now accepted. I am not so sure about that as it is very rarely included in complete recordings of Bach's motets, not even the most recent. It could also be the only remaining fragment of a cantata. It was included in the programme, because the text and the upper part melody return in the closing chorale of Cantata 29.

Before the cantata was performed a third piece was played, this time the prelude from the Partita in E (BWV 1006) for violin solo. The reason was that Bach arranged this prelude for organ and orchestra, and this resulted in the opening sinfonia of the cantata. The prelude was played by the leader of the orchestra, Shunske Sato. He has this position since last year and with him the Netherlands Bach Society has brought in a brilliant musician who not only has an impressive technique but also shows a thorough understanding of how baroque music needs to be played. The prelude received an outstanding performance, in which its improvisatory traits came off perfectly. The sinfonia was played equally well, with Leo van Doeselaar as the soloist. The opening chorus was then a little better than the 'Dona nobis pacem', although the acoustic remained a little problematic. The number of singers in the tutti also plays a role here. Some years ago Van Veldhoven opted for performances with solo voices and a small number of ripienists. The number of the latter has grown to 16, and although they are still called ripienists I don't see the difference with a traditional choir. A smaller number would have been preferable.

The chorus was followed by the tenor aria 'Halleluja, Stärk und Macht'. This was a little disappointing because in the forte passages Valerio Contaldo didn't sound very comfortable and free. Especially in the high register his voice sounded a bit stressed. The following recitative was perfectly sung by Lionel Meunier, with just the right amount of rhythmic freedom. The Swedish soprano Maria Keohane proved once again that she has the perfect voice for Bach. The beautiful aria 'Gedenk an uns mit reiner Liebe' was given an impressive and incisive performance. Damien Guillon is an experienced Bach singer - he often performs with Philippe Herreweghe - and that was reflected in his fine performances of the recitative and the aria which followed.

Gott, man lobet sich in der Stille (BWV 120) was the only work in the second part of the programme. It opens - in line with the text: "God, they praise you in the stillness of Zion" - with an aria rather than a chorus. It was exquisitely sung by Damien Guillon, with nice contributions of Martin Stadler and Peter Frankenberg on oboe d'amore. Then followed a chorus, 'Jauchzet, ihr erfreuten Stimmen', another piece which Bach later reused in his B minor Mass (Et expecto). Before the cantata we heard another contribution of Shunske Sato, this time with Siebe Henstra at the harpsichord. Bach arranged a movement from the Sonata for harpsichord and violin in G (BWV 1019a) for the soprano aria 'Heil und Segen'. However, it is also possible that both pieces are arrangements of an earlier work - maybe another aria - which has been lost. Again Sato delivered a nice performance; it was unfortunate that the harpsichord was not clearly audible. Maria Keohane impressed with the agility of her voice and the subtlety of her interpretation of the text. After a recitative the cantata closed with the chorale 'Nun hilf uns, Herr'. That was not the end, though. The autograph contains an instruction to conclude with an intrada con trombe e tamburi, probably to accompany the local authorities when they left the church. No music for this intrada has been preserved, so Jos van Veldhoven decided to use a piece by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach - a nice gesture, as 2014 is the year his birth is commemorated. It is just an example of the little extra things which are often included in concerts by the Netherlands Bach Society.

It brought this memorable, interesting and musically captivating concert to a close.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Concert reviews