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Concert reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Cantatas

Johannette Zomer, sopranoa; Maarten Engeltjes, altoa; Jörg Dürmüller, tenorc; Klaus Mertens, bassd
The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Dir: Ton Koopman
concert: Jan 19, 2013, Utrecht, Cathedral [Dom]

Du Hirte Israel, höre (BWV104)cd; Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147)abcd; Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140)acd

Since 2011 every year the Organisation for Early Music which also is responsible for the Festival Early Music Utrecht, stages a "Bach day" in January. Actually, there are two "Bach days", one on Saturday in Utrecht and the second on Sunday in Amsterdam. The programme is largely the same, in particular the concert which ends the day. This time it was The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, directed by Ton Koopman, which were responsible for this concert. Koopman had selected three cantatas, two of which belong to Bach's best-known (BWV 140 and 147) and one lesser-known (BWV 104). There was no connection with the time of the year.

The concert started with the latter cantata, Du Hirte Israel, höre, which is for the second Sunday after Easter. It begins with a chorus which has the form of a dictum, a literal quotation from the Bible, in this case the opening verse from Psalm 80. It was nicely sung and played, with marked dynamic accents on the emphasized notes. The chorus is followed by two pairs of recitative and aria, for tenor and bass respectively. The tenor aria is full of anxiety which was well expressed by Jörg Dürmüller whose interpretation compensates for the lack of beauty of his voice. At least, that is how I experience it; I have never understood why Koopman has selected him for recordings, but then, tastes differ. However, it is hard not to admire Klaus Mertens and Koopman's preference for his voice is understandable. In his aria every word was audible, every nuance of the text was expressed, and the pastoral character was perfectly conveyed. The cantata closed with a chorale setting.

Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 140) is one of Bach's best-known cantatas, based on the famous hymn by Philipp Nicolai. It was composed for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, which is in the church calender only in those years when Easter takes place before 27 March. During Bach's period in office in Leipzig this was only the case in 1731 and 1742. As the subject of the cantata is the expectation of the second coming of Christ the hymn is also often sung during the Advent period when the expectation of his first coming is relived. The three stanzas of the hymn are all quoted: the cantata begins with a chorus on the first stanza, the closing chorale is a harmonization of the third stanza, whereas Bach placed the second stanza in the middle. Here he transcribes the organ arrangement from the Schübler Choräle. The cantus firmus is sung by a tenor, whereas the accompanying parts are scored for strings and bc. I know that Koopman is an opponent of performances with one voice per part, but I didn't expect him to show his aversion so radically by scoring the cantus firmus with all the tenors and basses of his choir. I have never heard that before, and I find it very odd.
The cantata is dominated by two duets of soprano and bass, representing the Soul and Jesus respectively. The longing of the Soul for Jesus is expressed in images which are reminscent of the Song of Songs. Johannette Zomer and Klaus Mertens sang them rather well, but the balance was less than ideal, although that might have been dependent of where one was seated. I still have problems with Ms Zomer's singing, as the vibrato always threatens to creep in and she gives the impression that she is only able to avoid that by strongly pressing the voice. In this cantata there were especially beautiful obbligato parts for Antoine Torunczyk (oboe) and Catherine Manson (violino piccolo).

The last cantata is one of Bach's most famous, Jesus bleibet meine Freude (BWV 147), especially because of the two chorale arrangements which Bach placed at the end of the two parts respectively. The character of these chorale arrangements is comparable with that in the middle of Cantata 140. The cantata was written for Mary Visitation: Mary visiting her aunt Elisabeth who expects the birth of St John the Baptist. That is also the subject of the gospel reading of that Sunday; the epistle reading is from Isaiah 11, a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. In this cantata all four soloists have one recitative and one aria, except the soprano who has no recitative. The cantata starts with a large-scale chorus which was beautifully sung. Maarten Engeltjes gave a good reading of the aria 'Schäme dich, o Seele nicht', although he should have kept his vibrato more in check. Antoine Torunczyk was excellent on the oboe d'amore. Klaus Mertens is one of the best in the performance of recitatives, also thanks to his outstanding diction, as in 'Verstockung kann Gewaltige verblenden'. Johannette Zomer followed with a well-sung aria 'Bereite dir, Jesu', where she found the intimacy this piece requires. Catherine Manson gave a good account of the obbligato violin part.
The second part started with the tenor aria 'Hilf, Jesu, hilf' where Jörg Dürmüller wasn't fully adequate due to the sharp edges in his voice. Werner Matkze delivered an engaging performance of the obbligato cello part. Engeltjes sung the recitative 'Der höchsten Allmacht Wunderhand' quite well, but could have taken more rhythmic freedom and created more dynamic accents. Klaus Mertens was then marvellous in the brilliant aria 'Ich will von Jesu Wundern singen', with a nice part for the trumpet by Dave Hendry.

Despite some oddities and not quite convincing moments this was a nice concert and a worthy conclusion of an event which deserves to become a firmly-established tradition.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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