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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Weinen, Kleinen, Sorgen, Zagen, BWV 12 (1714) [24:06]
Gleichwie der regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt, BWV 18 (1715?) [13:50]
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61 (1714) [13:47]
Komm, du süsse Todessstunde, BWV 161 (1715) [19:38]
Emma Kirkby (soprano); Michael Chance (counter-tenor); Charles Daniels (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass); The Purcell Quartet: Catherine Mackintosh, Catherine Weiss (violins, violas), Richard Boothby (cello), Robert Woolley (organ); Rachel Beckett, Catherine Latham (recorder); Anthony Robson (oboe); Andrew Watts (bassoon); David Blackadder (trumpet); Katarina Bengtson, Rachel Byrt (viola); William Hunt (violone).
rec. 16-18 October 2005, St. Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London
CHANDOS CHACONNE CHAN 0742 [71:21]

 


This set of four cantatas, all written after Bach had been promoted, in the spring of 1714, from Hoforganist (which position he had held since 1708) to Konzertmeister, at the ducal court of Weimar, is designated by Chandos as ‘Early Cantatas, Volume 2’; as such, it is a successor to Chandos 0715. As with the earlier CD, your reaction to this volume of Weimar Cantatas will, in general terms, depend upon your attitude towards the post-Joshua-Rifkin fashion (my use of that word isn’t meant in any derogatory sense) of performing Bach’s choral works one-voice-per-part, i.e. with no separate choir, so that the choral writing simply performed by the four soloists. If you are happy with that approach, then you will surely find much to enjoy and admire here; if not, then you will, presumably, know to turn elsewhere.

So far as I can see the historical evidence concerning O(ne) V(oice) P(er) P(art) is inconclusive and partially contradictory. That’s a debate I am not competent to enter, even if I wished to. Speaking simply as a listener who loves the cantatas, while I would not want to see OVPP ‘imposed’ as some kind of universal rule, and while I am far from dismissive of other modes of performance, I think it is undeniable that there are some advantages, some gains in clarity and intimacy when the cantatas are (well) performed OVPP. No doubt there are losses too – but then no one idiom of performing Bach will never be entirely satisfactory, the music (and its texts) is too rich, subtle and profound to be satisfactorily encompassed by any specific formula. Our understanding of great works of art is always enhanced by experiencing them via a range of interpretative methods – if you have only ever seen one performance of Hamlet, or heard one performance of the Hammerklavier then, in a real sense, you haven’t really seen the play or heard the sonata at all. These are not, by any means, the greatest of Bach’s choral works, or even of the cantatas, but they too can benefit from a plurality of approaches, revealing fresh aspects of themselves each time.

The argument for OVVP is certainly well served when it underlies a performance by musicians and singers as skilled and sensitive as the ones on this new CD, quite an ‘A-team’ of the English early music scene.

BWV 12 is one of the numerous examples amongst the Bach cantatas in which initial suffering (“weeping, sighing, sorrowing, crying, / grief and pain / are the lot of Christian men”) is either transformed into joy and a sense of bliss or, at least, into a confident hope of, a sure faith in, future security (“What God does is well done indeed / … like a father he will hold / and shield me in his arm, / protect me from all harm”). The opening Sinfonia is heart-wrenching and sets the tone for an initial chorus in which the smallness of the chorus gives a profoundly personal tone to what can otherwise seem simply a doctrinal assertion; here it is very much felt experience, a lesson learned the hard way. The interaction of solo voices makes it feel almost like a conversation, an active realisation of the shared truth of experience. The succeeding arias maintain this sense of discovery (perhaps particularly so in Michael Chance’s performance of ‘Kreuz und Kronen sind verbunden’ the pivotal section of the cantata), of thought and feeling in progress, reaching a degree of stability and unanimity in the closing chorale.

‘Gleichwie der regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt’ has about it a degree of self-reflexivity, since its theme is essentially that of the operation of God’s word amongst men; it moves towards the final chorale’s plea: “Oh Lord, with all my heart I pray / that you shall never take / your holy word out of my mouth, / then I shall not be prey / to guilt and sin”. The relationship between singing God’s word (or hearing it sung) and the living of a Christian life is here made more explicit than is often the case in the cantatas, and all the soloists, especially in the long Recitative which dominates the cantata, sing with both a sense of drama and also, paradoxically, a sufficient detachment to suggest that the words are a reflection on what they have observed of life, as well as their own experience of the moral struggle of the Christian life. This is a performance which respects the ideas as well as the emotions in Erdmann Neumeister’s text, particularly striking in the almost meditative tread of the closing chorale.

In BWV 61 – the first of Bach’s cantatas to take Martin Luther’s Advent hymn as its starting point, the second being BWV 62, composed some ten years later – the interplay of voices and instruments, each allowed equal weight, in the opening setting of the hymn is particularly fine, an effective prelude to a cantata text which has less sense of thematic or emotional progression than many, the sense of joy and wonder which crowns its end unmistakably implicit in its opening lines. Emma Kirkby’s radiant performance of the closing aria (in which the accompanying strings are ravishingly eloquent) feels like compellingly satisfying resolution of all that makes up the musical and textual logic of what has gone before, and is one of the highlights of the disc. Here the closing chorale is almost antic-climactic.

‘Komm, du susse Todesstunde’ begins with a gorgeously seductive invitation to death (“Come, sweet hour of my death, / that I with haste / may honey taste / from the lion’s tainted breath”), the words of a protagonist at least half-in-love with easeful death, but not, of course, as Keatsian escape into oblivion – the desire here is very much ‘to put on immortality / in heavenly eternity’. Michael Chance sings the opening aria exceptionally well, with a perception of note and word alike (and of the relationship between them) that is evident in every phrase. Again the balance between voice and accompaniment is supremely well judged. Charles Daniels is heard at something like his best in the second aria of the cantata (‘Mein Verlangen ist’) bringing out, without overstatement or unnecessary rhetoric, Bach’s potent contrast between the “mortal ash and clay” on the one hand, and the “the soul’s pure radiant light” on the other.

This undirected group of soloists and instrumentalists works together with impressive cohesiveness. Without the sense – which in other kinds of performance one can never quite escape, for good or ill – of the personality and interpretative of a ‘dominant’ conductor, these performances achieve a real air of being what one might reasonably think of as ‘spiritual conversations’. One has a sense of views and experiences shared and exchanged and, out of that interchange, of the emergence of a kind of consensus, a shared affirmation of faith expressed in the closing chorales. Larger scale performances of the cantatas can make one reach for theatrical metaphors; here, as I have suggested, one thinks more readily of a kind of heightened conversation. OVPP, and the associated effects on other issues of musical scale, serves these early cantatas very well.

Glyn Pursglove

 

 

 


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