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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage - Volume 20:
Cantatas for Septuagesima

Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin, BWV 144 (1724) [12:40]
Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke, BWV 84 (1727) [12:58]
Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn, BWV 92 (1725) [27:29] 
Miah Persson (soprano); Wilke te Brummelstroete (alto); James Oxley (tenor); Jonathan Brown (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Grote Kerk, Narden, 20 February 2000
Cantatas for Sexagesima
Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt, BWV 18* (1713/14) [13:32]
Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister, BWV 181** (1724) [11:54]
Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort, BWV 126  (1725) [16:32]
*Gillian Keith (soprano); ** Angharad Gruffydd Jones (soprano); Robin Tyson (alto); James Gilchrist (tenor); Stephan Loges (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Southwell Minster, 27 February 2000
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG153 [53:18 + 42:07]
Experience Classicsonline

Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima were marked in the Lutheran liturgy – and in the Catholic Church also - as the three Sundays before the rigours of the season of Lent began.
 
Bach’s cantatas for Quinquagesima Sunday, also known as “Esto mihi”, were contained in Volume 21 of this series (see review). This latest instalment includes all the surviving cantatas for the previous two Sundays.
 
For Septuagesima Sunday the Pilgrims visited the fifteenth century church of St. Vitus in the Dutch city of Narden. This venue had particular resonances for one of the soloists, Wilke te Brummelstroete. In the booklet she writes that it was in this selfsame church that, as a young singer, she was a member of the chorus of the Dutch Bach Society in their annual performance of St. Matthew Passion - the first time she’d sung in the work - and “a dream was born to sing there one day as a soloist.”
 
We can hear that dream come to fruition in BWV 144, a cantata from Bach’s first Leipzig cycle. After the vigorous fugal opening chorus, which is clearly and crisply delivered, the alto aria ‘Murre nicht, Liebster Christ’ allows us to enjoy Miss te Brummelstroete’s firm toned voice. This aria is like a stately minuet and she sings it with fine feeling. The other aria in the cantata falls to the soprano. The opening line of ‘Genügsamkeit ist ein Schatz in diesem Leben’ translates as “Contentedness is a jewel in this life” and Bach provides suitably beguiling, easeful music, including a flowing oboe d’amore obbligato. Miah Persson’s performance is a delight.
 
Miss Persson is even more to the fore in BWV 84 for, apart from the concluding chorale, this is for solo soprano. It begins with an aria in E minor in which the embellishments of the oboe obbligato intertwine delectably with the solo voice, providing a perfect foil to the singer. John Eliot Gardiner describes the piece as “wistful, resigned, elegiac even?” It’s a lovely aria and it’s expressively delivered. By contrast the second aria is joyful and nimble and features a playful double obbligato of oboe and violin. The music – and the performance – bears a smiling countenance. Miss Persson also impresses with her delivery of the two recitatives in this cantata, singing them lightly but with an evident feeling for the meaning of the words. I like also the treatment of the chorale, which is sung quietly and unaccompanied, thereby achieving an appropriately understated intensity.
 
BWV 92 is longer than the other two cantatas put together. It is based on a twelve-verse seventeenth-century hymn and is cast in no less than nine movements. Unlike the other two cantatas, the text of this piece bears no direct relation to the Gospel for the day, which related the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20. 1-16) Instead the text of this cantata contains what Alfred Dürr calls a “general admonition to acquiesce in whatever God sends in the way of joy or suffering.”
 
The cantata opens with a substantial chorale fantasia to which a pair of oboi d’amore makes a pungent contribution. There follows what Gardiner refers to as “an audacious experiment” by Bach in the form of a movement for bass in which the soloist sings strophes of the hymn, interrupting himself no less than nine times with glosses on the text in the form of free recitative. The soloist is Jonathan Brown, a member of the Monteverdi Choir, and he and Gardiner weld what might be a ramshackle structure into a convincing whole. Later on, in the seventh movement, Bach repeats the experiment in a different way. This time the chorale, richly harmonised, is sung by the choir and the interpolations are entrusted to all four soloists in turn, starting with the bass and ascending to the soprano.
 
Before that we hear one of Bach’s jagged, uncomfortable tenor arias, ‘Seht, seht! wie reisst, wie bricht, wie fällt’ (‘See, see, how all things snap, break, fall’). This is done by James Oxley, previously heard in Volume 21. He’s incisive and projects strongly music that Gardiner aptly describes as “impressive, but deliberately unlovely.” By contrast, the final aria in the cantata is a pastoral piece, the mood of which Dürr categorises as “cheerful, peaceful serenity.” It’s a bewitching piece in which the soprano soloist is accompanied by an oboe d’amore and pizzicato strings. Miah Persson’s performance is radiant.
 
The following week the Pilgrims had crossed the North Sea, returning to England and to Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire. Bach left us three cantatas for Sexagesima Sunday and, in Gardiner’s words, each of them is “characterised by his vivid pictorial imagination, an arresting sense of drama, and by music of freshness and power that lodges in the memory.”
 
BWV 18 is a Weimar cantata, probably composed in 1713. The original scoring was unusual in that Bach dispensed with violins completely and instead wrote no fewer than four separate viola lines as well as basso continuo. A revision in 1724 saw the addition of a pair of recorders and it’s this later scoring that’s used here. In the opening sinfonia the pleasing contrast between the husky violas and the piping recorders is immediately apparent. The third movement is a most original conception. The tenor and bass soloists each have two passages of recitative, sung alternately, each one of which is followed by a short passage in which the choir sings lines from Luther’s litany known as the German Prefatory.  The second recit for tenor, arrestingly delivered by James Gilchrist, is especially dramatic. There’s only one aria, which is brightly sung by Gillian Keith. The accompaniment is interesting as all the violas play in unison with the recorders doubling their line at the octave. Described like that, it doesn’t sound very interesting but in fact the contrast in timbres has a piquant fascination.  

The title of BWV 181 must rank as among the strangest in all the cantatas. Dürr translates it as “Frivolous flutter-spirits” but even better, I think, is the rendition by Richard Stokes, which is used in the booklet. He comes up with “Frivolous flibbertigibbets.” The Gospel for the day (Luke 8. 4-15) is the parable of the Sower and the reference in the cantata’s title is to the fickle folk who, like birds, devour the seed that falls on the ground. Dürr states that the scoring originally omitted wind instruments but that flute and oboe parts were added for a revival sometime between 1743 and 1746. Gardiner includes these instruments.
 
The cantata opens with an admonitory bass aria, commandingly sung by Stephan Loges, which includes a reference to the fallen angel Belial. Almost every volume in this series seems to yield at least one particularly choice phrase from Gardiner’s notes. Writing of this aria, which he describes as “a witty, Hitchcockian evocation”, he says this: “It could almost serve as a soundtrack to a cartoon film; a gaggle of flighty, giggly teenage girls being bounced out of a nightclub by Belial and his henchmen.” The third movement is a tenor aria, of which Gilchrist gives a biting performance. The obbligato part, thought to be for violin, is lost and Dürr suggested that, though it might be possible to compose a replacement, “the result could not be expected to accord even approximately with Bach’s intentions” since the manuscript offers meagre clues. Well, for this performance Robert Levin composed an obbligato and I have to say that whilst I wouldn’t claim a fraction of Dürr’s scholarship, the ensuing result sounds completely convincing to me. The exuberant final chorus is something of a display piece, uniting all the forces and adding the festive touch of a trumpet part. Was this Bach permitting himself one last bit of indulgence before the austerities of Lent?
 
I wouldn’t dissent from Gardiner’s judgement that BWV 126 is “a stunning, combative work.” The text is drawn from a variety of sources and is a real statement of how embattled are the adherents of Lutheranism in what was a turbulent world. In the very first movement, a chorus, Luther’s words translate as follows:
 
                        Uphold us, Lord, in Thy Word
                        And fend off murderous Papists and Turks
                       Who wish to topple Jesus Christ,  
                       Thy son, from his throne. 
 
Thus the tone for the whole cantata is set. In this movement Bach is at his most energetic and dynamic with the addition of a trumpet imparting a martial flavour to the music, as do the scintillating driving rhythms. The following tenor aria, ringingly sung by James Gilchrist, isn’t too hectic at the start but before long Bach introduces volleys of semi- and demisemiquavers into the vocal line. Gilchrist is equal to Bach’s demands but I do wonder if the music isn’t just too elaborate for its own good.
 
The subsequent bass aria tests both the soloist, Stephan Loges, and also his partner, David Watkins, who has a fiendishly angry cello obbligato to play. Dürr rightly observes that “a truly Old Testament zeal against the enemies of the things of God” pervades this obbligato. Both singer and cellist project this powerful aria strongly. At the end of this fire and brimstone cantata comes a two-verse chorale, which is a heartfelt plea for peace and good governance. The Monteverdi Choir sings it with ample expression and the final Amen is glowing. This is quite an extraordinary piece. So far as I am aware there was no political or religious instability in Leipzig or its environs at this time and one wonders what impelled Bach to compose such a piece – or his anonymous librettist to compile such a text.   
 
The standards of performance and presentation are as high in this latest instalment of Gardiner’s cantata cycle as they have been in previous issues. The series continues its impressive progress.
 
John Quinn  
 
Bach Cantata Pilgrimage themed page

 
 

 


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