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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata BWV 170: Vergnügte Ruh, beliebete Seelenlust [21’12"]
Cantata BWV 35: Geist und Seele wird verwirret [25’42"]
Cantata BWV 169: Gott soll allein mein Herze haben 23’51"]
Monica Groop (mezzo soprano)
Håkan Wilkman (organ obligato)
Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Juha Kangas
Recorded at Kruunupyy Church, Finland, June 1998 DDD
WARNER ELATUS 2564 60620-2 [71’09"]

 

There are four surviving church cantatas by Bach for solo alto voice. One, Wiederstehe doch der Sünde BWV54 was probably composed in 1714. The other three were all written in 1726, after Bach had taken up his appointment at St. Thomas’s, Leipzig, and so it is a sensible idea to group them on one CD.

In fact, these three cantatas were all conceived during an astonishingly short space of time. BWV 170 was the first to appear, on the sixth Sunday after Trinity, which fell on 23 July, 1726. Just six weeks later, on 3 September, BWV 35 was heard for the first time at the service for the twelfth Sunday after Trinity. BWV 169 followed after a further gap of six weeks on the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (20 October). This was an astonishing feat of composition, the more so when we reflect that Bach would have written music for the intervening Sundays as well. I don’t know whether Bach wrote all three works for the same singer (though this must be a strong possibility). If so, he must have had a remarkably skilful (male) alto at his disposal at the time.

Besides the use of the alto voice, these cantatas share another common trait, namely the inclusion of a prominent obligato organ part. The distinguished Bach scholar, Christian Woolf, has suggested that these parts, which were not all completely written out in the autographs, may well have been played by the composer himself.

As I indicated earlier, these works would have been conceived originally with the timbre of a male alto in mind. However, it seems to me to be perfectly appropriate for a female singer to sing them, especially one so intelligent and technically resourceful as Monica Groop. She is partnered by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, whose members play on modern instruments, I think, but whose approach (and that of their conductor) has clearly been informed by "period" practice. The accompaniments are consistently stylish and sympathetic. In particular Håkan Wilkman plays the crucial organ parts with distinction. I wish the player of the glorious oboe d’amore obligato in the heavenly opening aria of BWV 170 had been named for he or she deserves to be.

That first aria is, surely, one of the most sublime that even Bach ever penned. Groop sings it very well, phrasing eloquently and musically, even if she can’t quite erase memories of Alfred Deller in particular. She also does the difficult, even tortuous, second aria very well and the spirited final aria is well negotiated.

BWV 35 is on a more ambitious scale. It is one of those cantatas in two parts, one of which would have been performed either side of the sermon. Here each part is introduced by an instrumental sinfonia, with the organ well to the fore. The first main aria, aptly described in the notes as "anguished but poignantly beautiful" is sensitively projected by Groop. In the second aria there’s a marvellous quietly busy organ part. Here Håkan Wilkman’s subtle registrations complement the vocal line splendidly. The organ bubbles delightfully in the background during the sturdy concluding aria where Groop is poised and copes very well with Bach’s taxing vocal line.

The final cantata. BWV 169 opens with a scintillating sinfonia, dominated by the organ (though it was apparently derived from an oboe concerto.) Wilkman excels here. The succeeding vocal number is an interesting mix of recitative and arioso and Groop integrates these contrasting passages convincingly. She is also very satisfying in the lovely aria ‘Stirb in mir, Welt und alle deine Liebe’ This sublime, reflective piece is delivered with poise and assurance and is as good as anything on the disc.

I’ve focused on the arias but the recitatives are all very well done and throughout all three cantatas Juha Kangas secures sympathetic and supportive accompaniments from the orchestra. The recorded sound is good and I’m especially pleased to find that in addition to good notes in English, French and German, the full texts are provided in these three languages.

Monica Groop is a sensitive and musicianly singer. She may not quite efface memories of the likes of Alfred Deller or Dame Janet Baker but these are very good performances of three fine Bach cantatas and this disc will give much pleasure, especially as the price is now so reasonable. Recommended.

John Quinn



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