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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas Volume 1

Friedericke Sailer, Maria Friesenhausen, Agnes Giebel, Emiko Iiyama, Ingeborg Reichelt, Edith Selig, Hedy Graf (sopranos)
Claudia Hellmann, Emmy Lisken, Barbara Scherler, Hertha Töpper, Marga Höffgen (altos)
Helmut Krebs, Georg Jelden, Theo Altmeyer, Friedrich Melzer, Kurt Huber (tenors)
Erich Wenk, Jakob Stämpfli, Barry McDaniel, Franz Kelch, Bruce Abel (basses)
Heinrich Schütz Choir, Heilbronn
Pforzheim Chamber Orchestra
*Württemberg Chamber Orchestra, Heilbronn
Conducted by Fritz Werner
WARNER ERATO 2564 61401-2 [10 CDs: 70’43" + 77’10" + 77’39" + 75’38" + 75’36" + 68’05" + 74’38" + 78’24" + 70’34" + 77’09". Total: 741’36"]

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Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, 1961
Darzu ist erscheinen der sohn Gottes, BWV 40

Recorded in Heilbronn, Germany, June 1964
Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, 1961
Selig is der Mann (Concerto in Diagolo), BWV 57

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, June 1963
Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, June 1963
Ich habe genug, BWV 82

Barry McDaniel (bass)
Recorded in Heilbronn, Germany, November 1964
Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn, BWV 92 *
Recorded in Schwaigern, Germany, October 1972
Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23 *
Recorded in Schwaigern, Germany, October 1972
Alles nur nach Gottes willen, BWV 72 *
Recorded in Schwaigern, Germany, October 1972
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1

Recorded in Heilbronn, Germany, 1965
Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, 1961
Kommt, eilet und laufet, ihr flüchtigen Füsse (Easter Oratorio), BWV 249

Recorded in Heilbronn, Germany, June 1964
Christ lag in Todes Banden, BWV 4

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, 1961
Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret, BWV 31
Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, June 1963
Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden, BWV 6

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, October 1959
Du Hirte Israel, höre, BWV 104

Recorded in Schwaigern, Germany, 1966
Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ, BWV 67

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, October 1960
Ich bin ein guter Hirt, BWV 85 *
Recorded in Schwaigern, Germany, February 1970
Ich werdet weinen und heulen, BWV 103

Recorded in Schwaigern, Germany, July 1966
Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen, BWV 87

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, October 1959
Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen, BWV 43

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, 1961
Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (Ascension Oratorio), BWV 11

Recorded in Schwaigern, Germany, 1966
O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe, BWV 34

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, 1961
Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, June 1963
Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 39 *
Recorded in Schwaigern, Germany, October 1972
Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, BWV 7

Recorded in Schwaigern, Germany, July 1966
Der Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76

Recorded in Ilsfeld, Germany, October 1959
Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30 *
Recorded in Schwaigern, Germany, April 1971

The appearance of this generously filled box of CDs is something of a surprise. The record industry is often criticised these days for an unenlightened policy towards reissues. Since Fritz Werner is not exactly a household name these days and these recordings might well have stayed locked in the vaults. All credit therefore to Warner Classics for reissuing not only these recordings but also, in two companion volumes, all the other Bach recordings that Werner made for Erato between 1959 and 1974.

Nicholas Anderson contributes an excellent appreciation of Werner to the booklet accompanying this set and I base the following paragraph on his comments. Werner (1898-1977) was prevented by the exigencies of wartime from studying music until 1920. His first appointment, on the recommendation of Wilhelm Kempff, no less, was secured in 1936 as organist and choirmaster of a church in Potsdam. Two years later he was installed in a similar post in the Garrison Church in the same city. His wartime service in the Second World War took him to France where he established many contacts within the musical community that were to stand him in good stead in his later career. After the war Werner settled in Heilbronn and made his career there. In 1947 he founded the Heinrich Schütz Choir in that city and it was with this choir that he made his Bach recordings.

The extensive series of recordings of Bach’s choral works that Werner made for the Erato label included over fifty of the church cantatas. Now these have been gathered together into two 10-CD boxes. I may be wrong but I suspect that many of these cantata recordings are making their CD debut here. In the mid-1990s Erato issued at least four double CD sets of the cantatas, through which I first became acquainted with Werner’s Bach, but so far as I know that was the extent of the reissues until now.

There are a number of general points to make about these recordings. Firstly, like his contemporary, Karl Richter, Werner utilised a varied but good team of vocal soloists. Many of the names listed here are not as well-known as those who featured in Richter’s recordings but, generally speaking, they all acquit themselves well and some are very fine indeed. Among the best of the soloists are Ingeborg Reichelt, Marga Höffgen, Jakob Stämpfli and Barry McDaniel. Finest of all are the wonderful silvery soprano, Agnes Giebel and the heady tenor of Helmut Krebs. Krebs was a renowned Evangelist and his distinctive tone and crystal-clear diction are a constant source of pleasure. However, though his contributions are much fewer, I was very impressed by another tenor, Kurt Huber. His name was new to me but he sings with distinction and a real feeling for Bach style.

Secondly, the obligato instrumentalists, so crucial in performances of Bach’s vocal music, are, if anything, even more consistently excellent. Time after time I was delighted by an instrumental contribution to a chorus or aria. Particularly gratifying are the contributions of oboist, Pierre Pierlot and the distinguished trumpeter, Maurice André. It will be noted that both of these players are French. German singers dominate in the ranks of the vocalists but a sizeable number of Werner’s instrumental soloists were French, a clear example of the benefits of the contacts he made during the war.

The contribution of the main orchestra, playing on modern instruments, is always reliable. The chorus is a bit more variable in quality, I think. As Nicholas Anderson justly observes the choir is fairly large and "could not always match the discipline and vocal unanimity achieved by Karl Richter’s rival Munich Bach Choir." However, there is no doubting their fervour and commitment. Also, I think it’s fair to say that if they can’t always command the necessary incisiveness perhaps the recording engineers are partly to blame. The recorded sound is generally perfectly satisfactory but the choir is often very much at the rear of the soundstage, as it were, and I don’t think this helps them

What of Werner himself? There’s one point I’d like to make straightaway. These present recordings span a period of thirteen years and by 1972, when the last of them were set down, Werner would have been 74. When some of these recordings were issued on CD in the 1990s I recall reading one review which suggested that Werner was at his best in his earlier recordings. That may well be so and other collectors may find that they agree with that view. All I can say is that to my ears these performances display a rather remarkable consistency of view and approach and, whereas I do tend to agree with those who aver that Karl Richter’s later recordings of Bach are sometimes not quite as incisive as his earlier efforts, I don’t detect that so much with Werner.

I must come clean and say that years ago it was the advent of the period-style performances, and the work of John Eliot Gardiner and Philippe Herreweghe in particular, that opened my ears to the music of Bach and his contemporaries. In their performances the textures were clear and rhythms lively. I realised how much of the dance there is in much of Bach’s music. It was only later, working backwards, so to speak, that I came to the more traditional performances of Richter. Whilst on balance my preference remains for period performances I now find I can find much to relish in good performances from an earlier age, such as Richter’s. When I first got the opportunity to sample Werner’s work I admired it very much and that admiration has increased with more much material to hear in this large box.

I’ve expressed my admiration for the period performers quite deliberately in order to set in context my next comment. These wonderful musicians have brought the music of Bach and his contemporaries to life in a profoundly exciting way. However, just occasionally I pause and wonder whether for them works such as the Bach cantatas are first and foremost concert music? With Richter and, indeed, Werner I never have such doubts. I always feel that they interpret Bach’s sacred vocal music as religious music. With Werner I find you always get a sense of style (albeit stylistic fashions have moved on somewhat), a sense of line and, above all, a sense of complete conviction. I suspect he may well have always started with the words rather than with the music.

How can one do justice in a review to over twelve hours of magnificent music? It’s impossible, of course and the best I can do is to give some general pointers and pick out what for me were some highlights and hope that will be sufficient to guide the reader.

The cantatas included here fall broadly into two groups. Most of those on the first four CDs cover the period in the church’s year from Advent (BWV 61) to the feast of the Purification (BWV 82). The final cantata on CD 4 (BWV 182) is for Palm Sunday and the remainder of the collection thereafter focuses chiefly on the period between Easter Sunday, through Pentecost to the Second Sunday after Trinity (BWV 76)

Because several major feasts are represented there’s a fair sprinkling of lavishly-scored, celebratory cantatas. As a very broad generalisation I think Werner is at his best in such music. Sometimes when Bach is in more reflective mood Werner can be just a bit heavy and plodding in his choice of tempi. In general he paces the more extrovert music sensibly, not rushing the music off its feet but giving it time to breathe while having the necessary life in the tempo. Chorales are usually soundly paced.

The richly-scored cantata for Christmas Day 1725, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, BWV 110, is a good illustration of several of my general points. The addition of trumpets and drums underlines the festive nature of the day. The long, majestic opening chorus derived from the Overture to the Orchestral Suite in D major, BWV 1069 is lively enough in tempo but when the chorus enters the lines sound a bit blurred. In part this may be the fault of the recording (of 1961 vintage) but I rather think it’s due to the fact that the choir is a little too large and doesn’t sing with enough incisiveness. To my ears they don’t articulate the rhythms crisply enough. Helmut Krebs is splendidly relaxed in his aria, ‘Ihr Gedanken und ihr Sinnen’ but his singing is incisive, as you’d expect. The alto aria, too, affords much pleasure with Claudia Hellmann’s rich voice blending beautifully with the twining oboe d’amore obligato.

The very next cantata in the set is also very successful. Selig ist der Mann, BWV 57 was first heard on the very next day, December 26, 1725. This is a dialogue between soprano and bass soloists, taking the roles respectively of a Soul and of Christ. The singing of Agnes Giebel and of the American bass, Barry McDaniel is a delight and I completely agree with Nicholas Anderson’s verdict that this account of BWV 57 is one of the highlights of this collection. McDaniel produces his voice evenly throughout its compass and is eloquent and refined. Giebel is simply radiant. In her second aria her light, unaffected singing is supported excellently by a sprightly violin obligato.

McDaniel is also involved in another very fine performance. He sings the celebrated solo cantata, Ich habe genug, BWV 82. He may not match the supreme achievement of Hans Hotter in this work (does anyone?) but he treats us to some fine, sensitive singing. His diction is excellent, as is his phrasing. In the beautiful central aria, ‘Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen’ he demonstrates a lovely legato and excellent breath control. He’s not the only star of this performance, however, for oboist Pierre Pierlot turns in a peerless performance. Werner’s pacing and feel for the music and its line contribute significantly to the success of the reading.

There is much to enjoy in the Easter Oratorio, Kommt, eilet und laufet, ihr flüchtigen Füsse, BWV 249.Maurice André is prominent in the splendidly festive opening sinfonia. The duet for tenor and bass finds tenor Georg Jelden showing some signs of strain but Jakob Stämpfli is his usual reliable self. The soprano, Edith Selig, who is one of the less frequently used soloists, sings her long aria, ‘Seele,deine Spezerein’ very well and she is accompanied by a wonderful obligato flute solo, which is so well played that one can forgive the player’s audible intakes of breath. Pierre Pierlot is on hand to contribute a superb flowing oboe adornment to Claudia Hellmann’s aria, ‘Saget, saget mir geschwinde’. She sings it very well though she doesn’t erase memories of Dame Janet Baker.

Du Hirte Israel, höre, BWV 104, written for the second Sunday after Easter dates from 1724. It’s a lovely work with the theme of shepherding aptly illustrated by a good deal of pastoral music. The opening chorus is indeed pastoral in style. Werner takes it at quite a leisurely pace, though he doesn’t dawdle. I did think, however, that his sopranos sounded a little strained at times. Here we encounter tenor, Kurt Huber, for the first time in the set. He makes a fine impression. He sings with excellent, plangent tone and is wonderfully fluent in the very difficult chromatics of his aria, ‘Verbigt mein Hirte sich zu lange.’ Much though I admire Helmut Krebs I think that Huber actually makes a more ingratiating sound. He seems, dare I say it, more polished than his distinguished colleague and his voice is certainly more even. I also liked very much Jakob Stämpfli’s dignified singing in his flowing aria. Huber also gives great pleasure in Ich bin ein gutter Hirt, BWV 85 where he has a treasureable aria, ‘Seht, was die Liebe tut’, which he dispatches in an exquisite head voice.

Another magnificent creation is Halt im Gedächtnis Jesum Christ, BWV 67, a cantata for the first Sunday after Easter. The choir does the opening chorus well and Werner clearly has the measure of the music. Krebs has a splendid aria, ‘Mein Jesus ist erstanden’ and he does full justice to it. However, in the bass aria, ‘Friede sei mit euch!’ Franz Kelch’s performance is just a little bit spoilt by a degree of unsteadiness on the part of the choir in their interjections.

Though there’s much to praise in this collection there is the occasional disappointment. I found Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen, BWV 87 rather hard going, I’m afraid. For once Bach’s inspiration is less evident, I think. It’s a rather dour and intractable piece written in 1725 for Rogation Sunday, the Fifth after Easter. Werner’s direction tends to plod a bit, I find. Alto Hertha Töpper and bass Franz Kelch make rather heavy weather of their contributions and even Krebs sounds under pressure. The choir sounds muffled in the concluding chorale and overall this is a rare failure for Werner.

By contrast Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, BWV 11, the so-called Ascension Oratorio is a success. What a splendid work this is! The superbly celebratory opening chorus is brilliantly led by trumpeter, Maurice André and two colleagues. The singing of the choir is satisfyingly stirring. Kurt Huber makes a fine narrator, offering expressive and forward moving singing (what was he like as The Evangelist, I wonder?). The aria ‘Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben’ is rather too steady for my taste. Werner’s tread is somewhat heavy here and he can’t have made life too easy for his soloist, Barbara Scherler, but she sings well despite this. Soprano Hedy Graf produces lovely, fluent singing in the marvellous aria, ‘Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke’ and Bach’s wonderfully airy scoring is very well realised by Werner and his players. The great final chorus could, perhaps, have been taken just a notch faster (or maybe it would have benefited from a lighter tread on the part of the choir?) However, all in all Werner and his forces do justice to this fine work.

A brief mention of just two more highlights must suffice. One such is most definitely Agnes Giebel’s rendition of ‘Mein gläubiges Herze’ in Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68. She sounds eager and smiling. It’s a delightful performance. Equally distinguished is her soprano colleague, Ingeborg Reichelt in ‘Höchster, was ich habe’ from Brich dem Hungrigen dein Brot, BWV 39, where she is on elevated form.

The documentation consists of a fine essay on Werner’s Bach by Nicholas Anderson and brief notes on each cantata. These are written by a variety of hands and are of slightly varying quality. These essays are also given in French and German translations. Sadly no texts or translations are provided.

This is an important release, I think. Fritz Werner’s Bach might be dismissed as old fashioned by those who have come to regard lithe period-style performances as the norm. However, that would be a great mistake for there is much to enjoy here and much to ponder and to learn from also. Yes, there are movements where the tempo seems a bit sedate. Yes, there are times when the chorus work is not of the standard that one expects these days. Also it is true that some of the vocal soloists are not quite of the same standard as, say, Agnes Giebel but none of them lets the side down in any way. Above all, Fritz Werner has this music in his blood. His instincts for Bach style are generally sound and he directs the music with a profound belief in it. These are performances of quiet conviction.

I am thrilled that Warner Classics have made these recordings available again and at a bargain price. I would advise anyone who takes Bach’s vocal music seriously to snap them up while they are still around. There are two similar large boxes of Werner’s Bach that have been released simultaneously. I am eager to sample them but for the meantime I recommend this distinguished set very highly indeed.

John Quinn


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