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
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.