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Soli Deo Gloria

Pilgrim’s Progress - The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage: A Third Report  
Johann Sebastian BACH

Volume 19: Cantatas for the Second Sunday after Epiphany

Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?  BWV155
Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid I, BWV3
Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, BWV13
Joanne Lunn (soprano); Richard Wyn Roberts (alto); Julian Podger (tenor); Gerald Finley (bass); The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Old Royal Naval Chapel, Greenwich, 16-17 January 2000
Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV26
(For the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity)
Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? BWV81
Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV14
Motet: Jesu, meine Freude, BWV227
Joanne Lunn, Katharine Fuge (sopranos); William Towers (alto); Paul Agnew (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass); The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Romsey Abbey, Hampshire, 30 January 2000
[59:28 + 68:05]

Volume 21: Cantatas for Quinquagesima Sunday
Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, BWV22
Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV23
Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, BWV127
Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV159
Ruth Holten (soprano); Claudia Schubert (alto); James Oxley (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass); The choirs of Clare College and Trinity College, Cambridge; The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 5 March 2000
Cantatas for the Annunciation/Palm Sunday/Oculi
Himmelskönig, sei willkommen BWV182
Widerstehe doch die Sünde, BWV54
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV1
Malin Hartelius (soprano); Nathalie Stutzmann (alto); James Gilchrist (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass) /The Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Walpole St. Peter, Norfolk, 26 March 2000
[74:50 + 60:14]
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These sets are the sixth and seventh releases in this ongoing series (see end of review for links to other reviews).
I can say immediately that the high standards of performance have been maintained in these latest issues, as has the fine quality of Gardiner’s perceptive and fascinating booklet notes from which, as before, I shall quote in this review.

Volume 21

On 5 March 1964 – can it really be forty-two years ago? – in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, a young undergraduate conducted a performance of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers, using a choir that he had assembled from fellow students at the university. The conductor was John Eliot Gardiner. That night the Monteverdi Choir was born and the rest, as they say, is history. Thirty-six years later to the very day, Gardiner, by now Sir John Eliot Gardiner, brought today’s Monteverdi Choir back, as it were, to their roots to make a stop on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. In a very nice touch, he invited singers from the four Cambridge colleges that had furnished the original Monteverdi Choir, to take part in the Pilgrimage concert. Thus singers from Clare and Trinity Colleges were on hand to join in the chorales and to play a particularly important role in the performance of BWV 159.
The concert began with two cantatas, BWV 22 and BWV 23, which were Bach’s audition pieces when he sought the post of Cantor at St. Thomas’s, Leipzig in 1723. The cantatas were designed to be performed at the same service, one before the sermon and one after it. Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, BWV 22 begins with an interesting device: the first movement is a narrative passage featuring the bass soloist, singing the words of Christ, and the tenor and the chorus carrying the narration. There follows a “grief-laden gigue” for alto solo. Claudia Schubert sings this with disarming directness. The solo oboist - Marcel Ponseele, I assume – who is to cover himself with glory later on, in BWV 159, partners her most poetically. I like Peter Harvey’s way with the succeeding recitative. The cantata ends with a chorale, which is enlivened by a continuous, pealing oboe counterpoint, which I found irresistible.
At the beginning of Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23 a pair of oboes provide a poignant obbligato against which the soprano and alto soloist sing a spacious duet. The light, almost boyish timbre of Ruth Holten’s voice contrasts nicely with the richer tones of Claudia Schubert. Two choral movements end the cantata. The second of these, a substantial chorale, seems to have been a last-minute addition to the work.
BWV 127, which dates from 1725, opens with a big choral fantasia on the sixteenth-century Lutheran hymn from which the cantata takes its name, pitted against the Lutheran Agnus Dei melody, heard in the orchestra. On this occasion, however, Eliot Gardiner did something rather unusual. He invited the sopranos and altos from the two Cambridge college choirs to sing the Agnus Dei melody while the Monteverdi Choir sang Bach’s chorus parts. As he describes it: “With undergraduate sopranos and altos on opposite wings of the centrally arrayed Monteverdi Choir, the whole movement acquired the proportions of a choral triptych … It sounded vibrant and stirring, and gave an inkling of how the St. Matthew Passion might have sounded in the 1730s.”  This is daringly different but all I can say is that it works brilliantly for me. Should purists object, the familiar version, recorded at the pre-concert rehearsal, is included as an appendix track. At the heart of the cantata lies the lengthy “sleep aria”, ‘Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen’ Here, once again, the accompaniment is extremely sensitive, with the principal oboe well to the fore, and the plangent vocal line suits Ruth Holten’s light, pure voice very well. She gives a disarming, touching performance. By coincidence, she also is the soloist in this cantata – and many others – in the complete cycle on Brilliant Classics. This budget priced series is by no means to be despised and has given me much pleasure but it is somewhat uneven and does show some signs of having been put together swiftly and on a tight budget. I compared the two accounts of this aria and, frankly, there is no comparison. On the Brilliant version the accompaniment rather chugs along, though the solo oboe is good, and, at the faster pace adopted by conductor Pieter Jan Leusink, Miss Holten either can’t or doesn’t float her line in the way that she does for Gardiner. Gardiner takes 8:20 for the aria against Leusink’s 6:59. The Brilliant performance is both conscientious and good as far as it goes but Gardiner’s is the Real Deal, full of imagination and atmosphere. The contemplative mood is immediately and deliberately shattered by the juxtaposition of the bass recitative, ‘Wenn einstens die Posaunen schallen’, in which the soloist sings of the Last Judgement, thrillingly partnered by a flashing trumpet part – interestingly the trumpet is only deployed in this movement. The piece is sung commandingly by Peter Harvey, who is equally successful in its more lyrical stretches.
Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV 159 opens with an arioso for the bass, who sings the words of Jesus, interspersed with recitative passages for the alto as the Christian Soul. Here the rich sounds of Claudia Schubert give much pleasure once again. She sings the following aria, ‘Ich folge dir nach’ quite beautifully. The kernel of BWV 159 is the wonderful aria, ‘Es ist vollbracht’. Amazingly, Bach was inspired to write an aria that was fully the equal, in terms of profundity of expression, of the aria that bears the same title in St. John Passion. On this occasion Eliot Gardiner took the piece at a daringly slow tempo. This breadth, plus the concentration and artistry of all the performers, ensured that, as he says, time seemed to stand still. These heart-stopping few minutes constitute an oasis of tranquillity and innigkeit that make this aria the pinnacle not just of a very fine performance of the cantata but of the set as a whole. Peter Harvey’s singing is inspired. He rises to great heights of expressiveness and the plaintive oboe obbligato of Marcel Ponseele is also beyond praise. This performance is a very special experience indeed and must have been surpassingly moving to hear on the night.
Three weeks later the Pilgrims were once again in East Anglia, this time at the fifteenth-century church of Walpole St. Peter, deep in the rural fenlands of Norfolk. This church is known as the ‘Queen of the Marshlands’. It is situated not far from Sandringham, the rural retreat of the English royal family and HRH The Prince of Wales, the Patron of the Pilgrimage, was among the audience for this concert. The programme was something of a mixed bag: because the Lutheran liturgy largely eschewed music during Lent there are few pieces by Bach for the season. However, he did write one cantata for the third Sunday of Lent, ‘Oculi’ Sunday, and the fact that the Feast of the Annunciation had fallen the previous day, 25 March, gave an opportunity to include music for that feast.
Himmelskönig, sei willkommen BWV 182 is appropriate for either Palm Sunday or the Annunciation. After the opening sinfonia comes a delightful chorus in which Jesus is welcomed to Jerusalem. As Gardiner says, “seldom is Bach so light-hearted”. It’s beautifully done here. The cantata has three arias, one each for alto, tenor and bass. Of these, the central one, for alto, is easily the most extended. Here the ethereal recorder obbligato contrasts and yet blends with the gorgeous sound of Nathalie Stutzmann’s voice. She’s in fine, expressive form, which augurs well for BWV 54 later in the programme. In this aria the deliberately spare accompaniment serves to highlight the grave beauty of the meditative vocal line. James Gilchrist has a taxing aria to sing with which, predictably, he copes very well. Bach follows this with a rich, complex chorale fantasia and then a deliciously light-footed and exuberant final chorus, in which the soloists join, which is enhanced by important contributions from the solo violin and recorder players. As Gardiner comments in a typically felicitous phrase, this latter movement “needs the poise of a trapeze artist with the agility of a madrigalian gymnast – and is altogether captivating.” Needless to say, his expert performers are equal to all the challenges.
Then comes the piece for Oculi Sunday, the solo cantata, Widerstehe doch die Sünde, BWV 54. The solo part is quite low lying in places and this amply justifies the use of a female alto rather than a male singer. I applaud the choice of Nathalie Stutzmann. The opening aria is substantial and accounts for some two-thirds of the length of the whole cantata. Miss Stutzmann sings it with lovely firm tone and invests the music with just the right amount of feeling. The strings of the English Baroque Soloists provide splendid support. The shorter final aria, ‘Wer Sünde tut, der ist vom Teufel’ contains a demandingly chromatic line for the singer, underpinned by a driving, fugal string accompaniment. It’s purposefully performed here.
For the Annunciation cantata, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1 Bach adds pairs of horns and oboes da caccia to the string band and these instruments contribute a marvellous patina of additional colour in the joyous opening chorale fantasia on one of the most renowned of Lutheran hymns. The movement is performed quite superbly. James Gilchrist is outstanding in the tenor recitative that follows. Up to now we’ve not heard from soprano Malin Hartelius but she brings a wonderfully innocent and eager joy to the aria ‘Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen göttlichen Flammen.’ She sings this quite delightfully and she’s partnered by an oboe da caccia. It’s rather unusual to hear this instrument in partnership with the soprano voice but the effect here is quite enchanting.  Gilchrist, impressive in recitative earlier on, gives great pleasure in his account of the florid aria, ‘Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten’. Then the closing chorale is splendidly festive and affirmative, with the exuberant horns suitably prominent.
These must have been two marvellous and uplifting concerts. How wonderful that they’re preserved on this pair of CDs for us to enjoy again and again.

Volume 19
The concerts at Greenwich in mid January 2000 were the first given in the UK as part of the Pilgrimage. Prior to this all the venues had been in Germany. Greenwich played host for a selection of cantatas for the Second Sunday after Epiphany. Scarcely, it seems, has the great festival of Christmas passed when the mood of the Lutheran liturgy once again includes a vein of penitence – though in fact reminders of man’s sinfulness are present even in Bach’s cantatas for Christmastide. As Gardiner observes of the cantatas for this particular Sunday, their texts “inscribe a path from mourning to consolation.”
Joanne Lunn is very affecting in the aching recitativo with which begins Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange?  BWV 155. She represents the penitent Christian soul who is then encouraged in her faith by the alto and tenor soloists, who combine in ‘Du must glauben, du must hoffen’ with its perky bassoon obbligato. Miss Lunn has another aria, ‘Wirf, mein Herze, wirf dich noch’, in which the soul is enjoined “throw yourself” into Christ’s loving arms. She obeys this injunction in her singing and the aria trips along eagerly.
At the start of Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid I, BWV 3 the mood is once again one of affliction, this time conveyed by the chorus. There’s a crucial role here for the oboes d’amore. These help establish the air of melancholy in the substantial instrumental introduction and thereafter weave in and out of the choral texture. It’s a powerful movement and it’s performed arrestingly here. The bass aria, ‘Empfind ich Höllenangst und Pein’ is “an uncomfortable, tortuous ride for both cello and singer.” Suffice to say that both acquit themselves with distinction. Gerald Finley is very accurate in his divisions, nowhere more so than in the long, recurring phrase, ‘ein rechter Freudenhimmel sein’. Throughout this aria he makes good sense of what can be difficult musical syntax. I love Eliot Gardiner’s almost throwaway description of the soprano/alto duet, ’Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen’. He dubs it “Bach’s equivalent of Singin’ in the Rain.” What a marvellous comparison – and how apt! But if you think for a minute that he’s being flippant read what he has to say about the cruciform symbolism of the music in this aria, which reminds us that these are the thoughts, both serious and light-hearted, of someone who really knows his Bach and has thought long and hard about the music.
The tenor aria with which begins Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, BWV 13 is eloquently delivered by Julian Podger. The marvellous combined sonority of an oboe da caccia and two recorders provides a most effective accompaniment. But even the invention and emotional range of that aria is dwarfed by the bass aria, ‘Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen.’ Gardiner takes this very broadly – the performance lasts for over ten minutes – but sustains the musical line excellently. The accompaniment is founded on an implacably treading bass line over which we hear a plaintive unison from a solo violin and the recorders. Against this the bass soloist projects a deeply melancholic line. Finley sings with great feeling and inwardness, displaying amazing control and concentration. His success in putting the music across so profoundly is all the more remarkable when we read that he was a late replacement as soloist in this concert. All concerned give a spellbinding performance of the aria, which sets the seal on a very fine account of the entire cantata.
Two weeks later and the Pilgrims had moved on to Romsey Abbey – presumably we shall catch up with their concert for the Third Sunday of Epiphany in due course. Only two cantatas for this Sunday have come down to us so Gardiner, ever the pragmatist, took the opportunity in particular to give his choir more to do by including other music.
Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, BWV 26 is a 1724 cantata for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity. It owes its inclusion in this concert to the fact that the incidence of Easter was so late in 2000 that this Sunday would be omitted from the liturgical calendar. It’s a fine work, which begins with a brilliant and vigorous choral fantasia. The movement is strongly projected here, but not excessively so. In the aria that follows, ‘So schnell ein rauschend Wasser scheisst’, solo lines for flute, violin and tenor interweave. The passage of time and the rushing of water are suggestively illustrated in fluent music. Paul Agnew excels in the demandingly long stretches of passagework. The cantata also features a magisterial bass aria, in which the singer is accompanied by no less than three oboes. Peter Harvey, reliable as ever, does this very well.
In the booklet Sir John writes at length and with perception about Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? BWV 81, which he regards as having almost an operatic dimension. The intense, melancholy aria with which it commences is well sung by William Towers. The next aria, ‘Die schäumenden Wellen von Belials Bächen’, is a fearsomely demanding storm aria for tenor and strings. Here Bach whips up a real musical tempest but Paul Agnew surmounts the considerable technical difficulties. The bass aria, ‘Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer!’ is equally challenging. Christ has to work hard to subdue the waves and the Christ that Bach portrays here is a commanding figure, not a gentle Jesus. Peter Harvey excels here and the calming of the storm paves the way for a confident note, at last, in the following alto recitative and the concluding chorale. This is a most exciting and accomplished account of a fine cantata.
The other cantata for the Sunday is Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit, BWV 14. Particularly noteworthy is the opening chorus with its complex textures. In this performance an impressive clarity is achieved. The soprano aria, ‘Unsre Stärke heist zu schwach’ features a high horn obbligato – rather an unusual combination. It’s very well done here with a splendid contribution from the horn player, Gabriele Cassone. Equally impressive is Peter Harvey in his aria, ‘Gott, bei deinem starken Schützen’.
The inclusion of the motet, Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227 is no mere caprice. Not only does this give the choir something substantial to sing but the text is one of the prescribed hymns for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany. There’s great variety in the eleven sections of the piece and Bach’s compositional virtuosity is extremely well served by the vocal virtuosity of the Monteverdi Choir. The singers show consistent precision. Their rhythmic acuity and dynamic range impress at all times as does the sheer verve and commitment of their singing. I particularly admired the clarity that they bring to the part writing in the second section and also the sensitivity of their quiet singing in the ninth movement, ‘Gute Nacht, o Wesen.’ The motet is a masterpiece and here it receives a performance that is fully worthy of the quality of the music.
As I’m sure is evident from my comments, both these volumes maintain the very high standards set by previous issues in this series. The recorded sound is consistently excellent and, as before, Sir John’s notes are a consistent source of illumination. Collectors who are acquiring the series as it unfolds should certainly invest in these issues as well. Any Bach lover who has yet to experience the Cantata Pilgrimage should hasten to rectify the omission and either of these volumes would make an excellent starting point. This is turning out to be an important and distinguished series and I recommend these latest issues very strongly.

John Quinn


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Visit the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage page for links to Musicweb reviews of releases in this series.


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