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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage: Volume 7
Cantatas for The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Liebe, BWV 25 [17:42]
Jesu, der du meine Seele, BWV 78 [23:05]
Wer Dank opfert, der preiset mich, BWV 17 [16:24] 
Malin Hartelius (soprano); Robin Tyson (alto); James Gilchrist (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. Abbaye d’Ambronay, France, 24 September 2000
Cantatas for the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

Nun ist das Heil, und die Kraft, BWV 50 [3:15] (Occasion unspecified)
Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir, BWV 130 [15:30]
Es erhub sich ein Streit, BWV 19 [20:24]
Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg, BWV 149 [18:21]
Malin Hartelius (soprano); Richard Wyn Roberts (alto); James Gilchrist (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. Unser Lieben Frauen, Bremen, 29 September 2000
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 124 [57:27 + 57:44]

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The latest release in Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s continuing Bach cantata cycle brings us two concerts recorded only days apart.

The first disc includes three cantatas for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, recorded in the church of the monastery founded by the Benedictine Order in the ninth century. This abbey church, completed in the fifteenth century, is in south-east France, in the Département de l’Ain. The Gospel for the Sunday in question is St. Luke’s story of Jesus healing the ten lepers. It will be remembered that only one of the ten thought to return to say his thanks. Two of the three cantatas are very serious in tone, using bodily sickness as a metaphor for mankind’s sinful condition. The exception is BWV 17, which picks up the theme of the grateful leper.

BWV 25, which dates from 1723, begins with a chorus that laments man’s sinfulness. The gravity of the counterpoint is underscored by the inclusion of a trio of sackbuts in the orchestra. Their imposing sonority contributes substantially to the monumental feel of the music, which is sung superbly by the Monteverdi Choir. The comparison between corporeal and spiritual sickness is emphasised in the very first recitative, which opens with the melodramatic statement, ‘Die ganze Welt ist nur ein Hospital’ (“The entire world is but a hospital”). James Gilchrist declaims this section graphically. But then Bach and his librettist change the mood and in the following bass aria the listener is presented with the image of Christ as the source of healing. Peter Harvey sings this aria most eloquently. Equal pleasure is to be found in the joyful, dancing soprano aria, ‘Öffne meinen schlechten Liedern’. This is beautifully sung by Malin Hartelius and the inclusion of a trio of recorders in the accompaniment adds a delightful touch.

BWV 78 (1724) also begins with an imposing chorus. This is a superb chorus of lamentation, which, as Sir John comments in his constantly illuminating notes, is on a par with the opening choruses of both the St. John and the St Matthew Passions. The delicious duet for soprano and alto that follows is in marked contrast. Gardiner comments that Bach “never wrote more smile-inducing music!” The voices of Malin Hartelius and Robin Tyson are very well matched and their performance is irresistible. As in BWV 25 the tenor recitative that follows returns to the theme of illness as a metaphor for sin and memories of the 1723 cantata are further invoked by the tenor aria, which once more dwells on Christ the healer. James Gilchrist really makes the words of the recitative leap off the page and he’s excellent too in the aria, ‘Dein Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht’ with its balmy flute obbligato. The flowing oboe obbligato in the aria ‘Nun du wirst mein Gewissen stillen’ is a delight, as is Peter Harvey’s splendid singing. My admiration for him as a Bach singer grows with every volume in this series in which he takes part. Here it’s the clarity with which he articulates divisions without sacrificing the line that impresses.

BWV 17 (1726) differs from Bach’s other cantatas for this Sunday by focussing on the gratitude of one of the healed lepers. Thus the mood of the music is happier. Gardiner aptly describes the opening chorus, in which the soloists have prominent roles, as “exhilarating and florid” and I love the way the rippling oboes in the orchestra are brought out to just the right degree. Later Malin Hartelius’ sparkling form continues with a nimble account of the aria ‘Herr, deine Güte reicht, so weit der Himmel ist.’ Not to be outdone James Gilchrist excels in the aria, ‘Welch übermass der Güte’, a piece that offers yet another example of how so much of Bach’s music is rooted in dance. The final chorale in this cantata calls for comment. It’s borrowed from the motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied BWV 225. Gardiner decided it should be sung quietly and unaccompanied. This approach is absolutely right for the text of the chorale and this lovely bit of singing brings to an end a very fine concert.

However, if the first CD in this set is very fine then its companion is a stunner. Gardiner tells us that right from the start of the planning of the Pilgrimage he’d marked out September 29, Michaelmas Day, as a red-letter day. Even by his standards the notes about this concert make compelling reading and he makes clear what a significant date this must have been in Bach’s Lutheran calendar for several reasons. Certainly the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, with its opportunities to depict heavenly battles, inspired Bach to write some exceptional music and that music in turn inspired Gardiner and his team to give some thrilling performances.

It’s not clear if the single movement that is BWV 50, and which is probably the only surviving movement of a larger work, was designed for this Feast. However, the text is apposite for it chimes in perfectly with the theme of the day. The scoring too, resplendent with trumpets and drums, is fully in keeping with the occasion. Gardiner leads a sizzling account of it.

The opening chorus of BWV 130 praises God for creating Angels. Gardiner’s description of this chorus is as memorable as is his conducting of it: “Bach begins by presenting a tableau of the angels on parade; these are celestial military manoeuvres, some of them even danced, rather than the battle itself.” The battle between the rival legions of Angels led by Michael and Lucifer is thrillingly depicted in the bass aria ‘Der alte Drache brennt vor Neid’. This exciting battle aria includes parts for no less than three trumpets as well as timpani. Peter Harvey is on top form here, giving a commanding account of the piece. Then Bach and his librettist move from the heat of battle to meditate on the protecting power of Angels, first in a lovely recitativo for soprano and tenor and then in the tenor aria, ‘Lass, o Fürst der Cherubinen’. The virtuoso gambolling in the flute obbligato suggests, perhaps, angels lightly dancing? James Gilchrist is excellent here but, as we shall see, both he and Bach have even greater delights in store for us later. The cantata ends with a two-verse chorale in which the trumpets decorate the end of each line to marvellous effect.

BWV 149 (1728/9) picks up a different aspect of the day’s liturgy. The tone of voice of this cantata differs from the other two Michaelmas cantatas in being “festive rather than combative”. In fact the opening chorus of rejoicing is recycled from the ‘Hunt’ cantata BWV 208 (1713). Peter Harvey brings splendid authority to his aria, ‘Kraft und Stärke sei gesungen’ and I also warmed very much to Malin Hartelius’ way with the aria ‘Gottes Engel weichen nie’.  Also of note is the marvellous burbling bassoon obbligato under the well-matched singing of James Gilchrist and Richard Wyn Roberts in their duet.

Usually I comment on these discs in order of presentation as that, I believe, matches the way the cantatas were performed in concert. On this occasion, however, I’ve deliberately left the best till last for the performance of BWV 19 (1726) is of quite exceptional quality – as is the music itself. The opening chorus is an astonishing fugal creation depicting the battle in heaven between Michael’s loyal angels and the rebels who had thrown in their lot with Lucifer. Bach depicts the struggle with graphic music and I can’t imagine it more brilliantly realised than it is here.  The virtuosity of the Monteverdi Choir is simply staggering and the performance is breathlessly exciting.

Then things calm down a bit and in the aria ‘Gott schickt uns Mahanaim zu’ Malin Hartelius blends beautifully with the intertwining pair of oboes that support her grateful vocal line. I’ve found that in many of the preceding volumes there is one stand-out performance that compels attention even in the midst of so much fine playing and singing. Here I have no hesitation in saying that the palm goes to James Gilchrist for his spellbinding rendition of the seraphic aria ‘Bleibt, ihr engel, bleibt bei mir.' In a note Gilchrist, whose mother is German with several family members living near Bremen, leaves us in no doubt that this concert was a special experience for him. Of this aria he writes, “I felt allowed – encouraged – truly to soar.” And soar he does! The voice is cushioned on the siciliano rhythm on the strings while a soft solo trumpet ethereally intones the chorale melody ‘Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, O Herr’ in the background. One notes from the booklet that the aria lasts for eight minutes but, in truth, the performance is timeless. Gilchrist’s singing, and his identification with the text and with Bach’s inspiration, is beyond praise. It is the highlight of a quite magnificent performance of a magnificent cantata.

In every respect this set lives up to the very high standards of previous issues in the series. The performances are superb throughout. Gardiner’s direction is inspired and his notes eloquent and illuminating. The recorded sound is first class. Gardiner’s cycle is already a major event in the Bach discography and this latest instalment adds further lustre to a distinguished series. It’s essential listening for all lovers of Bach’s cantatas.

John Quinn  

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