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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage - Volume 23
Cantatas for the First Sunday after Easter
Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich BWV 150 [14:42]
(Occasion unspecified)
Halt im Gedächtnis, Jesum Christ BWV 67 [12:56]
Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats BWV 42 [26:49]
Der Friede sei mit dir BWV 158 [12:40]
(For Easter Tuesday)
Gillian Keith (soprano); Daniel Taylor (alto); Charles Daniels (tenor); Stephen Varcoe (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche, Arnstadt, 29-30 April 2000. DDD
Cantatas for the Second Sunday after Easter (Misericordias Domini)
Du Hirte Israel, höre BWV 104 [16:30]
Ich bin ein guter Hirt BWV 85 [16:50]
Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt BWV 112 [11:37]
Katharine Fuge (soprano); William Towers (alto); Norbert Meyn (tenor); Stephen Varcoe (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Basilique St. Willibrod, Echternach, 7 May 2000. DDD
[67:23 + 44:08]


Volume 22 of this series contained cantatas for Easter Sunday and the succeeding two days, performed at the church in Eisenach where Bach was baptised and sang as a boy chorister. For the following Sunday, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Cantata Pilgrims travelled some thirty miles to Arnstadt, where Bach served as organist between 1703 and 1707.

Though cantata BWV 150 is not an Easter cantata - indeed, it’s for an unspecified occasion - its inclusion in the Arnstadt programme was appropriate since it’s now widely believed that this was Bach’s first cantata, composed around 1707/8 and, as such, probably written for this very church. The piece is rooted firmly in the seventeenth-century German cantata tradition and, unsurprisingly, one feels that the young Bach has yet fully to find his voice in this medium. Nonetheless it’s technically very assured and the musical response to the text is typically thoughtful. There aren’t too many solo opportunities but Gillian Keith impresses in the soprano aria  ‘Doch bin und bleibe ich vergnügt’. The contribution of the Monteverdi Choir is, characteristically, first class and in particular they project strongly the chorus ‘Leite mich in deiner Wahrheit’.

BWV 67 comes from 1724, the first Leipzig cycle, and shows how far Bach had travelled musically since his Arnstadt days. For a start the orchestral scoring is much fuller, reflecting the more abundant resources available to Bach in Leipzig. But the music is much finer also. The magnificent opening chorus finds the Monteverdi Choir – and Bach – in inspired form. The following tenor aria, ‘Mein Jesus ist erstanden’ is a superb creation, a real proclamation of confident faith in the Resurrection. Gardiner sets a challenging tempo but Charles Daniels negotiates the aria’s difficulties very well. The bass aria with chorale, ‘Friede sei mit euch!’ is the core of the work. There are several turbulent passages for strings and chorus, in which Gardiner really whips up a tempest, and each time calm is restored by the bass, as Jesus. Stephen Varcoe sings these pacific passages with dignity and feeling. However, to my ears his voice sounds, at this stage in his career, just a little grey and he also lacks the amplitude at the bottom of his range that we’ve heard from, say, Peter Harvey in other volumes in this series. This is a magnificent cantata and, that one reservation apart, Gardiner and his forces give a fine account of it.

BWV 42, which comes from the 1725 jahrgang is on a much bigger scale and is introduced by a vigorous, eager sinfonia. At its heart – and, at 12:32, accounting for nearly half the length of the whole cantata – is the alto aria, ‘Wo zwei und drei versammlet sind’. These recordings are assembled from two performances on consecutive days and I was fascinated to read in Gardiner’s notes that he found his feelings about this aria were different at each performance. He confides “I found it almost unbearably pained and sad at our first performance and far more serene and consoling at the second.” Which account is preserved on the CD, I wonder? Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between the two poles, with Bach illustrating the bittersweet feeling of the first disciples that Christ is with them always – but no longer in this world as they have previously known him? In this performance the pair of obbligato oboes intertwine plaintively and Daniel Taylor’s singing is beautifully plangent and most eloquent. Whatever interpretation one draws from the music it’s sublime. Stephen Varcoe copes pretty well with the bass aria in this cantata though, again, I’d have liked a bit more “bottom” in the voice, well though he puts across the piece.

The final cantata in this concert, BWV 158, is actually for Easter Tuesday but apart from anything else its inclusion is an appropriate link with BWV 67. Actually, as Alfred Dürr points out, Bach also used this cantata sometimes for the Feast of the Purification (February 2) since the text is apposite for that day as well. In essence it’s a cantata for solo bass. The gentle recitativo and the world-weary aria. ‘Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde’ suits Stephen Varcoe’s light-ish voice well. He makes an excellent contribution to this cantata. In the aria, the ravishing, elaborate violin obbligato is marvellously played by Alison Bury and the choir’s sopranos sing their chorale interjections beautifully.

For the following week’s concert the pilgrims journeyed to Luxembourg. All three cantatas on this programme were inspired by the concept of Christ as the Good Shepherd and were founded on Psalm 23.

BWV 104 opens with a fine chorus in 9/8 time. Gardiner and his musicians impart a lovely lilt to the music and the excellent choral singing allows every strand of Bach’s argument to come through.  The tenor, Norbert Meyn, makes his first appearance in this series to date. In the anxious aria ‘Verbirgt mein Hirte sich zu lange’ he just sounds a touch uncomfortable in comparison with some of his tenor colleagues that we’ve heard in earlier releases. The bass aria, ‘Beglückte Herde, Jesu Schafe’ is a wonderful pastoral piece in 12/8. Stephen Varcoe gives a good account of it, catching the mood of the music very well.

In the alto aria of BWV 85 William Towers sings very well. Sir John rightly draws attention in his notes to the special colouring imparted by the tenor range of the obbligato ‘cello piccolo in this aria. Prepared by a charged recitativo, the tenor aria ‘Seht, was die Liebe tut’ is a wonderfully eloquent bit of writing and Meyn puts it over very well.

BWV 112 is a paraphrase of Psalm 23 and its splendid opening chorus is the most obviously celebratory piece we’ve heard thus far and the addition of a pair of horns to the orchestra enriches the timbres significantly. The next two verses of the paraphrase are allocated respectively to the alto and bass soloists. Both do well, Towers singing his pastoral aria very pleasingly and Varcoe eloquently phrasing his recitativo. The soprano/tenor duet is a jubilant movement and Katharine Fuge and Norbert Meyn combine enthusiastically.

This, then, is another absorbing and splendidly performed release in this very important series. The orchestral playing is consistently of a very high order. Sir John comments in his notes, which are splendid and perceptive as ever, that “One is dumbfounded by the peerless craftsmanship of [Bach’s] weekly and seasonal output.” I am no less admiring of the skill and dedication of Gardiner and his team who, week in, week out, were producing such thoughtful and superbly executed performances during their year-long pilgrimage, the fruits of which are now, thankfully, preserved on disc in this very fine cantata cycle.

John Quinn

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