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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage Volume 6

Cantatas for The Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69a [17:18]
Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV 35 [24:32]
Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren BWV 137 [12:49
Katharine Fuge (soprano); Robin Tyson (alto); Christoph Genz (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Jakobskirche, Köthen, 10 September 2000
Cantatas for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben, BWV 77 [17:47]
Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet, BWV 164 [16:16]
Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 33 [22:42]
Gillian Keith (soprano); Nathalie Stutzmann (alto); Christoph Genz (tenor); Jonathan Brown (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Dreikönigskirche, Frankfurt, 17 September 2000
[2 CDs: 54:53 + 57:03]


The CD issue of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage is nearly at the halfway point: this release brings us to twenty-four out of the projected fifty-one discs.

Volume Six in the series contains cantatas for two consecutive Sundays after Trinity. As Sir John points out in his notes, these are highly contrasting Sundays. The Twelfth Sunday brings “ a rarity – one of the most cheerful programmes of the whole Trinity season.” He continues, with a characteristically memorable turn of phrase, “After so many consecutive weeks of fire and brimstone and dire warnings against devilish temptations, forked tongues, false prophets and the like, it comes as a huge relief to encounter three genial, celebratory pieces…” As we shall see, for Bach the following Sunday represented a case of back to business as usual but on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity we catch him wearing a smile.

The concert on 10 September 2000 was given in one of the places particularly associated with Bach. At the very end of 1717 he began a five-year stint in Köthen as Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold, and the church in which these cantatas were performed would have been very familiar to him. However, all three of these cantatas date from Bach’s Leipzig period; music such as this would have been very infrequently heard in Köthen, where Prince Leopold followed a strict Calvinist observance, which admitted little in the way of figural music into the liturgy. I suspect, in fact, that the celebratory air of much of the music in these three cantatas would have been anathema to the Prince and his court.

The Gospel for the Twelfth Sunday is found in chapter seven of St. Mark’s Gospel and relates the story of the healing by Jesus of a deaf mute so there’s plenty of scope for Bach and his librettists to draw parallels and use metaphors comparing physical healing and the healing of souls. BWV 69a (1723), which includes parts for three each of trumpets and oboes, as well as for timpani, opens with a lavish and ambitious choral movement, which is tremendously exciting and calls for great virtuosity from the singers – the soloists are involved also. It’s thrillingly delivered here. The tenor soloist is Christoph Genz, to whom falls the exacting aria ‘Meine Seele, auf, erzähle’. This is a lilting, pastoral creation with a wonderfully inventive accompaniment in which recorder, oboe da caccia and bassoon are prominent. It’s airily sung by Genz, whose flexible and essentially light voice is well suited to the passagework and often demanding tessitura. Later in the cantata comes a fine bass aria, ‘Mein Erlöser und Erhalter’, which is enriched by a syncopated obbligato for oboe d’amore. The ever-reliable Peter Harvey sings it very well. The concluding chorale is a slight adaptation of one borrowed from an earlier cantata, BWV 12, which has already figured in this series (see review).

BWV 35 (1726) is, in some ways, no less extrovert a piece, although the orchestral scoring is much less full than in BWV 69a and only a solo alto is involved. This cantata is in two parts – presumably one part was heard on either side of the sermon – and each part is introduced by an elaborate sinfonia in which the organ takes centre stage. In fact, Alfred Dürr and other Bach scholars suggest that the movements in question derive from a concerto for oboe and strings, now lost, which may have been composed, appropriately enough, during Bach’s Köthen days. If that’s so, I found it slightly piquant to wonder how often, if at all, this music had been heard in the city since it was first composed there.

The organ, superbly played by Ian Watson, dances delightfully in the opening sinfonia and Watson plays an equally stellar role in the gay music of the second sinfonia. Elsewhere he makes telling contributions in support of the solo singer. In 1726 Bach must have had the services, at least for a while, of an outstanding alto soloist for this cantata is but one of a trio of magnificent cantatas for solo alto, all composed within a matter of a few weeks. Vergnügte Ruh, beliebete Seelenlust, BWV 170, was written for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity and Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV 169 appeared on the Eighteenth Sunday. Exactly in between these two came BWV 35.

Gardiner’s original intention had been to use a female singer, Sara Mingardo, for this performance but she was obliged to withdraw at the last minute, we are told, and Robin Tyson stepped into the breach. There is nothing at all last minute about his performance, however, for he sings with splendid assurance and complete identification both with the words and the music. He begins with an extended aria, ‘Geist und Seele wird verwirret’, in which he’s very expressive. The following recitative extols the miracles of healing that were worked by Christ, which Tyson delivers very well. This gives way to a perky, joyful aria in which the loving care of God for his people is celebrated. Here both Tyson and Ian Watson display delightful agility. Part two brings the final aria, a more stately dance of joy in which the organ part is again prominent. Dürr points the contrast and paradox between the opening and concluding movements of this cantata. Bach says “as it were, ‘Yes’ to life at the opening, by praising the healing miracles of Jesus, and a still more emphatic ‘Yes’ to death at the close in a prayer for a speedy end to life.” This journey from one acceptance to another calls forth some fine invention from Bach and Tyson, Watson and Gardiner emerge with great credit from this performance.

Trumpets and drums return for BWV 137 (1725). This is a five-movement chorale cantata, based on the hymn tune known to English churchgoers as ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation.’ The festive and lively first movement is, as Gardiner says. “irrepressible in its rhythmic vitality.” Here the excellent Monteverdi choir really comes into its own with singing that is committed, crisp and buoyant. In the second stanza the alto soloist sings the hymn tune while an elaborate violin obbligato provides abundant decoration. The third movement features a pair of obbligato oboes supporting a duet between soprano and bass soloists. As so often, Gardiner finds the mot juste, describing the canonic interplay between singers and instrumentalists –and each other – as akin to a game of mixed doubles. In the fourth verse a florid tenor solo, fluently executed by Genz, is in the foreground while the hymn tune is heard behind him, played on solo trumpet. Finally a majestic choral verse unites the full forces.

These three splendid cantatas are given excellent performances and the whole concert constitutes a fine tribute to Bach in one of the cities indelibly associated with his music.

The next Sunday found the Pilgrims in Frankfurt. The venue was not, on this occasion, a church dating from Bach’s time but the nineteenth century Dreikönigskirche, which Gardiner describes as “rather forbidding and gloomy.” I said earlier that this Sunday saw Bach resume business as usual but Sir John puts it rather more eloquently. “Sure enough, after the breezy pleasures of last week’s celebratory pieces – a brief reprieve – came the cold shower of our man’s resumption of the earnest process of musical exegesis.” Herein, surely, lies one of the cardinal virtues of this CD series. Gardiner and his team were living the week-in, week-out liturgical cycle of cantatas in a way that, surely, no one else has done so consistently since Bach’s time and, as the series unfolds and becomes more complete, the listener too can follow this process – and through live performances – and savour the contrasts not just between Sundays but also between Bach’s different responses at divers times to the liturgy of any one particular Sunday. Here, for example, we have three cantatas, all from the Leipzig cycles, which in different ways respond to the liturgy of the day and in particular, to the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan (Luke, 10. vv 23-37).

BWV 77 (1723) begins with a huge and elaborately constructed chorus in which Bach displays tremendous compositional virtuosity. The movement is based on an old chorale melody, used by Luther for one of his hymns, but dating back well before Luther’s time. The music is magnificently and powerfully projected and Gardiner’s direction displays great attention to detail and to the spirit of the piece. The bass soloist, who we meet in the first recitative, is a newcomer to the series, Jonathan Brown. He proves to be a reliable singer.

A much better known singer is Nathalie Stutzmann, who we’ve encountered in some previous releases. Some “authentic” Bach exponents seem completely to eschew the female alto voice in the cantatas. Much though I like the counter tenor voice in Bach I’m delighted that Gardiner is flexible in this respect, choosing voices that best suit the music. She has the lovely aria, ‘Ach, es bleibt in meiner Liebe’. In this section her rich tone contrasts beautifully with the haunting, almost fragile trumpet obbligato in the background. I don’t know if the player, Niklas Eklund, was placed at a distance but it sounds as if he was. Whether or not, the effect is magical and Gardiner is correct to draw attention in his notes to Eklund’s superb playing.

BWV 164 (1725) starts not with a chorus but with a demanding tenor aria, authoritatively sung by Christoph Genz. The cantata also features a wonderful alto aria, ‘Nur durch Lieb und durch Erbarmen.’ This aria is adorned by a balmy pair of flutes and in the piece, as Gardiner comments, “the essence of true compassion is evoked.” It’s evoked even more strongly thanks to the expressive way in which Nathalie Stutzmann sings the aria.

Finally we hear BWV 33 (1724), the lengthiest of this trio of cantatas. The violins and, even more so, a pair of athletic oboes, drive on the music of the opening chorale fantasia. At the heart of the cantata, and accounting for almost half the length of this performance, is the sublime alto aria ‘Wie furchtstam wankten meine Schritte’. Not the least interesting feature of this aria is the texture of the orchestral accompaniment. The first violins play con sordini against a pizzicato background, creating a rather special atmosphere. If there were no other justification for the decision to engage Nathalie Stutzmann for this concert – and that’s far from being the case – her superb singing here amply vindicates Gardiner’s shrewd choice. Her velvet tone is just right for the melodic line and she sings with great – but not overdone – feeling. This seamless and elevated aria just seems to go on and on, yet one regrets it coming to an end. This, for me, is the highlight of this entire set. Before the end of the cantata Genz and Jonathan Brown are suitably virile in their duet, to which a busy pair of oboes also makes a fine contribution.

This is yet another distinguished release in this excellent series. All the usual high standards of previous volumes are maintained. The singing, both solo and choral, is never less than excellent; the sound is first class; and Sir John proves yet again to be a perspicacious and committed guide to Bach, whether as conductor or annotator. But, of course, as ever the real hero is Bach and yet again we marvel at his seemingly inexhaustible invention and sheer industry and at his ability to express and communicate his Lutheran Christian faith for the benefit of the Leipzig congregations and, over two hundred years later, for ours.

John Quinn

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