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.
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
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.
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