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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage Volume 25

CD 1
Cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Easter (Rogate)
Wahrlich, warlich, ich sage euch BWV 86 (1724) [13:03]
Bisher habt ihr nichts gebeten in meinem Namen BWV 87 (1725) [17:08]
In allen meinen Taten BWV 97 (1734) [24:36]
(Occasion unspecified)
Katharine Fuge (soprano); Robin Tyson (alto); Steve Davislim (tenor); Stephen Loges (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Annenkirche, Dresden, 27-28 May 2000
CD 2
Cantatas for the Sunday after Ascension Day (Exaudi)
Sie werden euch in den Bann tun I BWV 44 (1724) [16.46]
Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich BWV 150 (c 1708/9) [14:26]
(Occasion unspecified)
Sie werden euch in den Bann tun II BWV 183 (1725) [16:32]
Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703)
Fürchte dich nicht [4:26]
Joanne Lunn (soprano); Daniel Taylor (alto); Paul Agnew (tenor); Panajotis Iconomou (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Sherborne Abbey, 4 June 2000
German texts and English translations included.
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG144 [55:10 + 52:40]


Experience Classicsonline

I believe that the planned complete Cantata Pilgrimage cycle will run to fifty-one CDs. We are now well past the halfway mark and this present release brings to thirty-one the number of discs so far issued.

The first of the two CDs in this set contains cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Easter, recorded in what John Eliot Gardiner describes as the “unalluring” Annenkirche in Dresden. This was one of the few churches to survive the terrible bombing that the city endured in 1945. Apparently it owed its survival to an unusual architectural feature: a robust steel roof. In his notes Gardiner writes of the delicacy of the situation in which a largely British ensemble came to perform Bach in a city devastated by Allied bombs. They performed the programme on two consecutive nights and in the event, though the atmosphere at the first concert seemed somewhat tense, a more relaxed feeling pervaded the second concert.

The first work we hear, BWV 86, is an optimistic cantata, the mood set in the short opening bass arioso, in which Christ’s words are set: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it to you.” In this brief but telling solo Stephen Loges makes an immediately favourable impression, singing with warmth and authority. Of especial note is the next aria, ‘Ich will doch wohl Rosen brechen’. This contains a virtuoso violin obbligato, which is splendidly played (by Kati Debretzeni?), and which is an admirable foil for the agile singing of Robin Tyson. The other aria is for tenor and here Steve Davislim has a very demanding part to put across, not least because it includes some characteristic leaps up to very short high notes. It’s an ungrateful line at times and Davislim copes well though I think he sounds more comfortable, perhaps understandably, in other solos later on in the programme.

BWV 67 comes from the following year and, though the Epistle and Gospel would have been the same, this starts off in less hopeful vein than did BWV 86. As so often in Lutheran liturgy, the sinful nature of man is recalled. However, towards the end a more positive note is struck. Like BWV 86 the cantata opens with a vox Christi bass solo but this time there’s almost a note of reproach in the words, “Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name.” One of the highlights is a lengthy aria for alto accompanied by a pair of oboi da caccia. The aria, Gardiner says, is suffused with “a mood of sustained reverence and penitence.” Tyson makes a fine job of it.

Somewhat puzzling is the bass arioso, which forms the fifth movement. The text, again Christ’s words, is: “In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” One might expect comforting music here but Bach takes a different tack and the music is angular and rather severe in tone. Despite this surprise the mood of the music then alters and the following movement, a tenor aria, is heavenly. ’Ich will leiden, ich will schweigen’ is, in Alfred Dürr’s words, a siciliano of “overwhelming beauty… [that] brings the joyful affirmation that in our suffering we can rely on Jesus’ comfort.” In this number Steve Davislim, with a more grateful vocal line to spin, sounds more at ease than he did in BWV 86 and the performance is a delight.

The programme is completed by BWV 97. The occasion for which this cantata was intended is unclear though Dürr suggests it may have been intended as a wedding cantata Bach sets all nine verses of a seventeenth century hymn, including two recitatives and four arias among the verse settings. The cantata opens with a ceremonial French overture, which gives way to a lively choral fantasia in which the sopranos have the original hymn tune as a cantus firmus, around which the other three parts weave vigorous passagework. This movement finds the Monteverdi Choir in fine fettle. The aria that follows, described by Gardiner as a “proto-Schubertian lied”, features warm singing by Stephen Loges as well as a splendid bassoon obbligato.

Later there’s an extended tenor aria, well sung by Davislim, which features another very taxing violin obbligato. Dürr reckons that there must have been a good reason for Bach to write such a showy instrumental part. We’ve not heard much so far of Katharine Fuge, save for a brief chorale movement in BWV 86. However, she now joins Loges for what Gardiner wittily describes as “a catch-as-catch-can stretto for the two singers, part canzonet, part Rossini.” Miss Fuge acquits herself well here but we get a better chance to hear her in the lovely aria ‘Ihm hab ich mich ergeben’, which Gardiner aptly describes as “a carefree acceptance of God’s will.”

A week later, after an Ascension Day concert in Salisbury Cathedral, which I hope will feature in a future volume, not least because it presumably included BWV 11, the Pilgrims fetched up at the eleventh-century Sherborne Abbey in Dorset. The works on the CD don’t appear in the order in which they were performed that evening because the concert began with BWV 150. I suspect the reordering on disc is designed to keep apart BWV 44 and BWV 183.

BWV 44 is another cantata that opens with a vox Christi movement but, unusually for Bach, two singers – tenor and bass – are used. This short movement leads without a break into an animated chorus – “punchy and arresting” in Gardiner’s words - which is sung with real bite by the Monteverdi Choir. In his notes Gardiner points out that the chorus reminds one of the ‘Kreuzige’ chorus in St. John Passion, first heard only six weeks before this cantata’s first airing. Apparently it only consists of thirty-five bars, but it sounds much more substantial. The cantata also contains a wonderful, elegiac aria, ‘Christen müssen auf der Erden’. This is beautifully sung by Daniel Taylor, whose warm, round tone makes him sound almost like a female alto. He’s partnered by a most eloquent oboe obbligato player. My ear was also caught by the dramatic bass recitative in which Panajotis Iconomou displays power and resonance. After this there’s a fine, dancing soprano aria in which Joanne Lunn’s singing is bright and clear. She copes very well with what is a far from easy vocal line.

BWV 183 was written one year later. It shares with BWV 44 only the text of its first verse, which is a conflation of the first two verses of the earlier cantata. The cantata is dominated by a huge, slow aria for tenor with cello piccolo obbligato. Running in this performance to 10.30, the aria accounts for nearly two thirds of the entire cantata, aptly justifying Gardiner’s epithet “epic”. Throughout it’s length the tenor’s tortured line is underpinned by what Gardiner calls the “serene and luminous course” of the obbligato. Paul Agnew’s singing is exceptionally eloquent and his performance of this hugely demanding piece, which is a real test of technique and concentration, is very accomplished. But equal praise is due, and for the same reasons, to cellist David Watkin, whose contribution is on the same high level.

Mention should also be made of Joanne Lunn’s marvellously dexterous delivery of her aria ‘Höchter Tröster, Heilger Geist’. In this the oboe da caccia obbligato provides an excellent foil to her lithe, agile singing.

In between these two cantatas on the disc comes BWV 150. This is another cantata for an unspecified occasion and for the first time in the series to date, I think, we find a cantata repeated. This same work appeared in Volume 23 as part of a concert given in late April 2000 (see review). Gardiner says that in reviving the work he tried to achieve a number of advances on the earlier performance and it’s interesting to compare the two to attempt to judge how successful he was, though I must say the earlier account seemed very good to me. In the chorus ‘Meine Augen sehen stets zu dem Herrn’ he says the aim was to attain a “more sensuous, mezzo-tinted sonority”. I’d say he achieved his goal here. He sought greater harmonic clarity in another chorus, ‘Leite mich in deiner Wahrheit’. I don’t find it easy to discern whether or not this was attained: both performances sound convincing. However, I don’t think there’s much doubt that this present performance of the terzetto movement for alto, tenor and bass is the more successful of the two. Gardiner aimed for more graphic musical depiction of the accompaniment and once you’ve heard the Sherborne account the earlier effort sounds a bit tame. He also aimed for a greater sense of spaciousness in the closing chorus and, once again, I find it hard to decide if the newer account, which is a fine one, represents a significant advance on the previous rendition.

The programme closed with music by Bach but, on this occasion, by an ancestor of Johann Sebastian, his first cousin-once-removed, Johann Christoph Bach. The five-part motet Fürchte dich nicht is only short but it merits inclusion. Gardiner suggests that Johann Christoph might be the missing link between Schütz and J. S. Bach. He describes it as an “impressive and touching piece” and I agree. This is the first time so far in the series that we’ve heard music by another member of the very extended Bach family but it’s good to have this piece performed here with commitment and style.

The performance standards are consistently high throughout this pair of CDs. The engineering is good and, as ever, John Eliot Gardiner’s notes are stimulating, informative and convey a sense of the special atmosphere of this whole project. This is another impressive issue in this important series.

John Quinn

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