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
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.
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