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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas - Vol. 6
Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (BWV 18) [13:33]
Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (BWV 23) [20:07]
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 1) [22:17]
Siri Thornhill (soprano), Petra Noskaiová (contralto), Marcus Ullmann (tenor), Jan Van der Crabben (bass)
La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
rec. March 2007, Auditorium C. Pollini, Padua, Italy
ACCENT ACC25306 [55:59]
Experience Classicsonline

The Belgian violinist and conductor Sigiswald Kuijken is presently recording cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach in interpretations with one voice per part. The sixth volume reviewed here contains three cantatas for the same time of the year. 

The first two, BWV 18 and 23, were written for Sundays Sexagesima and Estomihi, the two last Sundays before Lent. The last cantata, BWV 1, was composed for the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary, 25 March. Normally there were no cantatas during Lent, but when this feast fell within the period of Lent an exception was made. 

'Gleichwie Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt' (BWV 18) was originally composed in Weimar. The only cantatas we know from this period date from between 1713 and 1716. It was the time when Bach for the first time made use of texts by Erdmann Neumeister. Cantata 18 was also written by this poet. The scoring is remarkable: four violas, cello, bassoon and bc. The cantata was performed again in Leipzig, probably in 1724. For this performance Bach added two recorders which play colla parte with the two upper violas, but one octave higher. It is this version which is recorded here. 

The cantata begins with a Sinfonia in which the snow falling from heaven is depicted by large intervals. The tempo chosen is rather fast, perhaps too fast, and I feel that stronger accents would have exposed the effect Bach was aiming at somewhat better. Otherwise the playing is very good. Next follows a recitative for bass, who represents the 'vox Dei'; the quotation is from the prophet Isaiah (ch 55, vv10-11). Jan Van der Crabben gives a good performance, with the right amount of authority, although one has to get used to his pronunciation of the "r".  The accompanied recitative which follows consists of a sequence of four prayers, sung by tenor and bass respectively. Each of them is concluded by a quotation from Martin Luther's Litany; the first line is sung by the soprano, the last - "Erhör uns, lieber Herre Gott!" (Hear us, dear Lord God) - by the tutti. Here the advantage of the use of four single voices shows itself: when a choir is used these entries are always a bit too heavy. Here there is a much better balance between soli and tutti. The only aria is set for soprano, which is nicely sung by Siri Thornhill. The words "fort, nur fort" (away, only away) could have been treated with a little more power and panache. The closing chorale demonstrates the fine blending of the four voices. 

'Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn' is historically an important work: it was this cantata which Bach performed for the audition when he applied for the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1723. But for the occasion Bach reworked a piece he had previously composed. The first three sections of this cantata date from Bach's time in Cöthen (1717-1723); in Leipzig Bach added the closing chorale which he filled out with parts for one cornett and three trombones. He also transposed the cantata downwards, which meant that the oboe parts were set for oboi d'amore. The recording on this disc is a later reworking, performed between 1728 and 1731, where the parts of cornett and trombones have been removed and the oboes return. It is interesting how Bach has treated the text written by an unknown poet, who completely ignores the readings of the Sunday Estomihi when the cantata was to be performed. In the reading from the Gospel (Luke, ch 18, vv31-42) it is told that Jesus goes to Jerusalem to die, but also that he heals a man from his blindness. Only the second element is referred to in the text, but Bach 'corrects' this, as it were, by quoting the Passion chorale 'Christe, du Lamm Gottes'. It can be heard in the oboe parts in the second section, the accompanied recitative 'Ach! gehe nicht vorüber', and in the basso continuo part of the third, the chorus 'Aller Augen warten, Herr'. At the end it is used as the chorale which closes the cantata. 

The cantata opens with a duet for soprano and alto where the two voices blend well. Both sing this duet quite beautifully, but at the same time I felt a bit uninvolved. In fact, I had this feeling throughout the recording: everything is done stylishly and the text is delivered well, but something is missing. It is perhaps that the voices are all a bit neutral, without character. That is also the case with the tenor Marcus Ullmann, who sings his part well and thanks to being a German speaker has a natural pronunciation. In his recitative he gives a good account of the text, but his singing is a little bland. The chorus and the chorale are the best parts of this cantata. The shifts in the tempo in the chorus are splendidly realised. 

The last cantata, 'Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern', belongs to Bach's best-known. It is a so-called chorale-cantata, in this case meaning that the first and last section quote the beloved hymn by Philipp Nicolai (1599). The sections in between are paraphrases of the remaining stanzas of the hymn. Again the opening chorus and the closing chorale are done best, although I would have liked more dynamic accents in the chorale. The playing of the two violins in the tenor aria 'Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten' - Let our voice and strings resounding – is very good, a nice example of text illustration. Also beautiful is the oboe da caccia part in the soprano aria 'Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen göttlichen Flammen'. 

The disc has two booklets. The first is the same in all volumes of this series; here Sigiswald Kuijken gives a general introduction to the cantatas, the texts and his approach of Bach's cantatas, especially in regard to the use of solo voices and the scoring of the basso continuo. As far as the latter aspect is concerned I mention the fact that no cello is used, but a so-called 'viola da spallo' instead, played at the shoulder like a violin, and assumed to be the instrument which was meant by Bach to play the 'cello' parts. This booklet is very interesting, and I strongly advise reading it carefully before listening to this disc. The second booklet contains introductions to the cantatas on this disc, in which Kuijken at length explains what they are about and in particular how Bach has translated text into music. This is all very interesting and really helps in gaining an understanding of Bach's cantatas. The booklet also contains the lyrics in the original with an English translation. Unfortunately in this booklet the latter half of Cantata 18 has been omitted.

To sum up: I am generally positive about Sigiswald Kuijken's approach to Bach's cantatas, and I have enjoyed listening to the result. At the same time I am not really touched by these performances. I would have preferred some singers with more personality and a stronger involvement. The depths of Bach's cantatas have not been fully explored here.

Johan van Veen


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