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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage - Volume 3

Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
Ein ungefärbt Gemüte, BWV 24 (1723) [17:01]
Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe, BWV 185 (1715) [14:41]
Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 177 (1732) [25:06]
Magdalena Kožená (soprano); Nathalie Stutzmann (alto); Paul Agnew (tenor); Nicholas Teste (bass) /The Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Tewkesbury Abbey, 16 July 2000
Cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Gott ist mein König, BWV 71(For the inauguration of the Mühlhausen town council) (1708) [18.30]
Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV 131 (Occasion unspecified) (1707/8) [23:14]
Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, BWV 93 (1724) [19:21]
Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden, BWV 88 (1726) [19:20]
Joanne Lunn (soprano); William Towers (alto); Kobie van Rensburg (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass) The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. Blasiuskirche, Mühlhausen, 23 July 2000
German texts and English translations included
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG141 [76:03 + 62:12]

Experience Classicsonline

This is the release in the series for which I’ve been waiting most keenly. That’s because it includes a concert which I was lucky enough to attend. In July 2000, as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival, Sir John led his pilgrims into the magnificent medieval surroundings of Tewkesbury Abbey for a late Sunday afternoon concert. I was among the capacity audience, accompanied by two Bach-loving friends, both of whom have since died. I’m sure they would have shared my pleasure at reliving the event through the medium of CD. I had completely forgotten that the previous evening Gardiner and the Pilgrims had been at London’s Royal Albert Hall when they’d performed two of these cantatas as part of a Henry Wood Promenade Concert. Sir John comments how pleased they all were to get back to the more intimate feel of a Pilgrimage concert.

Proceedings at Tewkesbury began with BWV 24. The cantata opens with the words “Ein ungefärbt Gemüte von deutscher Treu und Güte macht uns vor Gott und Menschen schön.” (“An unstained mind of German truth and goodness makes us beloved of God and men.”) There’s a calm assurance and confidence about the music to which Bach sets this very Lutheran sentiment. The stately aria that results is sung with great poise by Nathalie Stutzmann. Later there’s a vigorous chorus, which is far from easy to pull off – and which gave even Gardiner’s forces a little trouble in rehearsal, we are told. In performance, however, it’s completely successful. The other especially persuasive feature of this cantata is the plangent tone that Paul Agnew brings to the tenor aria, ‘Treu und Wahrheit sei der Grund’. His approach is ideally suited to the music.

Alfred Dürr states that when Bach first performed BWV 24 in Leipzig he had, on the preceding three Sundays, given the Leipzig congregations much longer and more elaborate bi-partite cantatas, BWV 75, 76 and 21. In order to keep his offering for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity in similar scale he performed two cantatas that day, one either side of the sermon, and the second cantata was BWV 185. This is a much earlier piece but one that contains a good deal of admirable music. It opens with a lovely soprano/tenor duet and here we find the voices of Magdalena Kožená and Paul Agnew intertwining languorously. Miss Kožená’s tone is particularly melting. Added interest comes from Bach’s use of a clarion, which, as Gardiner puts it, we hear “hovering above the two amorous vocal lines.” Further into the cantata there’s another treat in the form of the alto aria ‘Sei bemüht in dieser Zeit’. It’s an enchanting aria and, as Gardiner says, Nathalie Stutzmann’s “sumptuous yet transparent contralto seemed just right for this aria, especially in the glowing afternoon light of Tewkesbury Abbey.” Later comes a bass aria but I’m afraid I don’t find Bach’s music all that appealing on this occasion, nor is the timbre of Nicholas Teste’s voice as ingratiating as I’d like.

The final Tewkesbury offering is BWV 177. This cantata is based on a hymn and Bach, setting five verses, eschews recitative. There’s a substantial and elaborate opening chorus in which the Monteverdi Choir excels. In the alto aria Nathalie Stutzmann once again produces beautifully communicative singing. Her aria is sparsely accompanied by continuo only. The soprano aria is a more elaborate affair with a very decorated vocal line. Magdalena Kožená gives it a fine, fluent reading. The remaining aria is for tenor and it’s mainly jaunty in tone. Agnew sings excellently. Of special note in this aria is the chattering double obbligato, provided by a violin and a bucolic, soft-grained bassoon.

The next stop on the journey was a city with very direct Bachian links. Mühlhausen was the city where Bach worked for just a year (1708-08) before moving on to Weimar, though he appears to have maintained cordial links with Mühlhausen after his departure.

Only two cantatas for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity have come down to us. This relative paucity gave Gardiner the chance to perform at Mühlhausen two highly appropriate cantatas, written for the city but for other occasions. BWV 71 was composed for the inauguration of the town council in February 1708. The splendour of this civic occasion prompted Bach to write for pretty extravagant forces. Four solo voices (SATB) are augmented by an optional ripieno choir (also SATB) and no less than four separate instrumental choirs are specified: three trumpets and drums; two recorders and cello; two oboes and bassoon; two violins, viola, and violone. However, Gardiner points out that the cantata has its weaknesses and he says that it is “somewhat disjointed and short-winded”, a verdict from which it is hard to dissent. However, he very rightly singles out for praise the penultimate movement, the chorus ‘Du wollest dem Feinde” The gentle, expressive music in this movement is a cut above the rest of the score. As Dürr comments, it’s “the most original and captivating movement in the whole cantata.” It’s splendidly done here.

Gardiner fields a strong team of soloists, who blend together most effectively in the third movement, a quartet. This concert introduces us to a soloist not previously encountered on the Pilgrimage, the South African tenor Kobie van Rensburg. His voice was completely new to me but he makes a most favourable impression with a strong, ringing tone and clear articulation and diction. This is heard to good advantage almost immediately in the aria ‘Ich bin nun achtzig Jahr’.

The next cantata, BWV 131 is a much stronger and more rounded composition. Perhaps it helps that Bach had a much more unified text to set in the shape of verses from Psalm 130. The opening chorus is quite superb. The keenly felt slow music with which it opens is most eloquently performed and no less impressive is the account of the lighter, more rapid music that follows. Gardiner dovetails the contrasting textures of solo quartet and main choir most effectively. The fugal chorus, ‘Ich harre des Herrn’, is marvellously balanced, both in musical and emotional terms. I enjoyed van Rensburg’s shaping of the long expressive lines in the following aria, ‘Meine Seele wartet auf den Herrn von einer’ and the impressive chorus with which the cantata ends is splendidly articulated by all concerned. This whole performance is a tremendous success.

Then we hear two later cantatas, specifically written for the Fifth Sunday, where the Gospel for the day tells the story of Peter fishing all night without success yet, letting out his net one more time at the command of Jesus, he then hauls in a munificent catch (Luke, chapter 5 vv1-11). First comes BWV 93. The libretto avoids a specific reference to the gospel story until the tenor recitative (movement V).  The extended opening chorus incorporates important contributions from the quartet of soloists. Kobie van Rensburg again attracts favourable attention in his aria ‘Man halte nur ein wenig stille’ (‘Remain silent for a while’). This aria is well described by Gardiner as an “elegant passepied” and I appreciate the touch of steel at the heart of van Rensburg’s plangent voice. Later, he has an important recitative and it’s good to find that he can bring a sense of drama and some effective word painting to a passage such as this. I also liked very much the alert, bright singing of Joanne Lunn in her aria ‘Ich will auf den Herren schaun’, where the oboe obbligato is an equal source of delight.

Finally comes BWV 88. This opens with a pretty unusual bass aria. At the start the libretto refers to God sending fishermen (“Behold, I will send out many fishermen, says the Lord”) and Bach responds with a wonderfully easeful, lilting barcarolle in 6/8 time. The grateful, elevated vocal line is meat and drink to Peter Harvey, who delivers it quite beautifully. Abruptly the mood changes (“And thereafter I will send out many hunters”), the pace quickens appreciably and Bach deploys, in Gardiner’s words, “a rampaging pair of high horns” in the orchestra. Harvey is impressive throughout.

There’s another chance to enjoy van Rensburg’s singing in this cantata. He makes a very good job of the aria ‘Nein, Gott ist allezeit geflissen’ (No, God is always eager that we be on the right path’) Later Joanne Lunn and William Towers blend most effectively in their duet. Gardiner tells us that the audience for this concert was “attentive and rapturous even by the standards of this pilgrimage” and no wonder, for on the evidence of these recordings the good people of Mühlhausen were treated to a splendid and most stimulating concert.

Yet again the standard of performance in these recordings is extremely high and the music is wonderful. Bach’s stream of invention and inspiration is a never-ending source of wonder. I’m also filled with renewed admiration for Sir John, who seems to have an inexhaustible capacity to say something fresh about this marvellous music each time he picks up either his pen to write the notes or his baton to direct the performances. This indispensable series goes from strength to strength.

John Quinn

The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage themed page


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