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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Funeral Cantatas
Cantata No.198, Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl, BWV198* (1727) [38:23]
Cantata No.131, Aus der Tiefen ruf’ich, Herr, zu dir, BWV131** (1707) [22:15]
*Lisa Larson (soprano); *Elisabeth von Magnus (alto); *Paul Agnew (tenor); **Guy de Mey (tenor); */**Klaus Mertens (bass); Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra/Ton Koopman
rec. Waalse Kerke, Amsterdam, 1994 (BWV131), 1996 (BWV198). DDD.
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72286
[60:38] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


This is another single-CD reissue from the Koopman magnum opus complete Bach Cantatas.  Like the single-disc reissue of Solo Cantatas for Alto and Tenor which I reviewed on CC72282 – see review – it has a very drab cover, by contrast with the highly attractive covers of the complete series.  I suppose plain black with out-of-focus tea lights is not inappropriate for a CD of funeral cantatas, but I could think of something much better. 

A much more serious drawback which this new release shares with its predecessor is the lack of texts, with not even an indication of where they may be found.  There are several websites which offer texts and translations but if you are a serious collector of Bach cantatas you may wish to invest in Neary M and R Stokes, J.S. Bach: The Complete Cantatas (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005), containing texts, translations and commentaries. 

BWV198, also known as the Trauer-Ode or mourning ode, was composed for the funeral of the Electress Christiane Eberhardine on 17/10/1727.  Despite my assertion elsewhere that none of JSB’s cantatas can be considered a dud – an assertion which I stand by – this work is not one of my favourites; it stands uncomfortably between the religious and secular cantatas; strictly, it belongs in the latter category.  It’s a long work when performed as a whole, as here – originally, half was sung before the funeral oration and half after.  The music director of the university complained that he had not been given what was essentially an academic commission, but Bach shows awareness that he is composing for an academic occasion in the manner of an old-fashioned tombeau and, though much of the Ode is very beautiful, for once the old accusation that he is an intellectual composer may be justified. 

The opening chorus is very effective, in the manner of the opening choruses of Bach’s Passions; appropriately, much of the music from the Ode was re-used for the lost St Mark Passion.  Here and elsewhere the choir sing well – with no concession to the one-voice-to-a-part theory, though they never sound over-large.  Their account of the final chorus makes an effective conclusion to the cantata. 

Three of the soloists have a recitative and aria each, but poor old Klaus Mertens, the bass, has only a recitative which precedes the final chorus.  None of the soloists offers cause for complaint, though Lisa Larson’s pure voice sometimes develops a slightly shrill edge – much less noticeable on second hearing – and Elisabeth von Magnus is very slightly plummy. 

Paul Agnew, the tenor, is the best of the group, describing the sapphire house of eternity in der Ewigkeit saphirnes Haus (track 8) most mellifluously.  His voice seems to arise by magic from the orchestral lead-in to this aria.  Mertens makes the most of his small part, though he is a bit gruff on the deepest notes. 

The pairing here is not the most logical, for reasons which I explain below.  198 might have been better coupled with 106 (the Actus Tragicus) and 118, as on John Eliot Gardiner’s DG Archiv recording. 

BWV131, a setting of the German text of Psalm 130, better known as de Profundis or Out of the deep, dates from 1707.  Strictly speaking, it isn’t a funeral cantata – the German title Trauer-kantaten is more accurate than the English translation in this respect: the penitential occasion for which it was composed is not known but it is usually thought to have been connected with a disastrous fire at Mühlhausen in that year.  My benchmark for this work is the recording on Chandos CHAN0715 by Paul Daniels and Peter Harvey with the augmented Purcell Quartet, where it is coupled with three other cantatas from the Mühlhausen period, 1707-8: BWV4 (Christ lag in Todesbanden), 106 (Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit) and 196 (Der Herr denket an uns), a set of performances so ideal in my opinion – the other cantatas involve Emma Kirkby and Michael Chance – as almost to rule the opposition out of court. 

The Chandos and Challenge versions adopt very similar tempi for the opening sinfonia and chorus, the bass arioso, the second chorus and the closing chorus, but the Chandos tempo for the tenor aria Meine Seele wartet auf den Herrn is considerably slower than that adopted by Koopman – 7:22 against 6:04.  The basic question is whether to emphasise the waiting aspect of the words (My soul waits for the Lord from one morning watch to the next) or the hope to be washed clean of sin like David and Manasseh. 

My money is on the waiting tempo adopted by the Chandos performers, a tempo achieved without making the work sound too mournful, but that doesn’t totally rule Koopman out of court: his brisker tempo also makes sense without sounding brusque.  Herreweghe on Virgin (see below) is on Koopman’s side here, with an even shorter time of 5:59.  Joshua Rifkin’s 4:41 on a Double Decca set containing BWV106, 131, 99, 56, 82 and 158 is surely too fast, though the set is otherwise recommendable to those who like his one-to-a-part approach (4580872). 

Both of Koopman’s soloists are good – Mertens here losing any of the slight gruffness which I remarked in his brief contribution to BWV198.  Guy de Mey as not quite as effective in the tenor role here as Agnew was in that work – his voice is just a little light for my taste, but I don’t want to make that a serious complaint: in fact, it’s not inappropriate for the soul waiting for the Lord and his voice blends well with the chorus.  The final chorus, in which Israel is exhorted to hope in the Lord, one of those Bach choruses that seem to unwind inexorably, is well delivered, to round off an effective account – which, nevertheless, doesn’t efface memories of the Chandos version. 

The recording is good throughout and the notes helpful and informative – apart from the absence of texts.  If you want the coupling of BWV 131 and 198, you won’t go far wrong with this new reissue, but it wouldn’t be my first choice. 

Another very fine version of BWV131 may be found on an absurdly inexpensive Virgin Veritas twofer, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe with a distinguished group of soloists and the Collegium Vocale (5620252, with BWV39, 73, 93, 105 and 107).  You’ll find a detailed analysis of BWV131 in the review in which I recommended this recording last year.  No texts again with this Virgin set, but at the price that’s much more excusable than with the Challenge Classics reissue.  Unfortunately, as was the case with the Abbado version of Mahler’s Third Symphony when I tried to find it for comparison recently, I can’t lay hands on the Herreweghe for comparison, so you and I will have to take my own word for it that this inexpensive version is very well worth considering.  I really must get some organisation back into my ‘system’.

Brian Wilson


 


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