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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage - Volume 5
Cantatas for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity
Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält, BWV 178 (1724) [19:26]
Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz, BWV 136 (1723) [15:45]
Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist, BWV 45 (1726) [17:46]
Robin Tyson (alto); Christoph Genz (tenor); Brindley Sherratt (bass) /The Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
Rec. Christkirche, Rendsburg, 13 August 2000
Cantatas for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity
Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei, BWV 46 (1723) [18.53]
Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, BWV 101 (1724) [25:01]
Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!, BWV 102 (1726) [21:25]
Joanne Lunn (soprano); Daniel Taylor (alto); Christoph Genz (tenor); Gotthold Schwarz (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Dom, Braunschweig, 27 August 2000
German texts and English translations included
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 147 [53:10 + 65:36]  
Experience Classicsonline

The Eighth Sunday after Trinity found the Pilgrims in Rendsburg, Schleswig-Holstein. The Christkirche dates from the turn of the eighteenth century and is described by Sir John Eliot Gardiner as an “exquisite, wood-vaulted, cruciform church.”

The Gospel for the day warns against false prophets and hypocrites and Bach’s cantata BWV 178 is suitably admonitory. Indeed the opening chorus is memorably described by Gardiner as one of “immense power, sustained energy and astonishing compositional prowess with which to box the listeners’ ears.” Gardiner has proved himself the master of descriptive phraseology in the notes accompanying these CDs and I just love the thought of the Leipzig congregation receiving a musical clip round the ear!

Actually, this cantata and the potent performance it receives here set me thinking, not for the first time, about the debate as to whether or not Bach intended these cantatas to be sung one voice to a part. Though he may have been driven to this expediency on occasion I’ve never been very comfortable with this idea, though Joshua Rifkin’s wonderfully intimate recording of BWV 106 came closest to convincing me otherwise. I find it hard to imagine what the opening chorus of BWV 178 might have sounded like with just one singer to a part. I suppose it’s feasible to perform it in that way but I can’t believe it would sound anywhere near as arresting as the Monteverdi Choir makes it. The next movement offers another case in point. In this performance the chorale lines are sung by all the altos in the choir while Robin Tyson delivers the passages of recitative as solos. Performed by a single singer the contrasting effect would be lost completely. Similar considerations apply to the fifth movement where all three soloists punctuate the very dramatic chorale with recitatives.

The turbulent aspect of the cantata is also emphasised in the bass aria, ‘Gleichwie die wilden Meereswellen’, a stormy seascape. Gardiner reminds us that Bach was a landlubber and wonders how he could have imagined such a musical tempest. Brindley Sherratt is the effective soloist here, sounding for all the world like Neptune. The tenor aria is a gritty piece that Christoph Genz projects effectively, though his is a light voice and perhaps not best suited to what is one of Bach’s less ingratiating arias, well though he sings it. The cantata is a taxing one and interestingly Gardiner relates that afterwards his continuo players told him they’d found it more demanding than an entire St. Matthew Passion.  

The music for the opening chorus of BWV 136 sits rather oddly with the text, Gardiner opines and he speculates that it may have been borrowed from another, perhaps secular, piece. The performance here is a delight, the music being given an infectious lightness of gait. Incidentally, if this was indeed recycled music then Bach recycled it yet again later on, adapting it as the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ in his A major Mass, BWV 234.  In the aria, ‘Es kommt ein Tag’, the mix of alto voice and oboe d’amore obbligato is a telling one and Robin Tyson and his instrumental partner acquit themselves very well indeed. The other aria is a duet for tenor and bass and Genz and Sherratt match their voices very successfully.

BWV 45 is a two-part cantata, which opens with an elaborate and very fine fugal chorus. The members of the Monteverdi Choir dance their way through it with typically well sprung rhythms and excellent articulation. The tenor aria, ‘Weiss ich Gottes Rechte’ is an ambiguous piece. On the surface much of it seems beguiling but the key (C sharp minor) and some of the chromatic excursions on which Bach takes the music suggest something much darker. Genz, with his light, easy delivery, is an excellent exponent of this music. The bass arioso, ‘Es werden viele zu mir sagen an jenem Tage’ is a difficult one to bring off and Brindley Sherratt excels in its demanding divisions. Not to be outdone, Robin Tyson offers a fine fluent performance of the aria, ‘Wer Gott bekennt aus wahrem Herzensgrund’.

Moving on two weeks later to Braunschweig, the Pilgrims performed in an even older church, a cathedral begun in 1173. If the opening chorus of BWV 46 sounds familiar that’s because it was, effectively, an early draft for the ‘Qui tollis’ movement in the B minor Mass. However, in this version Bach breaks off (at 4:41) into a fugue, which eventually extends to nine voices. The Monteverdi Choir sustains superbly the long lines in the opening pages of this chorus and when the fugue arrives they articulate it powerfully and with clarity. The tenor recitativo, telling of the destruction of Jerusalem, with its slightly spooky recorder accompaniment, could have come straight from one of Bach’s Passions. Genz, who we know to be a fine evangelist, is highly eloquent here. In the “tsunami aria” that follows Gotthold Schwarz is in stentorian voice and displays singular agility in what is a demanding aria.

Perhaps the most ear-catching part of the whole cantata is the alto aria, ‘Doch Jesus will auch bei der Strafe’ in which the listener receives reassurance as to the protecting presence of Jesus. Here the eloquent singing of Daniel Taylor is accompanied most atmospherically by a brace of recorders and a pair of unison oboes da caccia.

Gardiner describes the opening chorus of BWV 101 as “a twin-barrelled doctrinal salvo”. It’s an imposing, implacable chorale movement based on a hymn by Luther. The Monteverdi Choir declaims it with strong conviction. The tenor aria that follows features an elaborate obbligato. Gardiner states that the solo instrument is a flute but in fact we hear a violin, played with splendid agility. Was this a late substitution, I wonder? – Alfred Dürr indicates that the obbligato may be played by either instrument. In the recitativo that follows we hear, for the first time in this set, a soprano voice and Joanne Lunn is worth the wait, singing with conviction and purity of tone. Gotthold Schwarz has his work cut out again in some demanding divisions in the next aria. He negotiates these with aplomb and his light, smooth legato passages also give great pleasure. I can’t resist Gardiner’s description of the accompanying trio of oboes – “three angry ducks transformed into a latter-day saxophone trio”. For me the high point of the cantata is the duet for soprano and alto, ‘Gedenk an Jesu bittern Tod!’ Here Miss Lunn and Daniel Taylor are affectingly eloquent in their long phrases. But the haunting accompaniment of flute and oboe da caccia is equally striking and at the points where Bach intertwines the two voices and the instruments the effect is mesmerising.

Finally we hear BWV 102.Dürr rates the opening chorus very highly, calling it “one of the great achievements of the mature Bach.” Within the movement there are several occasions when one or more of the vocal soloists carries the musical argument for a few bars. I’m unsure if this is an interpretative decision by Gardiner but the resulting contrast is mightily effective in a superb, biting performance. The cantata also includes a deeply felt alto aria in which the expressive singing of Daniel Taylor is matched at every turn by the plangent oboist. The musical line of the tenor aria that comes a little later is somewhat disjointed and needs a nimble, light tenor but also one with a touch of steel where required – the voice of Helmut Krebs comes to mind. Happily, in Christoph Genz Gardiner has just the right singer and the flautist is just as successful.

This pair of CDs maintains all the high standards of the series to date. The soloists give great pleasure and the choral singing and orchestral playing is first rate. Yet again one marvels at the skill and adaptability of these musicians in turning in such fine and convincing performances of music that was probably unfamiliar to most, if not all, of them and which they can only have had a relatively brief time to prepare, given the demanding schedule of the Pilgrimage. Of course, Sir John Eliot Gardiner is, as ever, the presiding genius, demonstrating yet again his deep love for and understanding of Bach’s music and drawing the very best out of his performers. He also puts us in his debt once again with lively and perceptive notes. In his booklet essays I feel he’s doing for the Bach cantatas what Graham Johnson did, at rather greater length, for Schubert’s lieder.

This is another distinguished and stimulating issue in this important series. I await the next volume with keen anticipation.

John Quinn 



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