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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas
CD 1 [75:42]
Gottes Zeit ist der allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106 (1707?) [19:28]
Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182 (1724) [30:07]
Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn, BWV 152 (1714) [17:25]
O Jesu Christ, mein’s Lebens Licht, BWV 118 (ca1736) [3.45]
CD 2 [72:51]

Gleich wie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt, BWV 18 (1713?) [14:27]
Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?, BWV 89 (1723) [12:04]
Es reifet euch ein schrecklich Ende, BWV 90 (1723) [13:48]
Komm, du süsse Todestunde, BWV 161 (1716) [21:46]
Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten, BWV 69 (1723) [10:47]
Agnes Giebel (soprano); Sheila Armstrong (soprano); Rotraud Hansmann (soprano); Julia Falk (alto); Helen Watts (alto); Bert van t’Hoff (tenor); Kurt Equiluz (tenor); Jacques Villisech (bass); Max van Egmond (bass)
Monteverdi-Chor Hamburg/Jürgen Jürgens.
Recording dates and venues not specified. Recordings published 1963-1969
DAS ALTE WERK 2564 69599-2 [75:42 + 72:51]
Experience Classicsonline

 

Jürgen Jürgens’ wonderful 1966 recording of the Trauer-Ode Cantata, Lass. Fürstin, lass noch einen Strahl, BWV 198, is justly celebrated. That recording, coupled with two other cantatas, BWV27 and BWV 158, was issued on CD by Das Alte Werk as long ago as 1994 (4509-93687-2) but these present recordings have not been available in CD format until now.

Writing elsewhere of the recording of BWV 198, the critic Jonathan Freeman-Attwood commented felicitously that “its lasting qualities come from the same creative vessel as [Karl] Richter’s or [Felix] Prohaska’s most successful performances: incisive and perceptive response to texts and true musical conviction.” It’s long been a favourite Bach cantata performance with me and I’m delighted to see that these further examples of Jürgens’ discerning way with Bach have now made it onto CD in a set that was actually issued late in 2008 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Das Alte Werk imprint.

Jürgen Jürgens (1925-1994) had a distinguished career in Germany as a musicologist and performer, including in his achievements the foundation in 1955 of the Monteverdi-Chor Hamburg. One thing that stuck me about these recordings is the presence among the performers of several artists, such as Franz Brüggen, Anner Bylsma and Jaap Schröder, who were to have important careers of their own. Even more interesting is the involvement of a number of artists who in the following years would go on to play leading roles in the Telefunken Bach cantata cycle. So we find not only Kurt Equiluz and Max van Egmond among the soloists but also members of the Leonhardt-Consort with Gustav Leonhardt himself playing the organ. Given the involvement of artists of this calibre, to say nothing of Sheila Armstrong, Helen Watts and that great Bach soprano, Agnes Giebel, the omens are propitious and, I’m happy to say, expectations are largely fulfilled.

It’s good to find that the choice of cantatas is not confined just to a few well-known “plums.” Indeed, the selection of some cantatas that are not perhaps desperately familiar even today is all the more praiseworthy when one recalls that at the time that these recordings were made many of the Bach cantatas were very hard to come by on record.

Having said that, one of the best performances in the whole set is that of the justly celebrated BWV 106. This is one of Bach’s earliest cantatas, dating from 1707, but, as a work of art, it’s also one of the most perfect that he ever wrote. In his magisterial The Cantatas of J S Bach Alfred Dürr has this to say of the piece: “the Actus Tragicus is a work of genius such as even great masters seldom achieve. Here, in one stroke, the twenty-two-year-old composer left all his contemporaries far behind him…The Actus Tragicus belongs to the great musical literature of the world.” It seems to me that the success of this Jürgens performance lies in his capturing of the air of intimacy that surrounds this gem of a piece and also what might be termed its sophisticated simplicity. The tone is set right at the outset in the heavenly Sonatina, taken fairly steadily, in which the ethereal, sinuous recorder lines, beautifully played by Brüggen and Jeanette van Wingerden, interweave magically. The light, supple singing of the choir gives great pleasure, though in their second chorus especially they are a little too sibilant – one registers how often the word “Sterben” is sung. The soloists are good too and all in all this is a fine, dedicated performance, well paced by Jürgens, and it’s one of the best accounts of the cantata that I’ve heard.

BWV 182, a cantata for Palm Sunday, is another success. I liked the lightly tripping, joyful opening chorus and though the mood darkens during the cantata the celebratory tone of the crowd welcoming Christ into Jerusalem, reappears in the last chorus where, once again the choir acquits itself well. The tenor soloist, Bert van t’Hoff, perhaps tries to be a bit too expressive in his solo aria but his performance is still more than adequate and, as in the preceding cantata, Julia Falk’s warm, well focused tone again falls very pleasingly on the ear.

BWV 152 brings the first appearance in the set of Agnes Giebel and her delivery of the aria ‘Stein, der über alle Schätze’ is a delight. Just as enjoyable is the accompaniment of recorder – Brüggen again – and viola d’amore.

Giebel is listed as the soprano soloist in BWV18 also but I’m not at all sure this is correct. I’m as certain as I can be that the soprano solos are sung by a boy treble. The voice we hear is often piping and thin, with nothing like the breath control of Giebel – or, indeed, of an adult singer – and whoever sings the soprano aria in this cantata is somewhat taxed by it.** Immediately before that aria comes a most original movement in which the tenor and bass soloists sing alternating passages of recitative, each one punctuated by a choral interjection which sets words from Luther’s litany, known as The German Prefatory. Having only recently reviewed Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s performance of this same cantata I found the choral contribution here to be comparatively weak, lacking the bite and incision that the music needs. Indeed, I rather think I’d have reached this verdict even had I not heard Gardiner’s performance. Overall, this cantata performance doesn’t show Jürgens at his best. Incidentally, he uses the later Leipzig version of this cantata in which a pair of recorders are added to the unusual orchestration, which consists of four separate viola parts and continuo.

The remaining performances are much more even and successful. BWV 89 features strong solo performances from the estimable Max van Egmond, from Helen Watts and from Sheila Armstrong, who sings the lovely, lilting aria ’Gerechter Gott, ach, rechnest du?’ quite enchantingly. It’s also good to be reminded of the excellence of Kurt Equiluz. He opens BWV 90 with an ardent, taxing aria but he’s in commanding form and proves equal to all the challenges of the piece. He’s also heard to great advantage in BWV 161, firstly in a marvellously articulated recitative, in which his pedigree as an Evangelist is abundantly evident, and then in the expressive aria ‘Mein Verlangen ist, den Heiland zu umfangen’, which he sings with great feeling.

Throughout this set Jürgens is well served by his soloists and there’s some admirable instrumental playing to enjoy as well. By today’s standards the choral singing may not be as incisive and tightly focused as we have become accustomed to hearing from the choirs directed by Gardiner, Herreweghe or Suzuki but they still make a very good showing indeed and display a good feeling for the spirit of Bach’s music. That, surely, was instilled in them by Jürgen Jürgens, who leads dedicated and very musical accounts of these cantatas. His direction is obviously the product of deep study of Bach’s music yet the scholarship is worn lightly.

When these performances were recorded over four decades ago the catalogue was nowhere near as rich in Bach cantata performances as is now the case. Yet, despite the subsequent advances in technical standards, not least in choral singing, these Jürgens performances take their place in the CD catalogue with pride. There is a great deal to enjoy on these two well-filled CDs – and much from which to learn.

John Quinn

** an email from Malvenuto has drawn my attention to this and an explanation prposed in an Amazon review by pclaudel who says

"It must be noted, however, that Cantata 18 is not as described. The performance included in this set is most decidedly not the one made under the direction of Jürgens. As soon as the second movement begins and the voice of Max van Egmond rather than the expected Jacques Villisech is heard, it is evident that the Nikolaus Harnoncourt performance of a decade or more later has been substituted. How could such an astonishing gaffe be made by the producers of this set or go unnoticed by anyone at Warner Music? Given the risibly small market share of the Das Alte Werk reissue series, the substitution in later pressings of the correct recording of Cantata 18 would be an event on the secular plane comparable with the happenings at Fatima or Lourdes. So as ever, caveat emptor." - LM


 


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