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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage - Volume 13
Cantatas for the First Sunday in Advent
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland I, BWV 61 (1714) [15:06]
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland II, BWV 62 (1724) [19:33]
Schwingt freudig euch empor, BWV 36 (1731) [30:26]
Joanne Lunn (soprano); William Towers (alto); Jan Kobow (tenor); Dietrich Henschel (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. St. Maria im Kapitol, Köln, 3 December 2000
Cantatas for the Fourth Sunday in Advent
Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!, BWV 70 (1723) [22.59]
(For the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Trinity)
Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!, BWV 132 (1715) [17:40]
Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147 (1723) [28:07]
(For the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Brigitte Geller (soprano); Michael Chance (alto); Jan Kobow (tenor); Dietrich Henschel (bass)/ The Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Michaeliskirche, Lüneburg, 13 December 2000
German texts and English translations included.
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG162 [65:19 + 69:03] 
Experience Classicsonline

The two concerts perpetuated on these CDs represented the final European stops on the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage. After these, all that remained was the celebration of Christmas and New Year, for which the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic to New York. (Vol. 14, Vol. 15, Vol. 16).

Liturgical observance in Leipzig forbade the use of figural music during services after the First Sunday of Advent until Christmas so, since many of his pre-Leipzig cantatas have not survived, we have very little liturgical music by Bach for the Advent season but what we have is of high quality. Sir John made studio recordings of the three cantatas for Advent Sunday as long ago as 1992 (DG Archive 437 372-2, later 463 588-2) but I’d say that collectors who already have that disc should acquire the new version also even if, like me, they don’t discard the studio versions, which still have a great deal to offer.

Luther’s great hymn, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’, a German reworking of the medieval Advent hymn ‘Veni redemptor gentium’ is at the heart of all three of these cantatas. However, in BWV 61, a Weimar cantata from 1714, only the opening chorus uses lines from that hymn. In that first movement Bach inventively combines the old hymn chant onto the form of a French Overture with a light, fugal central episode. The performance here is strong and imposing. Tenor Jan Kobow sings well in the aria ‘Komm, Jesu, komm zu deiner Kirche’ but for some reason that I can’t quite pin down I prefer the sound of Anthony Rolfe Johnson in Gardiner’s 1992 recording. On that occasion Gardiner’s tempo was marginally faster too and I think that speed is preferable. That aria is followed by a short bass recitativo, which Alfred Dürr refers to as “the true high point of the work”. The way in which Dietrich Henschel veils his tone imparts a fine sense of anticipation and mystery. In the earlier studio version Olaf Bär goes for the same effect but, well though he does it, I think Henschel is even more successful. The following soprano aria, ‘Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze’ is sung meltingly by Joanne Lunn.

BWV 62 is a Leipzig cantata, dating from 1724. Unlike BWV 61, Bach takes his entire text from Luther’s hymn. The opening chorus is a muscular composition, in which the Saviour is urgently beseeched to come. There follows a substantial tenor aria, ‘Bewundert, o Menschen, dies grosse Geheimnis’, aptly described by Dürr as “joyfully soaring”. I like Kobow in this movement and his breath control in Bach’s long phrases is admirable. However, Rolfe Johnson also excels in the 1992 recording and conveys, perhaps, in his tone a greater sense of wonder and eagerness. I think he’s helped also by the fact that in 1992 Gardiner paced the music just a fraction more swiftly. The other aria in this cantata is for the bass. It’s described by Gardiner as having a “pompous, combative character” and he speculates that it may have been a dry run for the ‘Grosser Herr’ aria in Part I of Christmas Oratorio. The aria in BWV 62 is not as memorable as that one but Dietrich Henschel projects it strongly.

BWV 36 achieved its final form in Leipzig in 1731 as an Advent cantata. However, as Dürr points out, its first movement and arias went through at least three prior incarnations in secular cantatas from1725 onwards. In 1731 Bach reworked the material into a substantial two-part cantata, divided into two parts. Unusually - perhaps uniquely - among the cantatas it contains no recitatives. Instead the arias are punctuated by chorale movements in various guises.

Gardiner describes the opening chorus as “ a spiritual madrigal - capricious, light textured and deeply satisfying once all its virtuosic technical demands have been met.” Needless to say, the Monteverdi Choir meet all those technical demands - of which there sound to be quite a number - and deliver a deft yet emphatic account of this fine movement. The third movement is a lovely, light tenor aria in which a favourite idea of the soul as the bride and Christ as the bridegroom is addressed. Kobow’s singing is appealing and the oboe d’amore obbligato complements his voice delightfully. However, the real delight of the cantata lies in the soprano aria ‘Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen’. Gardiner refers to this as “a berceuse of pure enchantment” and the performance by Joanne Lunn completely justifies that judgement. Her singing is touching and radiant and she’s partnered most delightfully by the muted violin obbligato of Maya Homburger. This delectable performances lasts for 9:32 and it’s not a second too long. I suspect that for many in the audience at Köln this may have been, as it was for me, the highlight of the whole concert.

Leaving behind them the restored Romanesque church in Köln the Pilgrims moved on to the Michaeliskirche in Luneburg, a church that traces its origins back to the late fourteenth century. This was to be their last stop at a church with a direct association with Bach. Here the fifteen-year-old Bach sang as a member of the church’s ‘Mattins Choir’ and the performers used as a changing room the choir room, where, presumably, Bach prepared for services.  

BWV 70 was designated for the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Trinity in Leipzig, where it was first heard in 1723. However, it more than qualifies for a place in this programme since it was originally composed in 1716, during Bach’s Weimar years, for the Second Sunday in Advent - in Weimar, unlike in Leipzig, cantatas were allowed in church services throughout Advent. Since the scriptural messages of the two Sundays were not dissimilar the cantata text sufficed for both. However, for Leipzig Bach added recitatives and a chorale. The cantata opens with an exciting, anticipatory chorus and Bach includes a trumpet in the orchestra to impart a sense of occasion. The Monteverdi Choir gives a superb account of it. A forceful bass recitativo emerges without a pause from the chorus. After such an electrifying start the more easeful alto aria, sung with poise by Michael Chance, comes as something of a relief. I enjoyed the soprano aria, ‘Lasst der Spötter Zungen schmähen’, which is a forthright piece, well dispatched by Brigitte Geller. Also worthy of note is the tenor aria, ‘Hebt euer Haupt empor’, a confidence-inspiring piece. Jan Kobow’s singing is perfectly attuned to the mood of this fine, striding aria.

After this aria come two strongly contrasted movements for the bass soloist. Dietrich Henschel is bitingly dramatic in the apocalyptic recitativo, which comes first, but then he relaxes beautifully for what Dürr rightly calls the “otherworldly, transfigured” aria, ‘Seligster Erquickungstag’, which contains a short vigorous central section between two marvellously lyrical sections. The juxtaposition of these two movements is something of a coup by Bach, one which Henschel and Gardiner bring off splendidly.

BWV 132, another Weimar piece, dating from 1715, is, I suppose, the only truly Advent piece here in the sense that it has come down to us in its original form as an Advent cantata. Its most remarkable movement is the first one, an enchanting but hugely demanding soprano aria. Brigitte Geller and the excellent oboist - Michael Niesemann, I presume - negotiate it with freshness and great skill. Kobow and Henschel both sing their solos well and Michael Chance injects drama and tonal variety into his recitativo before giving an elegant and expressive account of the aria ‘Christi Glieder, ach bedenket’. Incidentally no chorale survives for this cantata so Gardiner tacks on the chorale from another cantata, BWV 164.

To conclude, we hear one of Bach’s most popular cantatas, BWV 147.This is another Weimar Advent cantata - for the Fourth Sunday - originally composed in 1716. Bach was unable to use it in Leipzig for the same liturgy so he adapted it in 1723 for the Feast of the Visitation (2 July). In so doing he added three recitatives and, crucially, he dropped the original chorale and replaced it with a new one, which he also inserted part way through what had now become a two-part work So, perhaps the most celebrated part of the cantata was the fruit of its Leipzig revision.

It’s a work Gardiner has recorded before. He set down a studio version for DG in March 1990 (431 809-2, later 463 587-2). That earlier performance has many virtues but there is a snag in that it was recorded - along with BWV 140 - in a church in Shaftesbury, Dorset, and for some reason the microphones were placed at a distance from the performers, giving the recording a rather recessed sound.

In both recordings Gardiner and his choir impart an irrepressible energy to the opening chorus, which Bach decorated with a glorious slivery trumpet part. The new Pilgrimage account is tremendously vital though the earlier performance was taken at a pace that’s the tiniest fraction steadier; that aids articulation without compromising energy.  

Jan Kobow sings the following tenor recitative, ‘Gebenedeiter Mund!’ well enough. But turn to Anthony Rolfe Johnson in the earlier recording and you hear something rather special. The thoughtfulness and sweetness of tone that he deploys is quite disarming. Dare one say he brings a touch of fantasy to the movement, which Kobow, for all his virtues, doesn’t attempt. Also, in this movement the distancing of the DG recording is rather beneficial for once. Later on in the cantata comes the aria ‘Hilf, Jesu, hilf, dass ich auch dich bekenne’. Kobow sings it well but Rolfe Johnson makes much more of the words and, in addition, in this music I prefer his more plangent tone.

Michael Chance is common to both recordings and he sings very well on both occasions. In the aria ‘Schäme dich, o Seele, nicht’ the very slightly steadier speed that Gardiner adopts in 2000 is preferable, I think, and Chance benefits also from being more immediately recorded this time round. When it comes to the bass numbers Dietrich Henschel has far more vocal presence and character than Stephen Varcoe displayed in 1992. He has more vocal amplitude as well, especially in the lower register of the voice, and that’s particularly welcome in the big aria ‘Ich will von Jesu Wundern singen’ - where he’s partnered splendidly by trumpeter Gabriele Cassone. Gardiner’s Pilgrimage soprano also has the edge over her earlier rival. The soprano aria, ‘Bereite dir, Jesu, noch itzo die Bahn’, is a beguiling piece, decorated with a lovely violin obbligato. The Pilgrimage team - Brigitte Geller and violinist Maya Homburger - give a winning account of it. Ruth Holton sings well for Gardiner in 1992 but, by comparison with Miss Geller’s fuller tones, her voice sounds rather small and piping and she’s another singer who doesn’t benefit from the recessed DG recording.

The famous chorale illustrates the care with which this 2000 performance has been approached. It would be easy to sing it in the same fashion twice - and I’m sure we’ve all heard instances of that. But Gardiner appreciates that the two stanzas of words have a different import. So, first time round the singing is reasonably forthright, though very cultured. At the end of the cantata, however, the first four lines are sung in a gentle, trusting way. For the fifth and sixth lines the singing becomes much more affirmative before the last two lines are delivered in a similar fashion to the first four. It’s a small point, perhaps, but a telling one. It goes without saying that both times the chorale appears it’s sung with fine expression. I think that this new version of the cantata eclipses Gardiner’s earlier recording but I shan’t be discarding my copy, if only for the singing of Anthony Rolfe Johnson.

So, with Advent worthily celebrated in two German cities, the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic for their own journey’s end in New York. Where we, who are collecting the CDs as they appear, will next encounter them remains to be seen. However, this latest instalment, which as usual contains excellent documentation and benefits from very good engineering, is another fine addition to Gardiner’s excellent cantata cycle on disc.

John Quinn

Bach Cantata Pilgrimage review page



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