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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas Volume 9: Lund/Leipzig
CD 1
For the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
BWV 148 - Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens [16:13]
BWV 114 - Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost [24:12]
BWV 47 - Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden [21:47]
BWV 226 - Motet: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf [7:47]
rec. live, Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, 14 October 2000, Allhelgonakyrkan, Lund, Denmark
CD 2
For the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
BWV 96 - Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottessohn [19:22]
BWV 169 - Gott soll allein mein Herze haben [23:39]
BWV 116 - Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ [15:29]
BWV 668 - Chorale: Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit [9:29]
rec. live, Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, 22 October 2000, Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany
Katharine Fuge (soprano), Frances Bourne (alto), Robin Tyson (alto) Charles Humphries (alto), Mark Padmore (tenor) Stephen Loges (bass), Nathalie Stutzmann (alto), Christoph Genz (tenor), Gotthold Schwarz (bass); Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG159 [70:22 + 68:19]
Experience Classicsonline

Being the longest in the church year, the season of Trinity covers a vast range of human emotions and devotional themes. The huge number of Biblical texts that it provided gave Bach a chance to showcase the diversity of his talents, shown in this set of post-Trinity cantatas covering loss, shame, joy, pride, humility and much else in between.

The Lund disc begins with a gloriously upbeat performance of Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens, a cantata all about the joy of worshipping God. The bouncy excitement of the opening chorus, complete with trumpets (but not drums), reflects the congregation’s enthusiasm for worship, while the two main arias concern rushing towards the house of God. The instrumental obbligatos - a wistful, somewhat withdrawn violin to accompany the tenor, a fruity trio of oboes for the alto - add a fantastic level of colour to the vocal line. Frances Bourne’s alto isn’t anything special, but Mark Padmore’s tenor is light and supple in the way he sustains the long lines. The playing of the English Baroque Soloists and the singing of the Monteverdi Choir, needless to say, is flawlessly responsive throughout.

The opening chorus of Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost sounds surprisingly French, almost Handelian, in style, its vigorous contours representing the rigours of chastisement which the sinful believer has brought upon himself. Gardiner points the shape of this chorus so that the rather slight consolation offered in the concluding part of the music stands in marked contrast to the trials of the first, while he spins out a seemingly endless musical line for the following tenor aria, accompanied by a desolate but hypnotic flute obbligato. For this wonderful piece Padmore pales his voice down to a virtual shade to represent the misery of the soul in this vale of sorrow. Throughout this cantata Bach’s writing shows the possibility of consolation in the midst of trouble and the duality of his writing is matched by endlessly subtle playing from the instrumentalists, though Charles Humphries’ alto solo is less compelling than it might be.

BWV 47 has the weakest text (“Mankind is filth, stench, ash and earth!”) but Bach transcends it with some remarkable writing, nowhere more so than in the opening chorus which is brilliantly structured to represent the debasement that comes with pride and the exaltation that follows humility. Katharine Fuge’s clear, unaffected soprano is perfect for her aria concerning the virtues of humility, though she hardens her tone remarkably for the aria’s savage central section concerning God’s hatred for the arrogant. Stephan Loges’ bass sounds authoritative yet approachable and his arias about humility are lent conviction by the golden tone of his voice. The concluding performance of the motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf is vigorous and instrumentally conceived, but the performance broadens out for the balm of the closing a cappella chorale setting.

The second disc was recorded in the Thomaskirche itself where Bach laboured for the last 27 years of his life. Even by Bach’s standards, the opening chorus of BWV 96 is extraordinarily beautiful: there is a compulsive lilt to the music which conveys the feeling of a journey, perhaps the Magi following the “Morgenstern” of the text, and the orchestral textures are enriched by a sopranino recorder which manages to be persistent without ever being cheeky. The sopraninist proves herself equally adept at the transverse flute to accompany the tenor aria, before the bass aria, heavily influenced by the grand French style, provides excellent musical illustration of the soul’s steps wandering to the left and the right before Jesus’ guidance sets him (temporarily, in this case) back on the right path. This cantata is a real winner.

The sheer ebullience of the opening Sinfonia of Gott soll allein mein Herze haben really lifts the listener’s spirit. Every instrumental texture shines through in the excellent recording with a touch of prominence given to the organ part, entirely appropriately as this movement probably began life as a (now lost) concerto. However the instrumental playing is the best thing about this cantata: I wasn’t impressed by Natalie Stutzmann’s singing. To my ears she often sounded overly strident and steely rather than warm and inviting. In fact I was convinced that it was being sung by an over-parted counter-tenor until I looked at the CD booklet. This is the disc’s only major disappointment, redeemed somewhat by the chorus’ beautiful singing of the final chorale. I found Stutzmann altogether more convincing in the alto aria of BWV 116 where her hard-edged expression is ideally suited to the expressing the soul’s terror at appearing before the judgement seat. She is accompanied here by a marvellously expressive oboe d’amore, plangent and tortuous, raising this aria to, in fact, a duet. Bach also gives us a remarkable vocal trio, a rarity in his cantatas, whereby the soprano, tenor and bass acknowledge their guilt as one and beg for forgiveness. The upbeat spirit of the opening chorus and final chorale go only a small way towards alleviating the penitential angst that sits at the heart of this work.

Making the most of their location, the final “Deathbed Chorale” (BWV 668) was sung right next to Bach’s own grave, a lovely touch which adds palpable poignancy to the performance. The choir sang a cappella, standing in a horseshoe around the grave which is set in the church’s choir, but the microphone settings from the rest of the concert were not changed so that the sound comes from a distance, sounding recessed and much more reverberant. I found it tremendously effective, and the piece itself is tremendously beautiful, dictated by Bach on his own deathbed, so tradition says, in preparation for his own final journey before the throne of God. It’s a fitting culmination of the disc.

Alto issues aside, then, this is a very satisfying release. The thing that really sets Gardiner’s Bach cycle apart from its rivals is that, to my mind, he gets to the heart of the music’s spirituality much more profoundly than others, and this volume does it every bit as successfully as its companions.

Simon Thompson

see also review by John Quinn

Bach Cantata Pilgrimage review page



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