The cantatas for two consecutive Sundays after Trinity are contained
in this latest volume in the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series.
The pilgrims were
in Sweden for the first of these two Sundays, performing three
fine cantatas. Each begins with a noteworthy chorus and each
of these movements finds the Monteverdi Choir in fine form.
In BWV 148 their singing has tremendous vigour. I love
the way they use words such as “bringet”, articulating the
rhythms and investing the music with irresistible vitality.
Later on, the elaborate fugal chorus at the beginning of BWV
47, which is introduced by the solo quartet, is admirably
incisive; this is the sort of music in which the Monteverdi
There are some
good soloists on parade too. Mark Padmore is in especially
fine voice. In BWV 148 his light, airy singing of the florid
aria ‘Ich elle, die Lehren’ is much to be admired, as is the
playing of the difficult obbligato part by violinist Maya
Homburger. Even better, though, is Padmore’s rendition of
the aria ‘Wo wird in diesem Jammertale’ in BWV 114.
This piece, well described by Sir John Eliot Gardiner as “bleak
but hypnotic”, with its “rapt atmosphere of pained dejection”,
suits Padmore’s voice very well. He produces some plangent,
splendidly controlled singing and has just the right timbre.
No less impressive is flautist Rachel Beckett, whose flute
is a desolate partner for Padmore’s voice.
who catches the ear is soprano Katharine Fuge. To her falls
the extended and demanding aria ‘Wer ein wahrer Christ will
heissen’ in BWV 47. This is in ABA form and the majority of
the piece, which enjoins the Christian to humility, is slow
and graceful. Miss Fuge’s long, expressive phrasing gives
much pleasure but in the short, faster central section, where
reference is made to the devil’s arrogance, she’s suitably
three different altos in this concert. Frances Bourne is the
best of them and she also has the pick of the pieces assigned
to the alto soloists, the pastoral aria ‘Mund und Herze steht
dir offen’ in BWV 148. Here the obbligato trio of two oboi
d’amore and an oboe da caccia makes a delectable sound.
is rounded off with one of Bach’s motets, Der Geist hilft
unser Schwachheit auf. In this we hear much energetic
and buoyant singing from the choir and Gardiner balances the
parts excellently. The concluding chorale is sung, for the
most part, with quiet fervour but, rightly, the final alleluias
are invested with more overt feeling.
Then the caravan
moved on to the city and building that, more than anywhere
else, is identified with Bach. It might have been expected,
perhaps, that the pilgrims would visit the church of St. Thomas,
Leipzig on a special feast day. However, whether by accident
or design, the chosen day was a “routine” Sunday in the church’s
year and I think that’s rather appropriate for Bach plied
his trade in Leipzig for some twenty-seven years, during which
time so much of the wonderfully inventive music that he wrote
was designed for ordinary Sundays such as this. Fittingly,
both of the male soloists on this occasion were former members
of the Thomanerchor.
In BWV 96
one of the members of the English Baroque Soloists was particularly
in the spotlight. The opening chorus includes an important
part for a sopranino recorder. The instrument’s deliciously
piping tone adds a nice touch of frisson to the music and
Rachel Beckett’s agile playing is a delight. Shortly afterwards
she switches to transverse flute to supply a lovely obbligato
in the tenor aria ’Ach, ziehe die Seele mit Seilen der Liebe’.
Here Miss Beckett’s playing is the perfect foil for the light,
supple voice of Christoph Genz.
Genz is also very
communicative in the recitativo movement in BWV 116
and immediately before that Nathalie Stutzmann impresses with
some very expressive singing in the aria ‘Ach, unaussprechlich
ist die Not’. However, it’s in BWV169 that Miss Stutzmann
particularly claims our attention.
This is one of
Bach’s finest cantatas for a solo singer. The vocal part is
memorable but so too is the instrumental accompaniment. The
extended opening sinfonia (7:32 in this performance) is also
familiar to us from the Harpsichord Concerto in E major BWV
1053. It’s an invigorating piece, dominated by a sparkling
organ part, here delivered by the nimble fingers of Howard
Moody. He also has a prominent part in the third movement
where Miss Stutzmann’s rich tone and lovely legato line contrasts
beautifully with the agile and ornate organ part. The fifth
movement, the aria ‘Stirb in mir’, is a movement that Bach
also included in the aforementioned concerto. For the cantata,
however, he skilfully added a completely independent vocal
line. In this exquisite siciliano movement, paced to
perfection by Gardiner, Nathalie Stutzmann spins a winning
vocal line. Indeed, overall this is a distinguished performance
of the cantata.
The choir has
less to do in the cantatas than was the case the previous
Sunday. However, what they do have to sing is well delivered,
not least, the fine opening chorus of BWV 116, which is deftly
sung. This, by the way, is a cantata for the Twenty-fifth
Sunday after Trinity but it was included here because in 2000
the vagaries of the calendar meant that this particular Sunday
was omitted from the church’s year. But if the choir was relatively
under-employed in the cantatas for this particular day they
made ample amends at the end of the concert.
After the three
cantatas had been performed Gardiner and his singers moved
to the choir of the church for an a cappella rendition
of the so-called ‘Deathbed Chorale’, BWV 668, which
has been held by tradition to be the last piece that Bach
composed. The move to a different part of the church was an
inspired move for the microphones catch what the audience
must have experienced, namely a magical distancing of the
sound with the singers beautifully heard within the acoustic
of the church. As an act of homage to Bach it could scarcely
be bettered and even through the slightly impersonal medium
of CD the effect is very moving, especially as the singing
is so controlled and devoted. Gardiner refers to “the heart-stopping
beauty of this two-versed envoi” and I’d say his superb
choir convey that beauty in a way that disarms criticism.
The booklets accompanying
this series of discs are always beautifully produced and the
notes are consistently fascinating. Here one thing caught
my eye in a short essay by soprano Katharine Fuge. One has
been aware that, in order to realise such a project as the
Cantata Pilgrimage, the performers must have had to master
the music, much of it unfamiliar, at short notice. I must
say I’ve never felt that the performances sound under-prepared
or superficial. However, Miss Fuge reveals that each week
the performers received not only their music for the forthcoming
week’s concerts but also photocopies of the scriptural readings
prescribed for that Sunday’s liturgy and “notes giving us
the context of Bach’s life at the time each cantata was written.
Perhaps we would learn that a particularly fine trumpeter
had been in town or, more poignantly, that one of his children
had recently died.” That attention to detail and the determination
that these were to be much more than a series of concerts
goes a long way to explaining why this evolving series of
recorded performances seem so often to penetrate to the heart
of what this wonderful music is about.
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage themed page