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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas
Ich bin ein guter Hirt, BWV 85 [16:59]
Sie werden euch in den Bann tun, BWV 183 [13:04]
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199 [21:04]
Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen, BWV 175 [14:15]
Andreas Scholl (alto); Barbara Schlick (soprano); Christoph Prégardien (tenor); Gotthold Schwarz (bass)
Concerto Vocale de Leipzig/Gotthold Schwarz
Ensemble Baroque de Limoges/Christophe Coin (piccolo cello)
Willem Jansen, Silbermann organ (1737)
rec. May 1994 Church of Ponitz, Thüringen, Germany. DDD
Texts with English and French translations included.
NAÏVE E 8911 [65:38]

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas
Jesu, nun sei gepreiset, BWV 41 [26:48]
Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden, BWV 6 [19:18]
Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68 [16:14]
Andreas Scholl (alto); Barbara Schlick (soprano); Christoph Prégardien (tenor); Gotthold Schwarz (bass)
Chœur de Chambre Accentus/Laurence Equilbey
Ensemble Baroque de Limoges/Christophe Coin (piccolo cello)
Willem Jansen, Silbermann organ (1737)
rec. October 1995, Church of Ponitz, Thüringen, Germany. DDD
Texts with English and French translations included.
NAÏVE E 8918 [62:20]  

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas
Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele, BWV 180 [23:31]
Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, BWV 49 [22:17]
Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit, BWV 115 [25:05]
Andreas Scholl (alto); Barbara Schlick (soprano); Christoph Prégardien (tenor); Gotthold Schwarz (bass)
Leipziger Concerto Vocale/Gotthold Schwarz
Ensemble Baroque de Limoges/Christophe Coin (piccolo cello)
Willem Jansen, Silbermann organ (1737)
rec. November 1993, Church of Ponitz, Thüringen, Germany. DDD
Texts with English and French translations included.
NAÏVE E 8926 [70:53]
Experience Classicsonline

Early music specialist Christophe Coin, working with his period instrument band, and Naïve have reissued three discs of Bach Cantatas in which the piccolo cello plays a prominent role. These were previously on Auvidis-Astrée: E 8544; E 8555 and E 8897. Each here receives a make-over being repackaged in a new card sleeve. The discs form part of Naïve’s Voix Baroque series: E 8911 (E 8544); E 8918 (E 8555) and E 8926 (E 8897).

The ten cantatas feature the playing of Christophe Coin on the piccolo cello - an instrument that experienced minor popularity in the early eighteenth century but which is now obsolete. There’s a degree of mystery here. The dimensions of the instrument are uncertain. It is generally thought to have been similar to a small cello with five strings or maybe a traditional-sized cello with an additional string. I have seen it put forward that the piccolo cello was actually a large viola played on the shoulder. The booklet notes confidently state that Christophe Coin is playing a piccolo cello with an attribution to Amsterdam maker Pieter Rombouts (c. 1700). I am puzzled how Coin can be so sure that he is playing a piccolo cello, if as it seems, no one really knows for certain what the instrument was actually like.

I was interested to discover that these recordings were made at the little Church of Ponitz, in Thüringia, an area of Germany with extensive associations with the Bach dynasty. Coin explains in the notes that Ponitz was selected primarily for its Gottfried Silbermann (ignore the typo in the booklets) organ, completed in 1737. Using the restricted space of the choir gallery - see photograph with E 8918 - Coin has arranged his chorus and orchestra players around the great organ which serves as part of the basso continuo. Coin explains: “The result may seem more ‘dense’, and sometimes more ‘blurred’ than usual, but it conveys quite faithfully the atmosphere and sound a member of the congregation would have experienced sitting down below in that small nave, lit by a warm autumnal light”. Typically Coin’s luxuriant basso continuo section also comprises a cello, bassoon and double-bass. Willem Jansen the organist is most splendid throughout and deserves particular praise. Details of the organ are given on: www.silbermannorgel-ponitz.de/

We are told in the excellent booklet essays that eight of the cantatas: BWV 6, 41, 85, 115, 163, 168, 175 and 180 that feature the piccolo cello belong to Bach’s second annual cycle composed during the liturgical year of 1724/25 for the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. A ninth, BWV 49 with a significant part for the piccolo cello was composed later in 1726 and a tenth, composed much earlier, in 1714, is thought to have used the instrument. It seems unlikely that Bach would write this number of sacred cantatas during this period around 1725 without having a particular exponent in mind and available.

The disc Näive E 8911 (E 8544) accommodates four sacred cantatas none of which commence with the customary choral movement. Cantata Ich bin ein guter Hirt (I am the Good Shepherd), BWV 85 is in six movements and is intended for Misericordias Domini (the second Sunday after Easter). It was first heard in 1725. All four soloists are deployed with a four-part chorus that appears in the very short last movement chorale. Bach chose to use a pair of oboes and a piccolo cello in addition to the strings and basso continuo.

First performed in 1725 the cantata Sie werden euch in den Bann tun (They shall anathematise you), BWV 183 was designed for Exaudi, the Sunday after Ascension (sixth Sunday after Easter). In five movements, it requires the services of four soloists and again a chorus for the final chorale. The instrumentation consists of strings, pairs of oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia, a cello piccolo and basso continuo.

Composed in 1714, from Bach’s days at Weimar his early cantata Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (My heart is bathed in blood), BWV 199 was used for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity. No chorus is employed at any point in the eight movement score. There is only a demanding part for the soprano voice who also sings the chorale. The instrumentation is for oboe, strings, piccolo cello and basso continuo.

In seven movements, the cantata Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen (He calleth His own sheep by name), BWV 175 for Whit Tuesday (the third day of the feast of Pentecost) was composed in 1725. The strings and basso continuo are augmented by three recorders, a pair of trumpets and a piccolo cello. There are arias for alto, tenor and bass with a closing chorale for four part choir.

On Näive E 8918 (E 8855) there are three sacred cantatas. The first is Jesu, nun sei gepreiset (Jesus, now be praised), BWV 41. Bach wrote the six movement score in 1725 to celebrate New Year's Day (Circumcision of Christ, Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus). The composer wrote parts for all four soloists and a four-part chorus. There is a rich and varied instrumentation: a piccolo cello in a concerted part, three trumpets, three oboes, strings, basso continuo with the addition of timpani. Of the two chorales the uplifting and sparkling first chorus with its trumpet fanfare lasts over eight minutes.

The six-movement chorale cantata Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden (Abide with us, for it is toward evening), BWV 6 was written and first performed in 1725 for Easter Monday. Bach’s instrumentation is for a piccolo cello in a concerted part, a pair of oboes, an oboe da caccia, strings and basso continuo. All four soloists are required and a four-part chorus that is used in the opening and closing chorales.

From 1725 Bach wrote his short cantata Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt (For God so loved the world), BWV 68 for Whit Monday (the second day of the feast of Pentecost). This short cantata is cast in five movements and begins and ends with a chorale for chorus. Bach uses just the soprano and the bass as soloists with a four-part chorus. The instrumentation calls for a cornet and three trombones, a pair of oboes, a tenor oboe, a cello piccolo, strings and basso continuo. The soprano aria uses an adaptation of the famous melody (Sheep may safely graze) from the secular cantata, BWV 208 known as the ‘The Hunt’.

The final disc Näive E 8926 (E 8897) also contains three sacred cantatas. The release is headed by the cantata Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele (Adorn yourself, O loving soul, with gladness), BWV 180. First heard in 1724, the seven movement score was intended for the Twentieth Sunday After Trinity. It seems that this was Bach’s first cantata to employ a piccolo cello. The cantata requires four vocal soloists and a four-part chorus with the instrumentation of two recorders, a flute, oboe, oboe da caccia, strings and basso continuo.

Bach wrote his chorale cantata Ich geh und suche mit Erlangen (I go and seek with longing), BWV 49 for the Twentieth Sunday After Trinity and it was first performed in 1726. The six movement score is Bach’s last cantata to include a part for piccolo cello. Commencing and concluding with a chorale the soprano and bass are the only two vocal soloists as the score does not require a chorus. The instrumentation has parts for piccolo cello, oboe d’amore, strings and basso continuo with a splendid concerted role for the organ. Maybe this significant organ part was intended for Bach’s eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann as part of his apprenticeship. Another notable feature is the Sinfonia movement which opens the score.

The final work on the disc is the six-movement chorale cantata Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit (Prepare yourself, O my soul), BWV 115 from 1724 and intended for the 22nd Sunday after Trinity. Here we have four vocal soloists, a four-part chorus, with a flute, piccolo cello, oboe d’amore, horn, strings and basso continuo.

The star performer of the set is counter-tenor Andreas Scholl who sings the alto part impeccably. His is a controlled delivery that is smooth and fluid and is enhanced by a most attractive timbre. Although setting a remarkable standard throughout I especially enjoyed Scholl in the aria Komm, leite mich (Come, lead me) from BWV 175 where his exceptional voice is reverential and persuasive, perfectly intertwined with the pastoral strains of the recorder group. Another highlight is Scholl’s aria Hochgelobter Gottessohn (O highly praised Son of God) from BWV 6. This is marvellously sung with an impressive evenness and clarity of expression. His agreeable tone is here at its most refined. I love the way the oboe de caccia weaves its way in and out of the alto vocal line.

German-born soprano Barbara Schlick sings the challenging array of arias with a plentiful supply of energy and devotion. However, a highlight of the disc is Schlick’s da capo aria Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen (O hushed sighs, silent grieving) from the cantata BWV 199. Accompanied by a delightful rustic oboe and basso continuo Schlick is in angelic voice, chaste and exuding sincerity. From the same cantata in her chorale aria Ich, dein betrübtes Kind (I, your grieving child) Schlick is serene, unforced and gloriously expressive. The appealing piccolo cello is featured here together with the basso continuo. On occasions Schlick’s voice can be a touch shrill and when under pressure there is a tendency to reach up to grab the notes. In the aria Laß uns, o höchster Gott (Grant us, O almighty God) from BWV 41 the soprano voice is somewhat swamped by the weight of the instrumental forces.

Prégardien, the German lyric tenor, is secure and confident with an appealing timbre. Of note are his excellent arias Ich fürchte nicht des Todes Schrecken (I do not fear the horrors of death) from BWV 183 and Ermuntre dich: dein Heiland klopft (Arise! Your savour knocks) from BWV 180, complete with its prominent flute part evoking birdsong. From the cantata BWV 41 I was struck by the fine piccolo cello playing throughout the aria Woferne du den edlen Frieden (As you give noble peace) together with the reverence of Prégardien’s clear and meaningful diction. The tenor feels markedly comfortable with the score’s tessitura.

German bass Gotthold Schwarz gives assured and well focused interpretations. He moderates any exaggerated expression to deliver the words with significant intimacy whilst managing to communicate a deep reverence. I particularly enjoyed the persuasive Schwarz in the aria Du bist geboren mir zugute (You were born to bring me bliss) from BWV 68 where bucolic character is furnished by three oboes. In the bass arioso Ich bin ein guter Hirt (I am the good shepherd) from BWV 85 I was struck by Schwarz’s dark-hued timbre in a solid performance that communicates considerable piety. 
Both of the two choral groups that have been used on this set: the Chœur de Chambre Accentus and the Leipziger Concerto Vocale have been ably drilled by their respective chorus-masters Laurence Equilbey and Gotthold Schwarz. The period instrument Ensemble Baroque de Limoges directed by their founder Christophe Coin provide consistently fine and coherent playing aptly conveying the necessary dignity and finesse. There are however one or two uncomfortable moments especially in the bass aria Öffnet euch, ihr beiden Ohren (O, both my ears, open wide) of BWV 175 where the trumpets are rough and unsteady making an excruciating sound. I realise that authentic brass instruments provide significant challenges for players. However, recorded over a year later a vast improvement is noticeable as the three trumpets are outstanding in the glorious and uplifting opening movement chorale Jesu, nun sei gepreiset (Jesus, now be praised) of BWV 41.

As the piccolo cello soloist the supremely talented Christophe Coin plays with authority displaying exceptional control of phrasing and dynamics. Convincing examples of the merit of the piccolo cello are found in the soprano aria Woferne du den edlen Frieden (As you give noble peace) from BWV 41 and the chorale Ich, dein betrübtes Kind (I, your grieving child) from BWV 199. It would be remiss not to mention Willem Jansen’s top-drawer work at the Silbermann organ. I particularly enjoyed the sparkling and ardently played organ in the Sinfonia that opens cantata BWV 49.

The accompanying notes and essay in the booklets are both interesting and highly informative. For those of us not so sharp-eyed a magnifying glass may be needed to read the small print. There are a few mistakes in the notes but nothing too off-putting. For example the liner-notes to E 8918 (Astrée E 8555) states that cantata BWV 41 has three trombones which should be three trumpets and the cardboard sleeve lists the three cantatas in the incorrect order of play.

The confined space of the Church of Ponitz necessitates dividing the players and even some of the chorus either side of the organ and this actually creates a presumably unintended stereo effect. The sonic definition could perhaps have benefited from a touch more sharpness as the quality was slightly cloudy at times especially with at forte in the full choral and orchestral passages. Sometimes certain instruments such as the cornet, the horn and some vocal soloists were almost drowned out. Notwithstanding, there is nothing here to put off any prospective purchaser. Of the three discs the earliest to be recorded Näive E 8926 (Astrée E 8897) has the superior sonics being crystal clear and satisfyingly balanced.

This is a fascinating and often enthralling set.

Michael Cookson

see also review of E8918 by Brian Wilson



 


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