Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage - Volume 11
Cantatas for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
Ach! Ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe, BWV162 (1715) [16:08]
Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen BWV 49 (1726) [25:42]
Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 180 (1724) [22:48]
Magdalena Kožená (soprano); Sara Mingardo (alto); Christoph Genz (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, Genova, 4 November 2000. DDD
Cantatas for the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity
Ich glaube, lieber Herr, hilf meinem Unglauben! BWV 109 (1723) [25:11]
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 38 (1724) [16:29]
Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan I, BWV 98 (1726) [13:20]
Ich habe meine Zuversicht, BWV 188 (c.1728) [24:40]
Joanne Lunn (soprano); William Towers (alto); Paul Agnew (tenor); Gotthold Schwarz (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Old Royal Naval College Chapel, Greenwich, 11-12 November 2000. DDD
German texts and English translations included
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 168 [64:55 + 80:10]
For the first of these consecutive Sundays after Trinity Sir John Eliot Gardiner led his Cantata Pilgrims to Italy, a country not so far visited on the journey - at least not in terms of issued recordings. For the following Sunday they returned to London and to the Old Royal Naval College Chapel, Greenwich. They’d been there before (Vol. 19 - see review) and it appears that this venue was a late substitute when a planned visit to the Baltic States was abandoned.
In the Lutheran liturgy for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity the Gospel is the parable, related in St. Matthew’s Gospel, of the royal wedding feast and the guest who, arriving without a wedding garment, was excluded. So wedding imagery, such as that of Christ as the bridegroom, figures significantly in Bach’s cantata texts for the day. BWV 162 originated in Weimar in 1716 but Gardiner performed it in the revised version that Bach made in 1723. He has a good team of soloists at his disposal and the ever-reliable Peter Harvey is in action right away, giving a confident, sturdy account of the aria with which the cantata opens. A little later comes a soprano aria in which, in Gardiner’s words “the refreshment of cooling wayside water is evoked”. There’s an obbligato for flute and oboe d’amore, reconstructed by Robert Levin, as only the original continuo survives. His work seems entirely successful and idiomatic to me though, unless my ears deceive me, the flute part is played on a recorder. The soloist is Magdalena Kožená and she sings beguilingly. One must remember that these performances were given nearly ten years ago. Clearly Miss Kožená’s voice has deepened since then for I see she’s to perform Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde next year in Birmingham. The other significant solo number in this cantata is the fifth movement, a duet for alto and tenor. This contains a good deal of testing passagework and canons, which Gardiner’s soloists negotiate successfully.
The chorus have nothing to do in that cantata except for the concluding chorale. They’re entirely absent from BWV 49, which is a dialogue between the Soul (soprano) and Christ (bass). When I first listened to it I thought that some of the movements were just a bit too long and when I read the booklet notes I discovered that Sir John expresses a similar view. Excessive length is certainly an issue in the opening sinfonia. At 6:27 this is the longest movement in this performance. It’s a concerto-like movement in which the obbligato organ, played by Howard Moody, takes a leading role. Moody is also to the fore in the second movement, a bass aria. Despite Peter Harvey’s advocacy I think Bach stretches his material a bit too thinly in this movement also. Both singers are involved in the next movement, which has been described aptly as “a frank love-duet”. Harvey and, even more so, Magdalena Kožená enter fully into that spirit. Miss Kožená gives a delicious performance of her aria, ‘Ich bin herrlich, ich bin schön’ and the obbligato is provided by an oboe d’amore and a violoncello piccolo, which conspire to produce some fascinating textures. Alfred Dürr memorably suggests that perhaps “in the complementary figures that the obbligato instruments toss to one another, we see the spinning and turning of the bride adorned by her hoop-skirt, taking pleasure in her own beauty.” The final movement in the cantata unites the two singers; the bass singing an aria against the soprano’s chorale, while the oboe d’amore and the busy organ provide instrumental support. What a skilful combination of textures and musical lines by Bach!
The best-known cantata in the programme is BWV 180, in which, as Dürr says, we’re at the Feast itself. The Monteverdi Choir, too little in evidence so far, excels in the opening chorale fantasia, which is sung over a stately orchestral processional. The following tenor aria, ‘Ermuntre dich’ incorporates a virtuoso flute part, which strongly calls to mind the B minor Orchestral Suite. Rachel Beckett is marvellously nimble and her playing complements excitingly the singing of Christoph Genz. His light, airy voice is ideally suited to the demanding, acrobatic vocal line, which he delivers with admirable clarity. The light, infectious performances of both singer and flautist are a sheer delight. Gardiner suggests that Bach was rather on autopilot when he composed the soprano aria in this cantata. This does seem a slightly harsh judgement - or perhaps I’m just being swayed by the lovely singing of Magdalena Kožená. Gardiner tells us that the Italians attended the Pilgrimage concerts - there was also one in Rome - in huge numbers and these fine cantata performances must have delighted the audiences.
Bach left no less than four cantatas for the Twenty-first Sunday after Trinity. The Gospel for the day, from St. John’s Gospel, relates the story of the healing by Christ of the son of a nobleman who showed faith. Inspired by that, Bach’s librettist for BWV 109 produced a text that Dürr describes as a kind of dialogue between Doubt and Belief.
The opening movement is quite remarkable. Gardiner likens it to a concerto grosso in which the soloists and chorus feature “as concertisten and ripienisten”. The expressive, plangent solo phrases intertwine with the chorus parts to powerful effect and, in passing, I wondered how this cantata fits with the one voice to a part theory: I can’t see how this music could be effectively performed without the contrast between soloists and chorus. Incidentally, it’s a tribute to Bach’s invention that he can construct a movement that lasts here for 8:43, effectively one-third of the whole cantata, and using just one line of text. And unlike BWV 49 there’s no suspicion that the movement is over-long. This present performance is superb. So too is the account by Paul Agnew of the tenor aria, ‘Wie zweifelhaltig ist mein Hoffen’. It’s a turbulent piece, which Gardiner suggests could have been an early draft of ‘Ach, mein Sinn’ from the St John Passion. Agnew, no stranger to that Passion aria, is ideal at conveying the aching anxiety in this aria. William Towers, the alto soloist, is not really a match for Agnew when it comes to vocal expressiveness but he still gives a good account of his aria and of the recitative that precedes it. Though the mood of much of the cantata has been anxious the tone changes at the alto solo and becomes more positive and the concluding chorale fantasia takes this further; both the text and the music are much more confident and forthright.
BWV 38 is a chorale cantata, based on a hymn by Luther. Gardiner describes the opening chorus as “a powerful evocation of … Lutheran crying-from-the-depths and the clamour of imploring voices.” The dark power of the Monteverdi Choir’s singing is sonorously reinforced by no less than a quartet of sackbuts, singers and instrumentalists combining to create an extraordinary texture. Once again Paul Agnew has a demanding tenor aria. His music is emotive and ardent and he’s accompanied by a pair of ceaselessly intertwining oboes. Agnew’s singing is compelling but the instrumentalists are no less impressive. The sackbuts return to underpin the final forthright chorale. Here Bach’s music - and scoring -epitomises the forthright, robust side of Lutheranism.
The next cantata that we hear, BWV 98, is a good foil to the powerful BWV 38. It’s much more modest in scale though I’m not sure I entirely agree with Gardiner that it “seems exceptionally genial.” To be sure, the spirit of the opening chorus is fairly light but the tenor recitative that follows is bitingly dramatic, at least in Paul Agnew’s hands. The more relaxed mood returns in the soprano aria, ‘Hört, ihr Augen, auf zu weinen’, which benefits from some lovely singing by Joanne Lunn. The cantata also includes a jaunty bass aria accompanied by perky unison violins and Gotthold Schwarz displays fine vocal agility here.
Finally we hear BWV 188. Like BWV 49 this opens with a substantial sinfonia, which derives from the third movement of the harpsichord concerto in D minor, BWV 1052. Only the last 45 bars of the movement have come down to us in autograph score and the rest of the music - 248 bars - has been reconstructed by Robert Levin. The prominent organ part is played with great dexterity by Silas John Standage, whose playing is most entertaining. The highlight among the vocal movements is the lovely pastoral aria, ‘Ich habe meine Zuversicht’. Unusually for one of Bach’s tenor arias the tessitura is quite low. Paul Agnew is splendid throughout this aria, which is based on a memorable principal melody. As you may have gathered from the foregoing, I think Agnew’s is the outstanding solo contribution to this concert but his three colleagues, none of which has quite as much to do, all acquit themselves very well.
The production values of this set are up to SDG’s usual high standards. The recorded sound is good and clear and Gardiner’s notes are as perceptive and interesting as ever. The performance standards too are consistently high, with both the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir making polished and committed contributions. Those who are collecting this excellent series should add this pair of discs to their shelves as soon as possible. 
John Quinn