Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas for Bass
Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (Gladly I bear the cross), BWV 56 (1726) [18:08]
Der Friede sei mit dir (Peace be with you), BWV 158 (1727) [10:18]
Ich habe genug (I have enough), BWV 82 (1727) [21:21]
Thomas Quasthoff, bass-baritone
Albrecht Meyer (oboe)
Members of the RIAS Kammerchor/Daniel Reuss
Berliner Barock Solisten/Rainer Kussmaul (violin)
rec. January 2004, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin, Germany. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 477 5326 474 505-2 [50:05]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas for Bass
Ich habe genug (I have enough), BWV 82 (1727) [22:24]
Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (Gladly I bear the cross), BWV 56 (1726) [18:21]
Der Friede sei mit dir (Peace be with you), BWV 158 (1727) [11:18]
Peter Kooy (bass)
La Chapelle Royale/Philippe Herreweghe.
rec. 1991, Notre Dame du Liban, Paris, France. DDD
Johann Sebastian Bach’s three church cantatas for solo bass are much loved works of the sacred choral repertoire. The cantata Ich habe genug BWV 82 is probably the best known and most recorded of the set. All three dwell on the theme of death and how a blessed release from great suffering can ensue.
Completed in 1726 the five movement cantata Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen BWV 56 is intended for the 19th Sunday after Trinity. Here the bass soloist is supplemented by a four-part chorus and the scoring includes a pair of oboes. By an unknown writer, the text of the first recitative and the chorale make a number of references to the sea which probably serve as metaphors for the journey through life to heaven.
From 1727 the five movement cantata Ich habe genug BWV 82 was written for the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. For solo bass, oboe, strings and basso continuo the cantata has no part for chorus. Again the author of the text is anonymous.
For the third day of Easter the cantata Der Friede sei mit dir BWV 158 was completed in 1727. It is one of Bach’s best known church cantatas and lasts around ten or eleven minutes. The identity of the librettist is not known and it is assumed that some of the score may be missing. The four movement work for solo bass, four part-chorus, oboe, violin and basso continuo concludes with the fifth verse of Martin Luther's chorale (1534) Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lay in death's bonds). The heart of the score is the second movement aria and chorale Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde (World, adieu, I am weary of thee).
From the 1980s there has been great interest in historically informed performances of Bach’s music. Hearing the finest of these can persuade even the diehard traditionalist that small forces have considerable advantages. I admire the fluidity, spareness and intimacy of the period instrument performance, especially the clear tones, eloquent and crisp articulation, clear phrasing and rhythmic control. There are now a large number of splendid Bach recordings available from the finest early music specialists such as Philippe Herreweghe/Harmonia Mundi; Harry Christophers/Coro; Paul McCreesh/Deutsche Grammophon; John Eliot Gardiner/Soli Deo Gloria; Masaaki Suzuki/BIS and Andrew Parrott/Virgin. For Deutsche Grammophon, director Paul McCreesh with his 2002 Roskilde Cathedral recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion has his two choruses sung by only nine solo voices. In reality this is probably a larger number than the resources Bach usually had available.
Recordings of Bach’s three cantatas for solo bass are reasonably represented in the record catalogues. There are two exceptionally fine performances played by specialist early music ensembles that can compellingly take their place as an integral part of any Bach collection. These are Thomas Quasthoff on Deutsche Grammophon and Peter Kooy on Harmonia Mundi.
The first of my recommended recordings is from Deutsche Grammophon who selected as soloist Thomas Quasthoff the popular international bass-baritone. The German-born singer is a splendid choice in three sacred scores that his fellow countryman Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau for decades made pretty much his own. A fascinating essay by Jürgen Otten in the accompanying booklet is most illuminating concerning Quasthoff who describes his very personal and profound connection to this music. Little information is given about the scores themselves, however, full texts with English translations are provided. Rainer Kussmaul directs from the violin. The RIAS Kammerchor run to a maximum of thirteen members and the Berliner Barock Solisten are fifteen strong including basso continuo. The Berlin ensemble adopt a flexible yet discerning approach to historical performance practice. According to their website they, “play on historic, though modernized, instruments, using bows from various periods, depending on the work being performed.” Quasthoff’s performances are well served by the DG engineers who provide an extremely clear and well balanced sound. Last September I was fortunate to attend a wonderful performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons with the Berlin Philharmonic and Rundfunkchor under Sir Simon Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonie. Bass-baritone Quasthoff was one of a trio of soloists. It was pleasing to hear a performer as inspiring as Quasthoff at first hand and marvel at his impressive articulation and appealing timbre together with his instinctive capacity to communicate text to an audience.
The second of my two recommended recordings of Bach’s three cantatas for solo bass is on Harmonia Mundi. Peter Kooy recorded these sacred scores in 1991 at the Notre Dame du Liban, Paris on Harmonia Mundi HMA 1951365. Herreweghe’s La Chapelle Royal choir number a mere ten singers and the period instrument ensemble has a maximum of fifteen players; three of which comprise the basso continuo. The interesting essay in the accompanying booklet provides helpful information about the scores. Full texts and English translations are also included. The sound quality is generally to a high standard. My only reservation relates to BWV 82 when soloist Kooy is at times almost smothered by the low strings.  
Throughout the solo bass cantatas Kooy gives generally assured and well focused interpretations. He is moderately expressive whilst delivering the words with intimacy and deep reverence. In the aria Ich habe genug (It is enough) from BWV 82 Kooy’s voice just throbs with pain and suffering. This is accompanied by most attractive playing of the elaborate solo oboe part. In the closing aria Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod (I long for my death) Kooy starts with a slight unsteadiness, seemingly struggling with the demands of the score before recovering with a strong conviction.
The opening aria Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (Gladly I bear the cross) from BWV 56 demonstrates how the reverential Kooy can deliver a strong sense of feeling to the meaning of the text. From the same cantata Endlich, endlich wird mein Joch (At last, at last, my yoke) Herreweghe takes this glorious aria at what seems a perfect pace and the confident Kooy is so splendidly convincing in his delivery. In the aria and chorale Welt, ade! ich bin dein müde (World, farewell, I am weary of you) from BWV 158 Kooy demonstrates his deep affection for the text taking the utmost care with his words. I felt that the splendid violin solo performed by Monica Huggett conveyed a distinct mournful quality. Herreweghe’s choir of the La Chapelle Royale are in fine voice being secure and expressive, attributes that are especially evident in the final chorale Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm (Here is the true paschal lamb) of BWV 158.
With regard to alternative recordings the towering figure of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made a very fine recording of the Cantata BWV 56 in 1969 with the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra under Karl Richter at the Herkulessaal, Residenz in Munich. This should particularly appeal to those who like their Bach cantatas performed with larger choral forces using modern instruments. I have Fischer-Dieskau’s performance on a two disc set of six ‘Famous Cantatas’ on Deutsche Grammophon 453 094-2 (BWV No. 4, 'Christ lag in Todesbanden'; No. 51; No. 140; No. 147 (including the chorale 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring') and No. 202).
Fischer-Dieskau made earlier recordings of the cantatas, BWV 56 and BWV 82 at the Gedächtniskirche, Stuttgart in 1963. Here Helmuth Rilling directs the Gächinger Kantorei and Bach-Collegium, Stuttgart. On the two cantatas his performance felt a touch over-expressive and rather too mannered. At only 44 minutes the disc is rather short measure and I didn’t really enjoy the sound quality in particular the balance with the soloist placed too far forward. I have the disc on Hänssler Classics CD 94.029.
I have just heard a splendid interpretation of the aria and chorale movement Welt, ade! ich bin dein müde from BWV 158 played by star violinist Hilary Hahn with Christine Schäfer (soprano), Matthias Goerne (baritone) and the Münchner Kammerorchester under Alexander Liebreich. Recorded at the Himmelfahrtskirche, Sendling, München in 2008/9 the disc is a newly released twelve work collection of arias and duets for violin and voice. It’s on Deutsche Grammophon 477 8092.
Which of my two favourite recordings of Bach’s three cantatas for solo bass would I choose? Peter Kooy on Harmonia Mundi or Thomas Quasthoff on Deutsche Grammophon? Quite simply, I wouldn’t be without either. The well focused Kooy comes across as the more intimate and is exceptionally strong in a sense of sacred devotion. With remarkable clarity of diction, clear phrasing and appealing timbre Quasthoff is the more warmly expressive of the two whilst still managing to keep a sense of reverence. An extra benefit for me is the clarity and overall balance of Quasthoff’s Berlin recording. So if my arm was twisted I would just plump for Thomas Quasthoff on DG as the most satisfying disc.
Michael Cookson
The sacred music of Bach is extremely well served by this pair of outstanding recordings ... see Full Review
Obtaining the compositional dates of Bach’s scores has often proved a difficult process. Thankfully, author Julian Shuckburgh has researched and compiled a complete list of Bach compositions in chronological order in his outstandingly readable Bach biography: Harmony and Discord
Old Street Publishing Ltd, London, 2009
ISBN 978-1-906525-34-7.
Also worth obtaining is Christoph Wolff’s notably comprehensive Bach study: The Learned Musician
Oxford University Press, 2001
ISBN 978-0-19-924884-1