Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage - Volume 2
Cantatas for the Second Sunday after Trinity
Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein, BWV 2 (1724) [16:17]
Meine Seel erhebt den Herren BWV 10 (1724) [18:22]
(For the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
Heinrich SCHÜTZ (1585-1672) Der Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, SWV 386 (1648) [4:19]
Johann Sebastian BACH Der Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76 (1723) [35:55]
Lisa Larsson (soprano); Daniel Taylor (alto); James Gilchrist (tenor); Stephen Varcoe (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Basilique Saint-Denis, Paris, 2-3 July 2000. DDD
Cantatas for the Third Sunday after Trinity
Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21 (1723) [39:18]
Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder, BWV 135 (1724) [13:38]
Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord, BWV 1044 (20:32]
Katharine Fuge (soprano); Robin Tyson (alto); Vernon Kirk (tenor); Jonathan Brown (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Fraumünster, Zürich, 8-9 July 2000 DDD
German texts and English translations included.
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 165 [73:11 + 73:43]
This latest issue from the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage brings us concerts from two European countries that, to date, have been lightly represented. Only one concert from a French venue has previously made it onto disc (Volume 7) and we have yet to visit Switzerland at all.
The concert in Zurich attracts particular attention for it brings us one of Bach’s very greatest cantatas, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21. The cantata probably dates from Bach’s Weimar days and gradually evolved into the eleven-movement, bi-partite structure we now know. The text and the music take the listener on a significant spiritual journey from the poignant penitence of the opening to the spectacular final chorus - or, at least, it is in this performance - in which Bach and his librettist seem to rejoice in the certitude of the Protestant Reformation. There’s a great deal to savour in this performance but there are drawbacks too, I feel. To be honest I’m not sure that the tenor and bass soloists were wisely chosen. Tenor Vernon Kirk, a newcomer to this series, sounds efficient but not desperately involving in his aria ‘Bäche von gesalznen Zähren’. To date in these reviews I’ve not made comparisons with other performances but on this occasion, just to satisfy myself that I wasn’t being unfair, I dug out the 1990 recording by Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi). There the soloist is Howard Crook and to my ears he seems much more engaged with the sentiments of the text. Shortly afterwards, at the start of Part II, we encounter the bass, Jonathan Brown. His singing is decent enough but in the recitativo and subsequent aria in which he is vox Christi, in duet with the soprano as the Soul, he’s put somewhat in the shade by the expressiveness of his partner, Katharine Fuge. Herreweghe has Peter Harvey, so often a stalwart of the Gardiner series, and I find him much more convincing.
To be fair, Vernon Kirk makes a stronger impression in his second aria, the joyful ‘Erfreue dich, Seele, erfreue dich, Herze’ but even then I don’t find the sound he makes particularly ingratiating; his tone sounds a little pinched at times. In the same aria Howard Crook is lighter in tone and invests the music with a bit more spring. Having said that, I marginally prefer Gardiner’s tempo in this aria to that adopted by Herreweghe. Gardiner’s soprano soloist, Katharine Fuge, excels, not just in the aforementioned duet but also, earlier in the cantata, in the eloquent aria ‘Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not’. Miss Fuge and her fine oboe obbligato partner, give a magnetic performance of this deeply felt aria.
I made one other comparison between the two recordings and this one was wholly to Gardiner’s advantage. The cantata ends with a magnificent chorus, ‘Das Lamm, das erwürget ist’ and I was bowled over by Gardiner’s thrilling performance. Herreweghe goes for a more intimate approach but, much though I admire him as a Bach conductor, on this occasion I think his conception is too tame. I wonder if the concert itself presented the works in the order in which we hear them on the CD? I suspect perhaps not for it is hard to think that anything could follow this superbly celebratory chorus.
On the disc, however, we next hear Bach’s only other cantata for this Sunday, BWV 135. It’s on a much more modest scale than BWV 21. Interestingly, it seems Bach never actually heard it performed for he was absent from Leipzig, testing an organ in Gera on the Sunday in question, as Gardiner relates in his notes. I like very much the intense singing and playing in the opening chorus - the keening oboes make their presence felt to good effect. Vernon Kirk has an aria, preceded by a recitative, and I feel he injects more feeling into the music than was the case in BWV 21. I find him much more communicative here and his voice seems to have more presence. Jonathan Brown is also heard to better advantage. Bach gives the bass a defiant aria, ‘Weicht, all ihr Übeltäter’, and Brown brings bite and character to this piece.
In the absence of any other cantatas for this particular Sunday the programme is completed by Bach’s Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord, BWV 1044. Oddly, the soloists aren’t credited but I presume that they are, respectively. Maya Homburger, Rachel Beckett and Malcolm Proud. All three soloists do very well, especially in a lively, crisp account of the first movement and in the last of the three movements where the soloists - and their colleagues in the EBS - combine elegance with energy. Here Malcolm Proud’s rippling harpsichord playing gives much pleasure. The slow movement, though well played, doesn’t strike me as one of Bach’s more interesting utterances, though other listeners may like it more than I do.
The previous week had found the Pilgrims in Paris and at the halfway point of the project. Sir John tells us that at this stage the finances of the venture were pretty stretched and its continuance was uncertain but this stress doesn’t come across in the music making.
BWV 2 is a chorale cantata based on Luther’s adaptation of Psalm 12. It opens with an intense, often chromatic chorus, which is the sort of thing that The Monteverdi Choir does so well. I love Gardiner’s supposition that Bach is “no doubt prompted by the grim vignette of isolated huddles of the faithful in a heathen world of persecution.” James Gilchrist is the tenor soloist on this occasion and the imaginative and communicative way in which he delivers his recitative shows all too clearly, I think, what was missing in BWV 21. Later he has an aria in which his ringing tone seems to me to be admirably suited to the sentiments of the opening line, which is translated in Alfred Dürr’s book on the cantatas as ”Through fire is silver purified.” Gilchrist’s performance is splendidly assured and completely convincing. Daniel Taylor, the alto soloist, also makes a good impression in his aria ’Tilg, o Gott, die Lehren’, in which he articulates the vocal line very positively.
BWV 10 was first performed on 2 July 1724, the Feast of the Visitation. The libretto is the German Magnificat, paraphrased in parts, and, as Gardiner says, it’s a “fascinating foil” to the Magnificat BWV 243, first heard at the previous Christmas. It opens with a vigorous chorus. Much though I admire the commitment and conviction of The Monteverdi Choir in this movement I did wonder if the singing was just a bit too strong and whether a line had been crossed from jubilation into assertiveness.
In the succeeding aria Lisa Larsson is eager and energetic. She almost sounds breathless in her enthusiasm but it’s exciting singing. Later we hear Stephen Varcoe in what Gardiner rightly terms a “pompous, implacable” aria. Unfortunately it seems to me that Varcoe doesn’t have the sheer vocal heft, especially at the bottom of his range, to do full justice to the piece.
Before the final cantata in the programme it was a good idea to include Schütz’s motet of the same title, taking advantage of the presence of the three sackbuts that had been required for BWV 2. This short piece is exuberantly sung by The Monteverdi Choir and it acts as a superb precursor to Bach’s cantata.
BWV 76 was the second of Bach’s cantatas to be heard in Leipzig after his arrival there. It opens with an exciting chorus in which the orchestral palette is enriched by oboes and a trumpet. The choir’s singing, full of spirit and conviction, carries on from where they left off in the Schütz. It must have been something of a calling card for Bach so early in his Leipzig appointment for, as Gardiner observes, nothing in the surviving music of his predecessor as Kantor, Johann Kuhnau, matches this movement in terms of “complexity or forwardly propulsive energy”. In the solo movements that follow we find James Gilchrist and Miss Larsson still in fine form. One doesn’t envy Stephen Varcoe his task in the aria ‘Fahr hin, abgöttische Zunft!’ This is one of those arias where the passagework seems almost gratuitously difficult, especially for a bass voice, which, almost by definition, isn’t usually the most agile of instruments. I feel that the much more lyrical recitative that is given to him in Part II is far better suited to his vocal strengths. In Part II also comes a hugely demanding tenor aria, ‘Hasse nur, hasse mich recht’ but Gilchrist seems undaunted by its challenges. Mention must also be made of the alto aria ‘Liebt, ihr Christen, in der Tat!’ Alfred Dürr describes this lovely aria as “a special gem” and Daniel Taylor gives a winning account of it.
Despite one or two reservations this latest volume is another impressive addition to this important series. Sound quality and the notes are up to SDG’s consistently high standards. Those who have been following this evolving cycle can invest with confidence.
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