Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage - Volume 12
Cantatas for the Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity
Ich armer Mensch, ich Sündenknecht, BWV 55 (1726) [14:35]
Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim? BWV 89 (1723) [11:17]
Mache dich, mein Geist, bereit, BWV 115 (1724) [25:56]
O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort II, BWV 60 (172) [16:05]
(For the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Trinity)
Joanne Lunn (soprano); Robin Tyson (alto); James Gilchrist (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass); The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. All Saints, Tooting, 17 November 2000
Cantatas for the Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity
Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, BWV 139* (1724) [17:29]
Nur jedem das Seine!, BWV 163 (1715) [14:29]
Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht!, BWV 52* (1726) [14:55]
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140 (1731) [25:25]
(For the Twenty-seventh Sunday after Trinity)
*Gillian Keith (soprano); Susan Hamilton (soprano); Hilary Summers (alto); William Kendall (tenor); Peter Harvey (bass); The Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec. Winchester Cathedral, 26 November 2000
German texts and English translations included
SOLI DEO GLORIA SDG 171 [68:13 +72:40]
The penultimate instalment in this series brings a “first”. The cantatas on disc one are not live performances but were set down under studio conditions a couple of days before the Pilgrims performed this programme in the chapel of Eton College. There’s a very good reason for this. Eton lies right under the flight path of Heathrow airport and so, as an insurance policy against aircraft noise, a prudent decision was taken to pre-record the programme, using long takes to simulate concert conditions as much as possible.
One would not wish for any intrusive noises to mar any of the cantata performances, especially James Gilchrist’s excellent and compelling account of the cantata for solo tenor, BWV 55. In the aria that opens the work Bach’s writing, in Alfred Dürr’s words “conjures up an impression of the writhing sinner who in vain revolts against his burden of sin, since he is unable to free himself from it.” Gilchrist rises superbly to the manifold challenges of Bach’s long, intense lines. He’s just as fine in the second aria, a compelling plea for mercy from the sinner, of which he gives a moving account. Praise too for the uplifting flute obbligato playing of Rachel Beckett in this second aria. Gilchrist is also vividly communicative in the two recitatives. In his notes, Sir John Eliot Gardiner is right to draw attention to the lovely harmonies in the concluding chorale, which is expertly sung by The Monteverdi Choir.
There’s more admirable solo singing in BWV 89. The opening aria portrays what Gardiner aptly calls God’s “wistful” anger and Peter Harvey, with fine, firm singing suggests just that. The alto recitative and aria that follow are much more vengeful in tone. Robin Tyson is presented with some challenging, dramatic writing, which he dispatches convincingly. Later comes a soprano aria with oboe obbligato in which the tone seems rather light and gay, which is rather at odds with the words. Gardiner points out that the text describes “a balance sheet of sins committed against the drops of Jesus’ redeeming blood.” The optimistic tone of Bach’s music, captivatingly sung by Joanne Lunn, who is expertly partnered by Michael Niesemann’s felicitous oboe playing, perhaps indicates the composer’s confidence as to which side of the balance sheet will end up in credit.
For all the fine music that has gone before Gardiner is surely right to rate BWV 115 as the choicest of Bach’s three cantatas for this Sunday. It contains not one but two magnificent, eloquent arias. The first, ‘Ach, schläfrige Seele, wie?’ (‘Ah, somnolent soul’) is a slow, siciliano movement in E minor for alto, partnered by an oboe d’amore. Robin Tyson’s expressive singing – and the equally expressive playing by his instrumental partner – compels attention throughout the ten-minute span of the aria. If anything, the soprano aria, ‘Bete aber auch dabei’ (‘Pray then, even as you wake’), is even finer. Here the singer is part of a trio, the other participants being a solo flute and a piccolo cello. Gardiner is lavish in his praise of the present performance, and no wonder. Both of the instrumentalists are superb, while the way in which Joanne Lunn sustains Bach’s long lines is spellbinding. This is a performance that confirms her stature as one of the finest soloists to be heard in this whole series. Alfred Dürr opines that “among Bach’s arias, this movement…exercises an exceptional fascination on the listener.” That’s certainly the case with this rapt account of it.
BWV 60 is for the following Sunday and it’s largely a dialogue between Fear (the alto soloist) and Hope (the tenor). The first movement is an arresting duet for the singers, strongly scored by Bach and punchily delivered by the English Baroque Soloists. The alto, reinforced by a horn player, delivers the chorale melody and when the tenor joins the musical argument the two voices intertwine thrillingly. Later in the cantata the bass soloist takes the part of Vox Christi in a duet with Fear in which his calming arioso passages always start with the words ‘Selig sind die Toten’. Peter Harvey is magnificent here, striking just the right tone of dignified reassurance. The final chorale features some daring, whole tone harmonies. This was the music that exerted such a powerful fascination on Alban Berg when he was writing his Violin Concerto (1935).
The following weekend brought the Pilgrims to Winchester for their final concert in England. In BWV 139 tenor William Kendall produces some forthright singing in the aria, ‘Gott ist mein Freund; was hilft das Toben’, in which he’s accompanied by a busy pair of obbligato violins. In the bass aria that we hear a little further on Peter Harvey is firm of tone in his striking projection of the music but the piece also contains some lighter stretches in which he’s equally successful. He has been my favourite among the bass soloists throughout the entire project and this excellent piece of singing is a very good example of him at his best.
Moving on to BWV 163, the aria with which the cantata opens gives William Kendall a good opportunity to demonstrate the lyrical side of his voice in music that contrasts with the aria allotted to him in the previous cantata. Susan Hamilton, a member of The Monteverdi Choir, and the Welsh alto, Hilary Summers, join in two successive duet movements, an arioso followed by an aria. I don’t believe that either singer has appeared as a soloist before in this series. Miss Summers has quite a rich-toned voice, more contralto than mezzo, I’d say. They’re effective here though I don’t think either makes quite as positive an impression as some of the other sopranos and altos we’ve encountered in earlier volumes.
The opening sinfonia to BWV 52 is an early version of the music that became the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No 1, complete with a pair of exuberant hunting horns, which make a splendid sound here. The rest of the cantata, apart from the concluding chorale, is for solo soprano. On this occasion the soloist is the excellent Gillian Keith. She sings with burning intensity in her opening recitativo, grabbing the listener’s attention with her very first phrase and never letting go thereafter. The piece contains two arias. The first is a dramatic piece, carrying on from the recitativo, while the second, in which the singer is joined by a trio of oboes, is more relaxed. Miss Keith gives a convincing account of both arias and I particularly enjoyed the second one.
With BWV 140, which is actually for the Twenty-seventh Sunday after Trinity, when Advent is fast approaching, we encounter one of Bach’s most celebrated cantatas. Gardiner has recorded this piece before, a studio recording made for DG Archiv back in 1990. That’s a good reading of the cantata but, on balance, I prefer this newer version. I like the purposeful tempo that Gardiner adopts for the opening chorus, which is just a smidgeon more sprightly than in the 1990 version. The Monteverdi Choir of 2000, whose singing has been excellent throughout both of these discs, excel here, conveying just the mood of eager anticipation that the music and the text require. Gardiner is daring in the way he uses dynamics – he did the same thing in 1990 but the effect is even stronger here. One example that really made me sit up was at the words ‘Mitternacht heisst diese Stunde’, where he takes the volume right down before getting his singers to make a thrilling crescendo during the next line, ‘Sie rufen uns mit hellem Munde’. A little later, when what he terms the “funky” alleluias start, the altos lead off almost cheekily. In the fugal writing that follows the singing has bite and commitment – and great clarity. I can’t recall hearing a more exciting account of this well-known movement. The cantata contains two duets between soprano and bass. In the first of these Susan Hamilton’s singing seems to me to be somewhat plain in expression, suffering somewhat by comparison with Peter Harvey’s much more characterful delivery. She’s better in the second, delicious duet; I think the lively, eager-eyed music suits her light voice better. The pert oboe obbligato is deftly played - by Susanne Regel, I assume. A fervent account of the famous final chorale sets the seal on an excellent performance of this cantata.
This penultimate volume in Gardiner’s cantata cycle offers eight fine examples of Bach’s church music. The quality of the music is consistently high and so too is the standard of the performances, with the expert and committed singing and playing we’ve come to expect – but not take for granted, I hope – as this series has evolved. As usual the recorded sound is very good and Sir John’s notes are as perceptive as ever, inviting and drawing the listener into Bach’s musical world. For all who have been collecting this series this latest addition is another mandatory purchase.
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage Themed Page
The penultimate volume is another mandatory purchase for all those who have been collecting this series.