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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Great Choral Works
see end of review for details
Walter Berry, Peter Pears, Elly Ameling, Werner Hollweg, Yvonne Minton,
Helen Watts, Julia Hamari, Tom Krause, Marius Rintzler, Werner Krenn, Hermann Prey, Fritz Wunderlich; Wiener Singakademiechor; Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chor; Lübecker Kantorei; Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Karl Münchinger
rec. 1964-74 ADD
NEWTON CLASSICS 8802001 [9 CDs: 627:05]

Experience Classicsonline


The Dutch-based record company Newton Classics was founded in 2009. They specialise in exploring the vaults of the major record companies for renowned recordings that have not been available for a decade or so. The hope is that they will be able to build a catalogue of some 1500 titles; an incredible aim and the best of luck to them. 

I recall these Decca recordings being released as part of a 10 disc set titled Sacred Masterworks on Decca London 455 783-2 (c/w Easter Oratorio, BWV 249 and Magnificat in D, BWV 243). Münchinger and the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester use three different choirs. The Wiener Singakademiechor and the Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chor perform on two works each with the Lübecker Kantorei on a single score. There is some doubt that the Wiener Singakademiechor are the choir actually performing on the B minor Mass with the actual choir rumoured to have been formed specifically for the recording session. 

In 1945 Münchinger founded and began his long association with the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester with which his name become synonymous. Jointly they left a marvellous musical legacy in the performance of J.S. Bach recorded around the 1960s and 1970s revival of interest in early music. Münchinger choose not to pack the forces with weight of numbers. In this he bucked the tradition observed by conductors such as Giulini, Jochum and Klemperer. Without attempting to recreate the conditions of the time Münchinger provides a near period-informed approach in these pioneering accounts. For example Münchinger employs a chamber-scale orchestra of ten players in the St. John Passion and fourteen in the Mass in B minor using, I would guess, a mix of old and new instruments fitted with modern set-ups.
 
The set begins with the Bach’s famous Latin Mass in B minor,BWV 232, a masterwork from 1748/9. Composed for the Dresden Court Bach recycled in this work a considerable amount of earlier material. No one is sure why a Lutheran Cantor should have embraced the Roman Catholic Mass so enthusiastically. The work was never performed in Bach’s lifetime. It seems likely that the first complete performance was not given until around 1859 at Leipzig.
 
Münchinger recorded the B minor Mass with the Wiener Singakademiechor in 1970 at the Vienna Sofiensaal. In general I felt that the choral forces of the Wiener Singakademiechor were a touch too heavy for Münchinger’s light instrumentation. In the booklet notes we are not told which singers are performing each particular aria of the B minor Mass. Consequently it is not always easy to identify the female soloists.
 
In the opening duet Christe eleison the soprano soloists Elly Ameling and Yvonne Minton are beautifully matched and the effect is quite stunning. The renowned soprano aria Laudamus te commences with a violin obbligato of a rather uncertain quality and with inconstant use of vibrato. Yvonne Minton, a breathy soloist, is a touch wobbly at first before gaining in confidence. Domine Deus the glorious flute-accompanied duet between soprano Ameling and tenor Werner Krenn is exceptionally well performed. Highly impressive contralto Helen Watts in Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris - with the oboe d'amore obbligato - performs with a rich and dark timbre. The tessitura of the bass aria Quoniam tu solus sanctus tests the lower registers of sturdy and versatile Tom Krause, more of a resilient baritone than a bass. The persuasive and reverential Krause is much more successful in his later aria Et in Spiritum Sanctum with the oboe d'amore obbligato. In the duet Et in unum Dominum the voices of soprano Ameling and contralto Watts blend marvellously. In his aria Benedictus, with flute obbligato, tenor Krenn is warm and smooth respectfully delivering the text with great assurance. Robust, fluid, secure and splendidly pious the singing of Watts in the arias Qui sedes and Agnus Dei with violin obbligato are highlights. In the Agnus Dei I just adored the wonderfully played string accompaniment.

The church cantata Meine Seel erhebt den Herren (My soul magnifies the Lord), BWV 10 was completed in 1724 and uses a text from Luke’s Gospel. It is an impressive seven movement score with attractive arias for soprano and for bass with a duet for contralto and bass. Karl Münchinger using the Wiener Singakademiechor recorded the cantata in 1968 at the Ludwigsburg Church of Schloss in Stuttgart.  

Soprano Elly Ameling sings her aria Herr, der du stark und mächtig bist with a slightly jerky and breathless approach. The dark and threatening bass of Marius Rintzler in his aria Gewaltige stößt Gott vom Stuhl impresses greatly. The duet Er denket der Barmherzigkeit is delivered by Helen Watts and Werner Krenn with considerable assurance and appropriate veneration.
 
Bach’s obituary from 1750 claimed that he had written five passions. Only the St. John Passion (1724) and the St. Matthew Passion (1727) have survived in their entirety. From 1731 the St. Mark Passion, BWV 247 appears in a reconstructed version. The St. John Passion, BWV 245 was first performed in 1724 in the St. Nicholas Church. Bach uses texts from chapters 18 and 19 of the St. John Gospel. 

In 1974 Münchinger and the Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chor used the Ludwigsburg Church of Schloss in Stuttgart to make this recording of the St. John Passion. The main vocal parts are taken by tenor Dieter Ellenbeck in the role of the Evangelist. Bass Walter Berry takes the part of Christ.
 
Highlights include the contralto arias performed by Julia Hamari. From part 1 the aria Von den Stricken meiner Sünden and from part 2 the Es ist vollbracht! are so movingly sung by Hamari. Together with its glorious and weeping violin part. I especially enjoyed the bass arioso Betrachte, meine Seel sung so assuredly with rich and dark timbre contrasting with the agreeable lute accompaniment. Highly appealing is the aria Zerfließe, mein Herze sung by Ameling; such a bright and pious soprano. Also impressive is the tenor arioso Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt confidently sung by Werner Hollweg demonstrating a light, fluid and secure delivery. The closing chorale Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein is wonderfully performed by the Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chor and makes a splendid conclusion.
 
The St. Matthew Passion,BWV 244 was completed in 1727 and was given its first performance by Bach two years later at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. The texts by Picander are settings taken from chapters 26 and 27 of the St. Matthew Gospel.

Münchinger recorded the St. Matthew Passion in 1964 at the Ludwigsburg Church of Schloss in Stuttgart using the Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chor. Of the major roles the part of the Evangelist is taken by tenor Peter Pears and bass Hermann Prey takes the part of Christ.
 
I especially enjoyed the performance of the contralto arias Buß und Reu with the advantage of its lovely flute accompaniment and Erbarme dich, mein Gott with violin obbligato. Both arias are movingly sung by contralto Marga Höffgen who demonstrates a splendid technique with a richly coloured timbre. Sung with considerable feeling for the text by the bright and expressive voice of Elly Ameling the hauntingly moving soprano arias Blute nur, du liebes Herz! and Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben stay in the memory. Equally strong is the bass aria Gerne will ich mich bequemen sung with feeling and beautifully paced by Tom Krause. Tenor Fritz Wunderlich is smooth-toned and deeply reverential in his briskly taken ariaIch will bei meinem Jesu wachen.
 
Completed in 1734 the Christmas Oratorio,BWV 248 is a collation of material drawn from six cantatas. The recording was made by Münchinger with the Lübecker Kantorei in 1966 at the Ludwigsburg Church of Schloss, Stuttgart. Tenor Peter Pears takes the part of the Evangelist.
 
Famously known as the ‘cradle song’ the extended alto aria Schlafe, mein Liebster is marvellously performed by Helen Watts who is a model of restraint and control. The tenor aria Nun mögt ihr stolzen is sung with impressive expression by Peter Pears. Of note is the Sinfonia that opens part 2 of the score known as the Pastorale or Shepherd’s music.
 
This reissue from Newton Classics includes a booklet with a concise and reasonably informative essay on the scores. I did notice that some of the track numbering is incorrect for CD3. Sadly the texts are not provided. However, they are available for download in PDF format from the Newton Classics website. This is another other example of a record label assuming that everyone has internet access. Once the texts are downloaded and printed off where do you store them? The texts could easily have been printed on the rear of the card disc sleeves.
 
My leading choices for recordings of these scores are the sparer forces found on versions that use authentic instruments and employ period-informed practice. Individually I am highly impressed by the Mass in B minor from Andrew Parrott directing the Taverner Consort and Players recorded at St. John’s, Smith Square, London 1984 on Virgin Veritas 0724356199828; the St. Matthew Passion from Paul McCreesh directing the Gabrieli Players recorded at Roskilde Cathedral 2002 on Archiv Produktion 474 200-2; the St. John Passion from Andrew Parrott directing the Taverner Consort and Players recorded at Abbey Road, London 1990 on Virgin Veritas 0724356201927 and the Christmas Oratorio from Harry Christophers directing The Sixteen and The Symphony of Harmony and Invention recorded London 1993 on Coro COR 16017. 
 
For performances on modern instruments my first choice in these complete sacred scores is undoubtedly the 10 disc box from Karl Richer and the Munich Bach Orchestra and Choir on Archiv Produktion 463 701-2 (c/w Magnificat, BVV 243). Recorded 1958-69 in the traditional Bach performance style of the day Karl Richter demonstrates he is a master Bach conductor providing an invigorating musical and often spiritual experience. On Archiv Produktion this superb Richter set should be an essential part of any Bach collection.
 
It is wonderful to have these splendid recordings back in the catalogue. The sound is of a consistently agreeable quality too. This set will disappoint very few and delight many.  

Michael Cookson

Footnote:
A recurrent problem has been in obtaining the compositional dates of Bach’s scores. Now author Julian Shuckburgh has solved the problem by providing a complete list of Bach compositions in chronological order in his recent and quite outstandingly readable Bach biography Harmony and Discord (Old Street Publishing Ltd, London 2009). Shuckburgh’s book together with Christoph Wolff’s comprehensive Bach study The Learned Musician (Oxford University Press, 2001) should serve the needs of the majority of Bach enthusiasts. 

Disc Details:

CD 1 and 2 [59:05 + 59:45]
Mass in B minor (BWV 232)
Elly Ameling, (soprano I)
Yvonne Minton (soprano II),
Helen Watts (contralto),
Werner Krenn (tenor),
Tom Krause (bass baritone),
Wiener Singakademiechor
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Karl Münchinger
rec. May 1970 Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria
 
CD 3 & 4 [77:18 + 75:07]
Meine Seel erhebt den Herren ( My soul magnifies the Lord ), BWV 10 (c.1724)
Elly Ameling (soprano),
Helen Watts (contralto),
Werner Krenn (tenor),
Marius Rintzler (bass)
Wiener Singakademiechor
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Karl Münchinger
rec. May 1968 Church of Schloss, Ludwigsburg, Stuttgart, Germany 

St. John Passion (BWV 254)
Dieter Ellenbeck, tenor (Evangelist)
Walter Berry, bass (Christ)
Elly Ameling, soprano
Julia Hamari, contralto
Werner Hollweg, tenor
Hermann Prey, baritone
Mariane Koehnlein-Goebel, contralto (maid)
Manfred Ackermann, tenor (Peter)
Wolfgang Isenhardt, tenor (Servant)
Allan Ahrans, bass (Pilate)
Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chor
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Karl Münchinger
rec. October 1974, Church of Schloss, Ludwigsburg, Stuttgart, Germany
 
CD 5, 6 and 7 [67:09 + 56:07 + 73:27]
St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244)
Peter Pears, tenor (Evangelist)
Hermann Prey, bass (Christ)
Elly Ameling, soprano (First maid, Pilate's wife)
Marga Höffgen, contralto (Second maid)
Fritz Wunderlich, tenor
Tom Krause, bass-baritone
Manfred Ackermann, tenor (Peter, High priest)
Allan Ahrans, bass (Pilate, Judas)
Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chor
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Karl Münchinger
rec. July 1964, Church of Schloss, Ludwigsburg, Stuttgart, Germany
 
CD 8 and 9 [79:53 + 79:14]
Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)
Peter Pears, tenor (Evangelist)
Elly Ameling, soprano (Angel)
Helen Watts, contralto
Tom Krause, bass-baritone (Herod)
Lübecker Kantorei
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester/Karl Münchinger
rec. September 1966, Church of Schloss, Ludwigsburg, Stuttgart, Germany 

 


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