Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas - Vol. 44
Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen (BWV 146) [37:35]
Siehe, ich will viel Fischer aussenden (BWV 88) [17:23]
Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen (BWV 43) [19:47]
Rachel Nicholls (soprano), Robin Blaze (alto), Gerd Türk (tenor), Peter Kooy (bass)
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
rec. September 2008, Kobe Shoin Women's University Chapel, Japan DDD
BIS BIS-SACD-1791 [75:48]
Masaaki Suzuki takes his time in his project of recording all cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach. It started in 1995, and with this disc about three-quarters of Bach's sacred cantatas have been covered.
"Cantatas from Leipzig 1726", the reverse of the tray says. But that isn't quite correct as Cantata 146 could have been written some years later. Some scholars suggest 1727 or 1728 as the year of composition. It was written for Sunday Jubilate, the third Sunday after Easter. It is inspired by the reading of that Sunday, John 16, 16-23. Here Jesus announces his ascension, and says that his disciples shall be sorrowful, "but your sorrow shall be turned into joy". This contrast is worked out in the various recitatives and arias of the cantata. It begins with two movements which are arrangements of a lost violin concerto which is only known in a later arrangement for harpsichord and strings: the Concerto BWV 1052. The Sinfonia is for organ solo with two oboes, taille, strings and bc. The slow movement of the same concerto has turned into the chorus 'Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen' (We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God), a quotation from Acts 14, vs 22. The strong dissonances are an eloquent expression of the content of this phrase. The element of sorrow is then depicted by an accompanied recitative and an aria. The latter is in two sections, the second of which represents the change of mood: "And yet my heart's sorrow will grow into glory for me upon the day of the heavenly harvest". This accounts for this aria departing from dacapo structure as it wouldn't be logical to return to the sorrow of the first section. The instrumental scoring is remarkable with transverse flute and two oboi d'amore. The next recitative continues the thought of sorrow turning into joy, and this leads to a joyful duet for tenor and bass with the character of a passepied. The closing chorale has come down to us without a text. Several suggestions have been made. Here the proposal of the German scholar Martin Petzoldt has been followed: the opening stanza of 'Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele'. Textwise that seems convincing; musically less so: this chorale was originally set to another melody, and it seems to me that the accents in text and music don't quite match.
Only a couple of weeks later Ascension Day is celebrated. What is more logical than Cantata 146 being followed by Cantata 43, written for Ascension Day 1726? This was probably originally planned, as in the liner-notes this cantata is analysed immediately after Cantata 146. On the disc it comes third, which is quite odd. This cantata is in two sections, to be performed before and after the sermon. It begins with a dictum, a quotation from the Bible. It is from Psalm 47, traditionally considered a prefiguration of the ascension of Jesus, interpreted as his accession to the throne, at the right hand of his Father. With this his work as Saviour is completed, as is expressed by the soprano aria which closes the first section: "My Jesus has now completed his saviour's work". The structure of this cantata is notable: the opening chorus is followed by a recitative and aria for tenor and a recitative for soprano. Then follow six stanzas from a poem in form of recitatives and arias. Bach has used here a text from a collection of librettos by an anonymous author, published in Meiningen in 1704. Texts from this collection had also been used by Bach's cousin Johann Ludwig, who was Kapellmeister in Meiningen since 1706. During 1726 Bach copied and performed 18 of Johann Ludwig's cantatas. This source explains the absence of any dacapo arias: these were very uncommon around 1700.
The soprano recitative is another quotation from the Bible, here vs 19 from Mark 16: "So then, after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God". The ascension and its effects are then reflected upon from the viewpoint of the faithful. They end with an expression of the expectation of eternal life. The cantata closes with two stanzas from a chorale, and here Bach also turns to the past. It is a setting by Christoph Peter (1626-1689), who from 1655 until his death was Kantor in Guben. Bach made only minor alterations in this setting. Remarkable as far as the scoring is concerned is the bass aria 'Er ist's, der ganz allein', with trumpet and basso continuo. The natural trumpet - without fingerholes - was one of the most complicated instruments to play. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Bach indicated the violin as an alternative. Here we hear the trumpet, with finger-holes - a common practice these days, unfortunately.
The libretto of Cantata 88 is taken from the same source, and was also used by Johann Ludwig Bach. It was composed for the 5th Sunday after Trinity, and first performed on 21 July 1726. The text is closely related to the Gospel reading of that Sunday, Luke 5, vs 1-11. It is about the fishing expedition of Peter, who is then called by Jesus to become his disciple. He tells him: "Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men". The cantata is again in two sections, and begins with another quotation from the Old Testament: "Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and from every hill, and out of all the holes of the rocks". These verses refer to God collecting his people from the Babylonian exile which is compared here to Jesus catching the people who have turned away from him and are spiritually scattered. The opening movement is a forceful and penetrating depiction of the text. Bach has divided the biblical quotation in a fishing and a hunting scene for bass solo. In the first part the strings with added oboes represent the waves of the sea whereas in the second half the horns enter in a vivid representation of a hunt. Notable is the tenor aria which begins with the voice rather with an instrumental ritornello. This can be explained by the fact that the preceding recitative ends with a question: "Will he (...) abandon us to our enemies' cunning and rancour?' The aria immediately provides the answer: "No, no!" The second section begins with the verse from Luke 5 quoted above. It is followed by a lively duet for soprano and alto, and after a soprano recitative the cantata ends with a chorale.
The volumes of the ongoing series of recordings of Bach's cantatas by the Bach Collegium Japan are usually received with almost unanimous enthusiasm. And indeed they are impressive in various respects. Masaaki Suzuki can count on his singers in the solo parts. They are all excellent and have a good understanding of the style and the content of Bach's cantatas. They also participate in the tutti sections, bringing the total of 12. This small size and the transparency of sound guarantees that the text of the tutti is clearly understandable. The playing of the ensemble is impeccable and the obbligato parts are well executed.
That said, I don't join the chorus of staunch admirers of Suzuki's approach. It is just too smooth, too nice, too polished. I sorely miss the sharp edges. The texts of many cantatas contain passages which are not meant to go down that well with the audience. That doesn't come off sharply enough in Suzuki's performances. The pictorial elements in Bach's music are also not fully explored. The opening of the Cantata 88 is a good example: the depicting of the waves in the strings in the first section isn't eloquent enough, and the horns in the second part don't have enough presence. The impression of smoothness is also created by the too small dynamic accents. That is the case in the hunting scene from Cantata 88, but also in the opening Sinfonia from Cantata 146. This should have had stronger dynamic accents, and a better exposition of the rhythm. Some tempi should have been swifter, in particular the duet 'Wie will ich mich freuen' from the same cantata. On the whole Cantata 43 comes off best, although Gerd Türk's low notes are too weak in his aria 'Ja tausend mal tausend begleiten den Wagen'.
Even so, there is much to enjoy here. Most singers are well-known quantities and are regulars in Suzuki's recordings. Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk and Peter Kooy all bring fine performances of their solo parts. I can't remember whether I have heard Rachel Nicholls before, but certainly not in Bach. I am delighted to say that her contributions are very good. Her pronunciation and diction are immaculate, and she communicates the content of her recitatives and arias very well.
Admirers of the project of the Bach Collegium Japan will not be disappointed about this volume. They won't - and shouldn't - hesitate to purchase this disc. I suspect most of them already have. It seems unlikely that these performances will make sceptics change their mind, though.
Johan van Veen
Reviews of the Bach cantata project on BIS
Masterwork Index: Bach's cantatas
Admirers of Bach Collegium Japan's Bach cantata project will not hesitate to add this disc to their collection, but sceptics won't change their mind.