Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Cantatas for the complete liturgical year, Vol. 12
Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende, cantata for the 16th Sunday after Trinity (BWV 27) [14:53]
Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der wird erniedriget werden, cantata for the 17th Sunday after Trinity (BWV 47) [20:17]
Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz, cantata for the 15th Sunday after Trinity (BWV 138) [16:51]
Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn, cantata for the 18th Sunday after Trinity (BWV 96) [18:21]
Gerlinde Sämann (soprano), Petra Noskaiová (contralto), Christoph Genz (tenor), Jan Van der Crabben (bass); La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
rec. 21 - 22 September 2009, Academiezaal, Sint-Truiden, Belgium. DDD
Lyrics and translations included
ACCENT ACC 25312 [70:22]
This is the twelfth volume of a project called 'Cantatas for the complete liturgical year'. For this series Sigiswald Kuijken chooses one cantata for every Sunday and feast-day of the ecclesiastical year. This disc contains four cantatas, written for the 15th to the 18th Sundays after Trinity. They are performed in a different order on the disc, "for musical reasons", as Kuijken writes in the booklet. He doesn't explain what these musical reasons are. One of them could be that Cantata 47 ends with a stanza of the same hymn which builds the core of the next, BWV 138. In this review I follow the liturgical order, beginning with Cantata 138. 
Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz (BWV 138) is the earliest cantata here and dates from 1723. It was performed only months after Bach started his activities as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. The subject is connected to the gospel reading of the 15th Sunday after Trinity: St Matthew 6, vs 24-34. Here Jesus urges his disciples not to live in fear because of a lack in faith, but rather trust in God's direction of their lives. It is a chorale cantata: three of the original 14 stanzas are used. The opening chorus is rather unusual in that Bach creates a dialogue between the soloists - expressing the toils and tribulations of everyday life - and the stanzas of the hymn. Most recitatives end with a question which is then answered in lines from the hymn. The alto, for instance, sings: "Who, then, will stand by me in my grief?" The hymn then answers: "Your Father and your Lord God, who stands by you in all distress". This thought is then continued in the recitative for tenor: "If he does not help today, then he will nonetheless help me tomorrow". This recitative turns into the next aria without interruption. In this the bass expresses trust in God: "In God lies my confidence, my faith lets him rule".
The same procedure of a dialogue between soli and tutti returns in the opening section of Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende (BWV 27) which is for the 16th Sunday after Trinity and dates from 1726. The gospel reading of the day (St Luke 7, vs 11-17, about the raising of the young man from Nain) is the reason for general thoughts about life and death. One could consider this as a kind of memento mori. The first line of the hymn which opens the cantata, "Who knows how near is my end?", is answered by the soprano in a recitative: "Dear God alone knows". The tenor of the cantata is expressed in the recitative 'Mein Leben hat kein ander Ziel': "For all is well that ends well". It leads to a positive approach to death, as is expressed in the alto aria: "'Welcome', I will say when death comes to my bed". There are two obbligato instruments: an oboe da caccia and an organ. Kuijken suggests the organ could be a symbol of heavenly music and the oboe da caccia an instrument blown by an angel. In the last aria the bass says farewell to the world: "Good night, you worldly tumult!" The latter is evocatively depicted by the strings. The cantata closes with a wonderful five-part setting of the hymn 'Welt, ade! ich bin dein müde' by Johann Rosenmüller. It is the only time Bach uses material by someone else.
In many opening sections of his cantatas Bach displays his mastery of counterpoint and his ability to connect text and music. A brilliant example is certainly the opening of Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden (BWV 47), for the 17th Sunday after Trinity. It is dominated by the form of the fugue, but Bach also eloquently expresses the content of the text which is a quotation of the last verse of the gospel reading of that Sunday, St Luke 14, vs 1-11: "Whoever exalts himself shall be abased, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted". The opposition of arrogance and humility are expressed by ascending and descending figures, and through the antiphonal use of the two oboes versus the strings. The soprano aria 'Wer ein wahrer Christ will heißen' expresses this contrast in a different way. The opening motif of the violin in the A section is taken over by the basso continuo in the B section. "'Arrogance' is with which the servant (the bass accompaniment) undertakes the chief rôle!", Sigiswald Kuijken writes. The violin part is quite virtuosic, and was probably orginally written for an obbligato organ. According to the German Bach scholar Alfred Dürr this part was replaced by a violin in a revival of the cantata in the late 1730s.
Herr Christ, der einge Gottessohn (BWV 96) is another chorale cantata, written for the 18th Sunday after Trinity. It follows a more traditional pattern in that only the first and the last stanza of the hymn (Elisabeth Creutziger, 1524) are used unaltered, whereas the three stanzas in between are reworked in the form of recitatives and arias. The title refers to the gospel reading of that Sunday, St Matthew 22, vs 34-46. Here Jesus asks the Pharisees about the Messiah, pointing out that David has called him his Lord, whereas at the same time he is the son of David. The central thought is expressed in the alto recitative: "The great Son of God whom David already in spirit honoured as his Lord". Notable is the fact that the chorale melody is given to the alto, who is supported by a horn and two oboes to make the melody more clearly audible. The instrumental scoring is striking because of the participation of a flauto piccolo, a descant recorder in f" which plays quick figurations during the opening section. This lends it a pastoral character which can be explained by the fact that this chorale has traditionally often been associated with Epiphany, which is reflected by calling Jesus the "morning star". The highlight of this cantata is the tenor aria with transverse flute, 'Ach, ziehe die Seele mit Seilen der Liebe': "Ah, draw my soul with bands of love". The drawing is expressed by a motif of three adjacent notes, symbolising the leading role of Jesus in the life of the faithful. The bass aria 'Bald zur Rechten, bald zur Linken' expresses the inconstancy of human nature, moving to the right (ascending figures) and then to the left (descending figures), and begging for Jesus' guidance.
In reviews of previous discs in this series I have been critical about the performances of the soloists and the ensemble as a whole. On occasion I have found real expressive power wanting and a lack of depth. In general I am much more positive about this volume. The tutti sections are given excellent performances in which the blending of the voices is of great importance, making Bach's polyphonic web as transparent as possible. In the dialogues between soli and tutti in Cantatas 138 and 27 there is a complete coherence between soli and tutti which is one of the positive effects of the one-voice-per-part approach.
The solo parts are generally performed well. In particular Gerlinde Sämann has grown considerably during this project. Her performances have become much more expressive. The soprano aria with violin in Cantata 47 is one of the highlights of this disc, with beautiful playing by Sigiswald Kuijken. Another highlight is the tenor aria from Cantata 96, sung eloquently by Christoph Genz. He is even better in the recitatives in BWV 138 and 27; it seems this form suits him particularly well. Jan Van der Crabben also delivers good performances. It is just a shame that his German pronunciation is correct, but not really idiomatic. Petra Noskaiová sings allright, but I have always had some reservations because I find her interpretations rather bland. That hasn't changed: the alto aria in Cantata 27 is beautifully sung, but without real depth.
The booklet contains a very extended analysis of the cantatas by Sigiswald Kuijken, the reading of which I strongly endorse. I am not that happy with the English translations of the lyrics. In order to understand the connection between text and music a more literal translation would have been preferable. In my translations in this review I have made use of Alfred Dürr's book, The Cantatas of J.S. Bach (Oxford University Press, 2005).
Johan van Veen
This volume in Kuijken's cantata series shows considerable improvement in expression.