It was in November 2010 that I reviewed
the twenty-seventh and, as I thought, last instalment of SDG’s epic Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series. Now, over two years later here is a very welcome addition to the series in the form of a release that, it might be said, nearly got away.
I seem to recall reading somewhere that these cantatas were performed in Salisbury Cathedral during the Pilgrimage in 2000 but that, unfortunately, external traffic noise intruded to such an extent that it was not felt that the recordings could be issued. Now, belatedly, and thanks to the generosity of a number of individual sponsors, it has been possible to issue recordings of live performances given at a concert in St. Giles’ Cripplegate, in May 2012; some additional sessions took place over the following two days, presumably for patching purposes. Happily, the release of this disc neatly coincides with Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s 70th
birthday in April.
A second performance of three of the cantatas a few nights later was reviewed
for MusicWeb International Seen and Heard by Geoff Diggines. On that occasion BWV 37 was omitted.
Gardiner has recorded these cantatas before, under studio conditions. All four appeared on a DG Archiv disc (463 583-2) in 2000. In fact three of the cantatas had been recorded as far back as October 1993 and BWV 128 was set down in April 1999. I noted with some interest that this time round Gardiner has opted for a female alto whereas the previous release featured Michael Chance and Robin Blaze. It brought me up with a start to realise that 12 years separates the performances on this new disc from the Cantata Pilgrimage itself and only one of the present solo team, Dietrich Henschel, featured on Gardiner’s 2000 roster of soloists.
gets things off to an excellent start. After a deceptively gentle first few bars, Bach launches into a magnificent, celebratory opening chorus with the trumpets ringing. Recently, I have been reviewing for MusicWeb International some recordings of sacred music by Bach’s distant cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach. Consequently, I was particularly interested to read in Sir John’s notes that it is thought that Bach modelled this cantata on the work of his cousin, several of whose cantatas he had performed earlier that very year, 1726. BWV 43 includes an attractive soprano aria, ‘Mein Jesus hat nunmehr’ and this introduces us to the Dutch soprano, Leneke Ruiten. I don’t believe I’ve heard her before. She sings the aria intelligently and stylishly, though I thought her tone sounded a little bit narrow. No reservations about Andrew Tortise, who does very well in the athletic aria ‘Ja tausend mal tausend begleiten den Wagen’: the clarity of his articulation is a great asset here. Clear articulation is also required of the bass in his extremely vigorous recitativo, ‘Es kommt der Heiden Held’ and Dietrich Henschel makes a good showing, as he does in the ensuing aria, with its fine trumpet obbligato. The voice of American alto, Meg Bragle was new to me. She seems to be a stylish singer but, subjectively, I wasn’t entirely convinced by her timbre. The voice seems to harden sometimes, especially in this aria on sustained notes that require the ‘ah’ vowel. However, this is a matter of taste and other listeners may not react in the same way.
In the libretto of BWV 37
we find no reference to the Ascension itself. Instead, as Alfred Dürr points out, the text picks up the second theme of the day’s Gospel, namely the duty on Christ’s followers to spread the Word; so faith and justification by faith is the nub of the text. The highlight is a graceful tenor aria, ‘Der Glaube ist das Pfand der Liebe’ (‘Belief is the pledge of love’). The violin obbligato part has been lost and what we hear is a reconstruction by the leader of the English Baroque Soloists, Kati Debretzeni, which seems to me to be not only elegant but also entirely idiomatic and successful. Andrew Tortise sings the aria very well even if he does not, perhaps, match the mellifluousness of Anthony Rolfe Johnson in Gardiner’s earlier recording. In the soprano-alto duet I hear, once again, some hardness in the alto’s tone. Dietrich Henschel is a firm, authoritative presence in the sturdy bass aria.
In BWV 128
Bach includes parts for two high horns in the opening and closing movements. These instruments add a festive flavour, especially in the first chorus, and if there’s an occasional hint of fallibility in the intonation I don’t honestly think it matters. There’s a jubilant bass aria, ‘Auf, auf, mit hellem Schal’, which is well done by Henschel. I must draw particular attention to the flamboyant trumpet obbligato, which is superbly played - by Neil Brough, I presume – the trumpeter displaying phenomenal breath control and technical dexterity. The other noteworthy movement is a graceful, dance-like duet for alto and tenor which Alfred Dürr describes as having a “decidedly reticent, intimate character.” I enjoyed the present performance very much. Incidentally, I learned from Dürr that the ritornello from this movement furnished the theme for Max Reger’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Johann Sebastian Bach, Op. 81 for piano.
, the ‘Ascension Oratorio’, is the best known work here, celebrated not least for the joyously celebratory choruses with which it opens and closes. Gardiner aptly describes these movements as “full of rhythmic swagger, a jazz-like nonchalance, plenty of stratospheric glitter for the high trumpets and vocal acrobatics for the choir.” The superb opening chorus draws singing and playing of particular verve from Gardiner’s forces; I was definitely put in mind of the antiphon, ‘God goes up with shouts of joy.’ Once more, I’m afraid, such reservations as I have concern the female soloists. Meg Bragle offers controlled and contained singing in the aria, ‘Ach, bleibe doch, mein liebstes Leben’. Technically it’s perfectly satisfactory but I found the performance somewhat dull. When I put on Gardiner’s previous recording I found in the singing of Michael Chance what seems to be missing in this new version. Chance is more expressive and I also found his timbre more consistently pleasing. When we get to the rapturous soprano aria, ‘Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke’ my comparisons again came down in favour of the earlier account where Nancy Argenta conveys more of a sense of gentle ecstasy than does Leneke Ruiten and I prefer the sound of Miss Argenta’s voice. Andrew Tortise’s work in the recitative sections is excellent. As for the choral contributions, some may feel that the highly expressive treatment of the central chorale is too
sculpted, especially in respect of the dynamics, though I was convinced. However, I can’t believe that any listener would not be swept up in the headlong paean of rejoicing in Gardiner’s exultant, ringing performance of the closing movement.
As ever with the Soli Deo Gloria label, production values are high. The disc is packaged in the same way as the previous volumes and includes the usual erudite, enthusiastic and highly readable essay by Sir John – though it’s not quite the same as reading his contemporaneous comments from the Pilgrimage itself, which enlivened previous volumes. The sound is excellent. The standard of choral singing and orchestral playing is as high as always and though I have some reservations about the solo team these are largely subjective and not all will share them. In any event, if you’ve been collecting the previous volumes in the series then you need
this excellent newcomer, which is a very welcome addition to the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series. Those sponsors who, prompted by Alexander Armstrong, have made this issue possible have done Bach collectors a signal service; the wait to plug this enforced gap in the series has been long but the results are very worthwhile. I just hope that one day SDG will be able to release the other live recordings from the Pilgrimage, which DG Archiv issued, because it would be great to have the full cycle of cantatas complete on SDG and given their handsome treatment.
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage themed page