Johann Sebastian Bach didn't leave that many solo cantatas. It seems that it largely depended on the availability of particularly skilled singers whether he turned to the form. It is telling that the two most famous cantatas for bass which are recorded here are from the annual cycle of 1726/27. This cycle also includes various other solo cantatas.
Ich habe genug is for the Feast of the Purification of Mary (Candlemas) on 2 February. Its core is the longing for death and eternal life of the believer, now that Jesus has come. This thought is also expressed in the Canticle of Simeon, in the liturgy of the Christian church known as the Nunc dimittis. Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen is for the 19th Sunday after Trinity. The Christian bears his cross until he is taken into the promised land.
It is impossible to put a date on the third cantata, Der Friede sei mit dir. No autograph has survived and it is not known for which time of the ecclesiastical year it was written. It has been suggested that it was originally not conceived in its present form and that a later hand has put together fragments from other cantatas by Bach. It is also possible that what we have today is only a fragment of a larger work.
Thomas E. Bauer is a versatile singer with a wide repertoire which ranges from the polyphony of the renaissance to contemporary music. In this recording he proves his skills as an interpreter of Bach's sacred music. He interprets with sensibility and seems well aware of the character of the various cantatas. Some of the recitatives he sings in a quite dramatic manner, for instance 'Mein Wandel auf der Welt' from the Kreuzstab cantata. The same goes for the recitative which opens Cantata 158. 'Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen' from Ich habe genug is beautifully sung; the tempo is on the fast side, but I didn't experience it as too fast. The text receives the attention it deserves and the rhythm is well exposed. In some recitatives I had wished more liberty in the treatment of the rhythm at the service of the text. Bauer also has a slight vibrato which is not very obtrusive but which I would have preferred to be absent. His low register is not as strong as would be ideal.
This recording includes some notable features. One of them is the playing of the basso continuo. In his liner-notes Christoph Spering writes that he is convinced that almost all Bach's vocal music should be played on a 16-foot base (with double bass or violone) unless he indicates the contrary. The organ continuo is not played here on a large organ, but is still quite strong in sound. Moreover, in most cases Spering has opted for a 'long recitative accompaniment'. This means that a bass chord is held until the harmony changes. In Cantata 56 the short accompaniment is practised. Spering believes that there are strong arguments in favour of the latter practice - which is most common today - but that the long accompaniment may also have been used. He thinks that even Bach didn’t hold with a single standard in this matter. The third issue is the performance of the appoggiaturas. The appoggiatura is a melodic ornament: usually a note one step above or below the 'main' note. The standard rule in the baroque period seems to have been that it should fall on the beat and take half the value of the main note. Here they are very short. I have no idea why Spering opted for a different interpretation; the issue is not mentioned in the liner-notes.
Lastly, the chorales are sung by a choir of twelve singers. Spering states that he doesn't share the view that Bach's sacred music was usually performed with one voice per part. The performances of the chorales are a bit disappointing: they are very slow and after every line a pause is taken. Too little attention is given to the text. The aria 'Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde' (BWV 158) is intertwined with a chorale scored for soprano. It is nicely sung by Elisa Rabanus whose voice blends perfectly with the oboe. This aria has a virtuosic obbligato part for the violin which is given a fine performance by Pauline Nobes.
This disc offers some interesting solutions to issues which are the subject of debate among scholars and interpreters. They have not exactly convinced me, but it is useful that someone is willing to put them into practice. The option of long recitative accompaniment is quite rare.
I have to confess that I don't particularly like Thomas Bauer's voice, but he certainly uses it to good effect and therefore I can appreciate his performances here. However, the competition is considerable, and it is unlikely that Bach lovers don't already have various recordings in their collections.
This disc is not unmissable but those who know Bauer and like his singing shouldn't hesitate.
Johan van Veen
Masterwork Index: Bach cantatas