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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Vom Reiche Gottes
(compiled by Hans Grischkat)
Heike Heilmann (soprano); Franz Vitzthum (counter-tenor); Johannes Mayer (tenor); Falko Hönisch (bass); Maulbronner Kammerchor; Ensemble Il Capriccio/Jürgen Budday
rec. live, September 2013, Maulbronn Abbey
German texts included

This cantata, Vom Reiche Gottes (‘About the Kingdom of God’) is a compilation of individual movements, including recitatives, from various cantatas by Bach. On the rear of the jewel case the following description, rather imperfectly translated from the German, is supplied: “A great [i.e. large] cantata with arias, choruses and chants [i.e. chorales] from 18 Bach cantatas compiled by Hans Grischkat, performed according to the tradition of the time.”

The work was first performed in 1950, to coincide with the bicentenary of Bach’s death. In a note by the compiler, reproduced in the booklet, Hans Grischkat states that “ this new compilation the single parts had to be utilized note for note, completely true to [the] original without the slightest change, in original text lacking any reversification.” Earlier in that note Herr Grischkat says that his intention was to “..keep unique, significant parts of the Bach cantatas having – out of several reasons - never been performed and were therefore nearly unknown, from neglect…” In those days few of Bach’s cantatas were ever performed and complete recorded cycles lay quite some way in the future so his enterprise should be viewed against that background.

“Raiding” Bach’s music in this way is nothing new. Arguably Grischkat is following the example of Bach himself. He regularly recycled music from his compositions and the cantatas afford many examples of him borrowing from one work – often a secular cantata – to furnish a “new” cantata either for a specific occasion or, if he was pressed for time, for the next Sunday’s service. So at least we are hearing music that is authentically by Bach. It’s worth saying, however, that the libretti for Bach’s cantatas were specifically compiled to relate to the scripture readings that the congregation would be hearing on the Sunday or Feast Day in question. Whether it’s appropriate to wrench both the music and the words from their original theological context and transpose them into a new entity is a moot point but the intentions behind this compilation were clearly very sincere. Incidentally, in the booklet the source of each individual movement is identified.

This recording is drawn from two performances given in Maulbronn Abbey, a medieval Cistercian monastery in Baden-Württemburg, Germany. I understand that the monastery is a UNESCO world heritage site. The Abbey church clearly has quite a resonant acoustic and this has not been entirely tamed by the engineers. The Ensemble Il Capriccio plays on period instruments and for this performance it numbers 28 musicians plus an organist. The choir is quite substantial, numbering 44 singers (14/14/8/8). The trouble with this size of ensemble is that when the full forces are involved the sound of the choir in particular can be somewhat cloudy.

There’s an opening sinfonia (from Cantata 146) in which the organ has a prominent obbligato role. The performance is quite sprightly. There follows a chorus, from the same cantata, and I’m afraid this is much less impressive. The music is taken slowly and earnestly and, frankly, the choral sound is not sufficiently incisive. It lasts for 5:46 but to be honest it seems longer. This is not the most inspiring of starts. To be fair to the choir things improve quite a bit as the work unfolds – and they have quite a lot to do – but I never quite escaped the sense that the choral work was worthy but a trifle dull.

There are three principal soloists – the unfortunate tenor doesn’t get any solos at all; he’s involved only in two numbers late on in the work where a solo quartet and chorus are required. The three soloists that we do hear in solos all sing well. Counter-tenor Franz Vitzthum produces a light and forward sound which is well suited to Bach. The soprano, Heike Heilmann also sings nicely. The pick of the soloists is the bass, Falko Hönisch. His tone is pleasing and the voice is evenly and clearly produced.

Once we’re past that rather stodgy first chorus Jürgen Budday directs the proceedings well enough though his conducting doesn’t have the life and conviction that one hears, for example, in their very different ways, from the likes of Gardiner or Suzuki. In particular this often seems to lack crispness and I don’t think that’s entirely a question of the acoustic, though that’s certainly a factor. To be honest, this performance, as a performance, didn’t move or excite me.

All told, this account is worthy but these days when we are fortunate enough to have so many excellent versions of Bach cantatas on CD this one doesn’t really compete.

The presentation isn’t as helpful as one would like. The German notes have been translated, not always idiomatically, into English but only the German texts are provided. The recorded sound, as I’ve indicated, has its drawbacks.

John Quinn