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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata BWV11 ‘Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen’ (Ascension Oratorio) [29:12]
Cantata BWV37 ‘Wer da gläubet und getauft wird’ [15:03]
Cantata BWV34 'O ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe' [16:56]
Jasmin Hörner (soprano), Julien Freymuth (countertenor), Christian Rathgeber (tenor), Christian Wagner (bass), Gutenberg-Kammerchor, Neumeyer Consort/Felix Koch
rec. 2016, no venue given
RONDEAU ROP6154 [61:11]

The joyful, celebratory choruses that bookend the ‘Ascension Oratorio’ can’t fail to uplift and edify the listener. This was Bach’s final oratorio, composed in 1735, and the low BWV number is explained by the fact that it was originally listed in the old Bach Complete Edition of 1852 as a cantata. Only later was its status as an oratorio established. It’s very likely that Bach turned to Christian Friedrich Henrici, also known as Picander, for the libretto, since that gentleman had also done the honours for the Easter Oratorio ten years earlier. The oratorio draws on passages from the Gospels of Luke and Mark as well as The Acts of the Apostles. Cast in eleven movements, its festive character is firmly established from the start, in the opening chorus set in the bright key of D major.  Given the attractiveness of the score, I'm at a loss to explain its relative neglect.

My preferred version of the ‘Ascension Oratorio’, up until now, has been that of Gustav Leonhardt and the Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment (Philips 442119), recorded in 1993. I thought I’d do a head-to-head comparison of the two. What is immediately striking is that this latest version from Rondeau is recorded in a far more resonant acoustic. I like it, and it confers more immediacy and presence. Strangely, the venue isn’t given. Also, Koch injects more vitality and life into the opening and final choruses by adopting a more sprightly tempo. Generally, there isn’t a great deal in the timings of the other movements.  Both Leonhardt and Koch are blessed with excellent soloists, so I have no preference for either, though I would single out Christoph Prégardien in the earlier version as being particularly distinctive as far as warmth is concerned. The Gutenberg-Kammerchor are excellent in every way. They are well-rehearsed, ensemble is spot on and they respond instinctively to Koch’s inspirational lead.

Wer da gläubet und getauft wird  (He who trusteth and is baptised), BWV 37, was also composed for the feast of the Ascension. It was written in Leipzig and first performed on 18 May 1724.  One notable feature is its scoring for two oboes d’amore, strings, basso continuo, four vocal soloists (soprano, alto, tenor and bass) and a four-part choir, strikingly modest for a high feast day. It opens, similarly to BWV 11, with a rousing, celebratory chorus. Of the six short sections, the tenor aria ‘Der Glaube ist das Pfand der Liebe’ (‘Belief doth guarantee the love now...’) is the most substantial. Christian Rathgeber’s eloquently contoured rendition is exquisitely done, and the solo violin and basso accompaniment are discreetly balanced in the mix. In the choral ‘Herr Gott Vater, mein starker Held!' (Lord God, Father, my champion strong!) which follows, the soprano and alto blend superbly.

1740 witnessed the first performance of  O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe (O fire everlasting, O fountain of love), BWV 34, again composed in Leipzig, this time for Pentecost Sunday, and based on an earlier more extensive wedding cantata (BWV 34a). In common with the other two works, the cantata is blessed with an arresting and ear-catching opener. Centre- stage is the only aria, for alto. It tells of those “chosen spirits whom God his dwelling did elect”. It is sung to the accompaniment of two flutes and muted strings, and Julien Freymuth instils it with tenderness and impassioned fervour. The final chorus gives thanks for the peace of God in triumphant fashion.

This is music guaranteed to uplift, and I have nothing but praise for this wonderful production. It’s beautifully recorded and, needless to say, I’ll be returning to it often. German texts and translations are included.

Stephen Greenbank

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