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Stay, ye angels
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata No.19 Es erhub sich ein Streit, BWV19 (St Michael, September 1726) [19:57]
Cantata No.169 Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, BWV169 (Trinity XVIII, 20 October 1726) [23:04]
Cantata No.158 Der Friede sei mit dir, BWV158 (Easter Tuesday, after 1723) [11:11]
Cantata No.149 Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg, BWV149 (St Michael, September 1728/9) [18:57]
Lenneke Ruiten (soprano), Anke Vondung (alto), Benedikt Kristjánsson (tenor), Peter Harvey (baritone), David Franke (historic Hildebrandt organ)
Gaechinger Cantorey/Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec. Stadtkirche Sankt Wenzel, Naumburg, September 2018. DDD.
Texts not included.
ACCENTUS MUSIC ACC30466 [73:47]

Two of the cantatas on this recording are for the feast of St Michael, known in English as Michaelmas. As commander of the angels, he drove out Lucifer from heaven in the battle (Streit) referred to at the opening of Cantata No.19 and achieved the victory (Sieg) in the title of No.149. These two cantatas, which give the CD its title, book-end No.169 for Trinity XVIII, which usually falls around the same time of year, and 158, the odd one out, for Easter Tuesday when the gospel refers to Jesus’ appearance to His disciples, wishing them ‘peace be unto you’ (Der Friede sei mit dir).

I ended my review of the Carus recording of Schütz’s Symphoniĉ Sacrĉ Book II, on which Hans-Christoph Rademann directs a distinguished team of singers and instrumentalists with the hope of hearing the same team in more of the music of Schütz’s distinguished contemporaries – review. This is not the fulfilment of that hope, but it does offer a chance to hear him with his Gaechinger Cantorey in the even more distinguished music of Bach. As he has already recorded the great b-minor Mass with the Cantorey, including one of the same soloists, very much to John Quinn’s satisfaction – review – I approached the new recording of these four cantatas with high expectations.

Rademann has also recorded two Bach cantatas and one of his short Lutheran Masses with the Gaechinger Cantorey on Carus.

This recording, which we seem not to have reviewed, was made soon after the formation of the Gaechinger Cantorey, the revised, antique spelling1 signalling the change to period instruments to mark Rademann’s taking over the mantle of Helmut Rilling. Though the theme on Carus is Bach as a reformation preacher, the music and the performances are far from dry. The congregation needed this music in the middle of the lengthy Sunday morning service of Matins, litany, hour-long sermon and Mass, the Hauptgottesdienst, which was enlivened still further on high days and holidays by having the opening Kyrie and Gloria of the Mass set to music; Latin was retained on such days, as in the Magnificat at Vespers. If the good burghers of Leipzig had anything as good as this, which I doubt, they would have been lucky indeed.

Moving to the new Accentus recording, let me, as usual, get the complaints in first. I’ve not the foggiest idea what the cover is all about – in fact that’s the right word because it seems to be a very foggy day at an airport.

More seriously, it’s rather fatuous to include three pages of facsimiles of Bach’s autograph score and not give us the texts. Nor do two photographs of the organ substitute for the specification or even a general description of what is vaguely referred to as a ‘historic’ instrument2. It is, in fact, a distinctively voiced Silbermann-type organ by one of his pupils, with a large number and a varied range of stops. Bach seems to have had a hand in its design and he and Silbermann examined and approved Hildebrandt’s work upon completion, in 1746.

The organ plays an important part in BWV169, where the opening Sinfonia is almost an 8-minute organ concerto; it’s one of the movements employed for the recent construction of a set of organ concertos which Bach could have composed – though there’s no suggestion that he actually did (Ramée RAM1804 – Spring 2019/1). That recording, from Bart Jacobs and Les Muffatti employs the organ at Bornem, built in 2013 to be similar to one which JSB probably knew. With its sound restored since 2000 to sound as close as possible to that of 1746, the Naumburg organ has an even better claim to be a true Bach instrument. The specification can be seen online here.

That album of putative organ concertos apart, Cantata No.169 featured in the same edition of Second Thoughts and Short Reviews in a performance from Le Banquet Céleste and Damien Guillon (Alpha ALPHA448, with Cantata No.82 and organ music). A cantata with a prominent alto part, it has some distinguished recordings to its credit, including the Warner Teldec directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the first recordings to attempt authenticity, with Paul Esswood, counter-tenor, now available as a super-budget download or in a 60-CD box set. There’s also Janet Baker with Yehudi Menuhin (Warner 2-CD set, download only, or 20-CD set), John Eliot Gardiner and his team on their own SDG label and, for bargain lovers, James Bowman (counter-tenor) with The King’s Consort and Robert King (Hyperion Helios CDH55312, with Cantatas Nos. 54 and 170, £5 on CD or lossless download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk review).

If you prefer a counter-tenor soloist, indeed, no allowance need be made for the very inexpensive price of the Hyperion, especially as James O’Donnell also gives a convincing account of the opening Sinfonia, albeit at a slightly slower tempo than usual. The Wadham College Willis organ may not have the authenticity of the Naumburg, but, with carefully chosen registration – not specified by Bach – it makes a convincing sound.

The Naumburg organ, however, is even better, especially with David Franke and Hans-Christoph Rademann pushing the pace a little more to produce a truly dancing account of this movement. Even the staid Leipzig congregation could surely not have sat still. Le Banquet Céleste on Alpha, with Maude Gratton at the organ, are a little faster still and produce a slightly brighter sound; I liked their performance very much, but they didn’t get my feet dancing quite as much – I found myself more wanting to wave the conductor’s baton.

Where the team on Alpha score, however, is with those who believe that the chorus should consist of the soloists only, with Guillon himself bright-toned in the alto arioso and arias. He offers a more amenable tone than Bowman on Hyperion and would, I imagine, be preferred by most listeners. Forced into a corner, my preference would be for a counter-tenor like Guillon, but Anke Vondung makes a good case on the new Accentus for a mezzo in the alto solos; she exhibits none of the plumminess that sometimes comes with the deal and Rademann keeps up some lively tempos, a little faster than Guillon in the main, compensating for his rather larger forces – two violins on Alpha, seven on Accentus, but the latter sounds far less thick in tone than might be expected, with the important organ part and the solo voice able to shine through.

Vondung resists the temptation to make too much of the aria Stirb in mir, which not all mezzos do. Bernarda Fink makes something of a meal of this, though the light accompaniment from Freiburg Barock makes the aria sound more palatable (mid-price Harmonia Mundi Gold HMG502016, with Cantatas Nos. 35 and 170). In the closing chorale, I appreciated the presence on Accentus of more than the four singers on Alpha.

There are fewer recordings of BWV19, a cantata describing the fight of St Michael with the dragon. The obvious comparison would be John Eliot Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists on SDG124, Volume 7 of their Pilgrimage – Recording of the Month – which also includes two other Michaelmas cantatas, No.149 as on Accentus, and No.130, plus cantatas Nos. 25, 78 and 17, for Trinity XIV. In No.19 it’s the tenor who has the major solo, in Bleibt Ihr Engel, the aria which gives us the English title of the whole Accentus album, and Benedikt Kristjánsson does a pretty good job, as he does on the earlier Carus recording. Once again, the larger forces in the closing chorale didn’t prevent the organ coming through loud and clear.

On SDG, however, BWV19 receives a knockout performance, with all concerned on top form. Gardiner pushes us through the opening strife in heaven and the recitative celebrating the laying low of the dragon. Peter Harvey is the very fine bass soloist in that recit on both recordings, with both Malin Hartelius (SDG) and (Accentus) making a very good fist of Gott schickt uns Manahaim zu, but James Gilchrist really goes town in Bleibt Ihr Engel, with the music given a smidgeon more time to breathe than on Accentus.

If BWV19 on SDG is outstanding, the other two Michaelmas cantatas also receive very fine performances. The 2-CD set sells for around £17, but it’s currently on offer from Presto for £14.23 and it can be downloaded in lossless sound, with pdf booklet containing texts and translations and Gardiner’s valuable notes, from Hyperion for £15.99, which is the form in which I have listened to it. With the new Accentus CD selling for around £13, if it’s the Michaelmas cantatas that you want, the SDG is a better buy.

All four soloists get a look-in in BWV149. Here again both teams capture the essence of the work, in this case the music is rather more celebratory than BWV19. Gardiner’s tempi are a shade faster than Rademann’s, but there’s very little in it, except in the final chorale where the rather more deliberate tempo on SDG pays dividends. The duet of alto and tenor in Seid wachsam comes off especially well between Gilchrist and Richard Wyn Roberts, whose counter-tenor contribution in the alto solos is an additional recommendation for the SDG recording. It’s a pity, for once, that we don’t get the applause; according to the notes, a later concert offering the same cantatas brought the house down, hardly surprisingly.

The two soloists in Seid wachsam on Accentus benefit from a more forward recording balance. Those who must have a mezzo as the alto soloist will be especially well served. On the other hand, Lenneke Ruiten makes rather heavy weather of Gottes Engel weichen nie by comparison with Marin Hartelius’s assured soprano solo on SDG.

BWV158 is the odd one out on the new Accentus recording, a cantata for Easter week, so months removed from the other works on this CD. A recording from a distinguished small ensemble of the cantata as it might have been performed domestically in a scaled-down version may seem eccentric and, in fact, I passed by this recording when it appeared two years ago because I thought it seemed a bit whacky: on Bach Privat Georg Nigl (baritone), Anna Lucia Richter (soprano), Petra Müllejans (violin), Roel Dieltiens (cello) and Andreas Staier (harpsichord) offer Cantata No.158 in the company of excerpts from other cantatas and the Schemelli Songbook together with instrumental music from the Notenbüchlein (ALPHA241).

Surprisingly, when I did investigate that album only the closing chorale sounds odd with two singers and two instrumentalists standing in for the congregation; the rest works well, but this would be an off-centre recommendation, mainly for those who know their Bach well enough to experiment around the edges. Fairly or unfairly, it’s to Volume 23 of the SDG series that I looked for my main comparison, where BWV158 is coupled with cantatas for the first and second Sundays after Easter, as recorded in the Bach family homeland, in Arnstadt, and later in Echternach. (SDG131, 2-CDs, with Nos. 42, 67, 85, 104, 112 and 150 – review). My copy was in mp3 at a low bit-rate, so I downloaded it in very good lossless sound, with pdf booklet, from Hyperion. It’s actually slightly less expensive than the other volume, at £14.99.

Stephen Varcoe on SDG more or less writes the book on how to sing the bass part here and it goes almost without saying that he receives the finest support all round. At 8:16, the central Welt ade, ich bin dein müde receives a very measured performance. As this aria seems to have originated as voiced by Simeon in a Candlemas cantata, the old man whose life’s purposes ended with the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the world-weary tempo is very appropriate, but the sprightly rendition of the Eastertide chorale Er is das rechte Osterlamm rounds off this cantata beautifully.

It would be hard to fault Peter Harvey’s singing on Accentus – he was, after all, one of the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage soloists – and the springy rhythm of this performance is of a piece with Rademann’s general tendency to make the music bounce, but, given the Candlemas association, acknowledged in the notes in the Accentus booklet, the SDG treatment seems to me more appropriate. A check with two other generally highly rated recordings reveals a preference for a fast tempo: Thomas Quasthoff and Rainer Kußmaul take an even faster tempo (DG 4775326, download only – Recording of the Month), while Peter Kooy and Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi HMA191365, budget-price, with Nos. 56 and 82) adopt a similar tempo to Harvey and Rademann, but my money is still on Varcoe and Gardiner.

There are so many more fine recordings of this music out there than when Karl Richter began his series for DG, eventually completing 75 cantatas, now available on two blu-ray discs (4835037, around £52)3 and in smaller chunks as downloads. I still turn, however, to those recordings from a musician for whom the Lutheran context of the music was part of his inheritance. BWV158 comes as part of a 4 and a half-hour collection of cantatas for Easter. Too lazy to scrabble in the cupboard for the box set, I listened again via Naxos Music Library and wallowed in Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the solos. Surprisingly, F-D and Richter are as fast as any recording that I sampled in Welt ade – much faster than Varcoe and Gardiner – and the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra make the music dance along. Unless you can’t stand Dieskau – I know that at least one of my colleagues can’t, and he figures largely in the Richter series – you should seriously consider either the blu-rays or at least one of the downloads as an adjunct to modern recordings of Bach.

Let us now hear the end of the whole matter. Rademann and his team offer mostly attractive performances of these four cantatas and most prospective purchasers would be well pleased with the Accentus CD. The soprano occasionally disappoints and the lack of texts is a serious negative, the lack of details of the organ only slightly less so.

Good as the Accentus CD is, I much prefer the two Michaelmas cantatas, with a third work for that day and other cantatas for that period of the year, as performed on the 2-CD set from John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Pilgrimage. Cantata No.158 also comes in company with other works for Eastertide on another very enjoyable 2-CD set in that series. Indeed, writing this review has encouraged me to listen again to several of the other recordings in that superb cycle, all of which come at a reasonable price. They are even less expensive as downloads from hyperion-records.co.uk – and I haven’t even mentioned the other very fine cycle of Bach cantata recordings from Masaaki Suzuki and his Japan Bach Collegium on BIS, also available to download, many in 24-bit sound, as single albums or as attractively priced virtual boxes from eclassical.com. The two Alpha recordings which I have mentioned also merit serious consideration.

1 Strictly speaking, for really antique spelling, Gaechinger Cantorey.

2 There’s no organ spec in the booklet of the Alpha recording mentioned below, either, despite the fact that it contains several organ solos, but at least Alpha give us the texts and translations.

3 Snap them up if you want them: Universal’s blu-ray audio sets have a habit of disappearing, as in the case of the Solti Ring cycle.

Brian Wilson


 

 



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