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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV 35
Arias from St. Matthew Passion, St. John Passion,
Christmas Oratorio, Mass in B minor
Zvi Emanuel-Marial (countertenor)
Sebastian Breuninger (solo violin)
Michaela Kuntz (solo oboe/oboe d’amore)
Shalev Ad-El (direction/organ)
rec. August 2020 Christuskirche, Oberschöneweide, Berlin
No sung texts provided

In recent years, Hänssler Classic has produced a number of impressive recordings of both J.S. Bach and the extended Bach family and I am delighted to have encountered several of these.

Praiseworthy, too, is this new Hänssler release of alto arias titled ‘Revelation’. Countertenor Zvi Emanuel-Marial is performing Bach’s Cantata Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV 35 and also celebrated arias from four renowned sacred works, specifically, the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, the Christmas Oratorio and the famous B minor Mass. On this recording, conductor and keyboard player Shalev Ad-El directs from the organ an ensemble of thirteen strong highly respected instrumentalists such as Sebastian Breuninger, first concert master of the Gewandhausorchester and Michaela Kuntz, principal oboe with the Konzerthausorchester.

In 1723, Bach relocated from Köthen to Leipzig in 1723, when he was appointed as cantor to the Thomasschule. As Thomaskantor, he was obligated to produce sacred music for the four main Lutheran churches in the city – the Thomaskirche, the Nikolaikirche, the Neue Kirche and the Peterskirche. In the notes for this album, the author writes of the immutable church music traditions of the time in Leipzig. An interpretation derived from the word of Apostle Paul was that women were prohibited to sing high voice parts; that was the privilege of the men and boys of the Thomasschule. Should no one be available or sufficiently competent for the high parts in his cantatas and oratorios, Bach would engage professional male singers as ‘altos’ or ‘sopranos’. On this ‘Revelation’ album, countertenor Zvi Emanuel-Marial revives the traditions of Bach’s day by singing these alto arias taken from some of Bach’s finest sacred works.

These sacred choral masterworks are still highly esteemed after some three hundred years and could be said to epitomise the broad reach of this master composer. According to Lutheran ecclesiastical tradition which Bach would have certainly known, in sacred music the alto part is symbolic of the Holy Ghost. Of course, it is not new at all to use a countertenor for solo alto parts in cantatas. There are a number of J.S. Bach recordings that utilise countertenors, markedly René Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi), Robin Blaze (BIS), Michael Chance (Archiv Produktion, Virgin, Glossa), Andreas Scholl (Harmonia Mundi, Decca) and more recently Damien Guillon (BIS, Alpha).

Bach wrote over two hundred cantatas which are his most extensive category of works. It is probable that many more were written but are no longer extant. The single complete work contained here is the Church Cantata for solo alto Geist und Seele wird verwirret (Spirit and soul become confused), BWV 35. Written in 1726, Bach’s fourth year as cantor in Leipzig, this cantata is intended for the twelfth Sunday after Trinity. Optimistic in outlook, the Gospel text concerns Jesus healing a deaf-mute and the elation that follows this remarkable miracle. It is likely that Bach himself would have played the prominent obbligato organ part, which is both sparkling and zestful. Emanuel-Marial who has three alto arias with recitatives between, sings through the vocal challenges with enthusiasm, adeptly handling the plentiful coloratura passages despite some minor strain.

One of Bach’s most lauded works is the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244. It was most probably first performed on Good Friday 1727. From the Passion, Emanuel-Marial has chosen the magnificent aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott (Have mercy, my God) undoubtedly one of the most famous alto arias not just of the baroque era but of all time. Emanuel-Marial gives an engaging and committed performance of the text where Peter in the garden laments having denied knowing Jesus three times. No less a figure than Yehudi Menuhin described the aria’s plaintive solo violin obbligato as ‘the most beautiful piece of music ever written for the violin.’ This is accomplished playing of utmost sincerity by Sebastian Breuninger, who clearly relishes his glorious solo violin part.

Next comes the main alto aria from the St. John Passion, BWV 245, written in 1724 during Bach’s first year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig. Concerning the crucifixion as a divine transfiguration, the Passion was first given in 1724 in the Good Friday Vespers in St. Nicholas Church. Not entirely satisfied, Bach subsequently revised the score in 1725, 1732 and 1739-49. Attentive to the significance of the text, Emanuel-Marial performs Von den Stricken meiner Sünden (From the bonds of my sins), an aria enhanced by substantial, highly attractive and interweaving oboe lines played exquisitely by Michaela Kuntz.

The Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio), BWV 248 was written in 1734 for the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche. The Christmas Oratorio comprises of six individual church cantatas utilising ‘parodied’ movements from which Emanuel-Marial has chosen two alto arias, which he sings engagingly. From the first day of Christmas, is the aria Bereite dich, Zion (Prepare yourself, Zion) with Kuntz providing the ravishing oboe d’amore accompaniment throughout. Next, the aria Schließe, mein Herze (Enclose, my heart) for the third day of Christmas, its very attractive violin part played compellingly by Breuninger.

Widely regarded as the pinnacle of Bach’s creative career, the Mass in B minor, BWV 232 is his only setting of the complete Roman Catholic Latin text of the Ordinarium missae. Composed largely in 1748-49, it was conceived some twenty-five years earlier, with Bach drawing from and reworking several of his own works. Bach didn’t live to hear a complete performance of a work sometimes described as his magnum opus. The first of the two solo alto arias is Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris (Thou who sits at the right hand of the Father) with Emanuel-Marial conveying the necessary calm and deeply pious atmosphere, accompanied by the reedy tone of the oboe d’amore of Kuntz. Next is the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), notable for the writing for low unison strings, Emanuel-Marial is engagingly sombre whilst pleading to God for mercy.

Emanuel-Marial is an enthusiastic performer and sings this alto aria collection alertly with absolute sincerity. His voice is steady and clear and he takes the utmost care over the meaning of the sacred texts, communicating a satisfying level of reverence. I find his dedicated performance enjoyable, although I am left wanting additional finesse, extra tone colour and improved polish in the coloratura passages. 

In the digital era, these alto arias have been recorded by some of the finest countertenors, frequently in period-instrument performances, that I tend to prefer, but not exclusively. Indeed, the bar has been set remarkably high. For example, I recommend the 1997 recording of the Cantata Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV 35 that includes the marvellous singing of renowned countertenor Andreas Scholl with the Collegium Vocale directed by Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi. In the St. Matthew Passion, Andreas Scholl once again excels in the alto part with the same forces directed by Herreweghe recorded in 1998 on Harmonia Mundi. The account of the St. John Passion that I admire for its reverence and spirituality is the 2020 ‘The Köln Recording’ from the Bach Collegium Japan directed by Masaaki Suzuki with countertenor Damien Guillon on BIS.

Director Philippe Herreweghe from 1989 at Ghent is my selection in the festive Christmas Oratorio with Collegium Vocale Ghent with countertenor Michael Chance in the alto part on Erato Veritas. The Mass in B minor has been recorded many times. My primary recommendation is the gratifying and pious 2007 account with countertenor Robin Blaze as alto. Masaaki Suzuki directs the Bach Collegium Japan recorded at Kobe Shoin Women’s University Chapel on BIS.

Despite an absence of information in the liner notes, Sebastian Breuninger informs me the assembled players are using modern instruments, or period instruments with largely modern set-ups, so these are not strictly period-instrument performances, although there are some historically informed aspects to the playing. Shalev Ad-El’s direction from the organ is adept and the players demonstrate impressive ensemble, their instruments emitting an attractive tone. Excelling with his memorable contribution is leader Sebastian Breuninger using a Camillus Camilli (1737, Mantua) with a period bow by François Xavier Tourte (c. 1795 Paris). In addition, Michaela Kuntz stands out for her striking oboe and oboe d’amore playing.

‘Revelation’ was recorded in 2020 in the Christuskirche, Berlin-Oberschöneweide. The recording engineers have achieved satisfying sound, well balanced with pleasing clarity. The rather scanty booklet notes are a let-down, providing little about the works themselves and other relevant information and the lack of texts is a real disappointment is the lack of sung texts. Given the meagre duration of fifty-five minutes, another Leipzig Church Cantata for solo alto might have been included such as Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170 also scored with organ obbligato. The performances themselves are creditable yet there are compelling alternatives in the catalogue.

Michael Cookson

Sebastian Breuninger (solo violin), Alicia Marial (violin), Avigail Bushakevitz (violin), Cornelia Dill (violin), Marijn Seiffert (violin), Lir Vaginsky (violin), Guy Ben-Ziony (viola), Ernst-Martin Schmidt (viola), Viola Bayer (cello), Pablo Santa Cruz (double bass), Michaela Kuntz (solo oboe/oboe d’more), Mariluz Gimenez Cabanes (oboe / English horn), Peter Michel (oboe).

St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (1727)
1. Erbarme dich, mein Gott [6:22]
St. John Passion, BWV 245 (1724)
2. Von den Stricken meiner Sünden [4:23]
Weihnachts-Oratorium (Christmas Oratorio), BWV 248 (1734)
3. Bereite dich, Zion [5:30]
4. Schließe, mein Herze [5:13]
Mass in B minor, BWV 232 (1749)
5. Qui sedes ad dextram Patris [4:42]
6. Agnus Dei [4:08]
Church Cantata: Geist und Seele wird verwirret
(Spirit and soul become confused), BWV 35 (1726)
7. Sinfonia [5:47]
8. Geist und Seele wird verwirret (aria) [7:29]
9. Ich wundre mich (recitativo) [1:32]
10. Gott hat alles wohlgemacht (aria) [2:35]
11. Sinfonia [2:50)
12. Ach, starker Gott (recitativo) [1:17]
13. Ich wünsche nur bei Gott zu leben (aria) [3:02]

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