Bach Cantatas Vol26 Gardiner SDG121

Déjà Review: this review was first published in July 2006 and the recording is still available.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Cantatas for Whit Sunday
Lisa Larsson (soprano); Nathalie Stutzmann (alto); Christoph Genz (tenor); Panajotis Iconomou (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 11 & 12 June 2000, Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford, UK
The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage – Volume 26
Soli Deo Gloria SDG121 [69:42 + 47:58]

It’s a measure of the importance of Whitsun in the Lutheran calendar that, like Christmas and Easter, the feast was celebrated over three days. This latest release in the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage series consists of two concerts given on consecutive days in the same venue, Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford, in Suffolk details. This noble church, much lauded by Simon Jenkins in his book, England’s Thousand Best Churches, is one of the so-called Wool Churches and is mainly late-Perpendicular in style.

Readers who have been following the reviews of this series to date will know that one of its many notable features is the booklet notes. These are taken from a journal that Sir John Eliot Gardiner compiled during the Pilgrimage. It seems to me that his notes for this present volume are the finest to date. He writes with particular eloquence about the feast of Pentecost and Bach’s music for the festival and he’s particularly adept on this occasion at pointing out resonances between the theology of the feast, Bach’s music and the venue for the concerts.

The first concert – and CD – consisted of cantatas for Whit Sunday itself. Proceedings get off to a joyous start with the exuberant, trumpet-led chorus that opens BWV 172. The rhythms bounce infectiously and the trumpets ring out festively. The first aria in this cantata is one of Bach’s puissant bass and trumpet arias, ‘Heiligste Dreieinigkeit’. This is authoritatively dispatched by the German-born Greek bass, Panajotis Iconomou, a singer that I can’t recall hearing before, though he was a finalist in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2001. After this Bach provides respite and refreshment in the form of the easeful tenor aria, ‘O Seelenparadies’ This suits the light, heady voice of Christoph Genz admirably. I also relished the sensuous performance of the duet for soprano and alto, ‘Komm, lass mich nicht länger warten.’ The cantata ends with two choral movements. First comes a chorale, which is enriched by a countermelody for the orchestral violins. Then we are treated to a most welcome reprise of the opening chorus, which rounds off a very fine cantata in a splendid performance

Next we hear the first of Bach’s cantatas entitled Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Worthalten, BWV 59. The origins of this piece, which dates from 1723 or 1724, are a little uncertain and Gardiner’s note is good on this point. I enjoyed the duet for soprano and bass with which it opens. The two trumpet parts that accompany the singers are surprisingly – and very effectively – restrained in tone. It’s somewhat unusual to find a chorale as the third movement. The bass aria that follows is a fine creation. It’s a lovely, lyrical inspiration in which a graceful vocal line is complemented by an equally suave violin obbligato. I admired the velvety tone that Panajotis Iconomou deploys here. The cantata lacks a closing chorale and it seems to me that Eliot Gardiner’s solution is a sensible one. He repeats the chorale that we heard earlier, but the choir now sings a different verse of the same hymn.

Bach revisited the text of Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten again in 1725. He re-worked some of the music from BWV 59 in this new cantata, BWV 74, and, apart from the opening movement, he set a different text. The opening movement of BWV 59 is transformed here into a four-part chorus. The music for BWV 59’s above-mentioned bass aria, ‘Die Welt mit allen Königreichen’, is now assigned to a soprano with an oboe da caccia obbligato. This re-worked aria, ‘Komm, komm, mein Herze steht dir offen’, is quite delightful and I share John Eliot Gardiner’s preference for this version of the music. The partnership of soprano and oboe da caccia has been encountered before, in BWV 1 (Volume 21), and I find it highly effective. Lisa Larsson is the accomplished soprano on this occasion. The dazzling tenor aria, ‘Kommt, eilet, stimmet Sait und Lieder’ is a real tour de force. Christoph Genz delivers this virtuoso piece superbly. As we shall see later, the mixture of lightness and steel in his voice is absolutely right for such music. The cantata also contains a hugely demanding aria for the alto soloist, ‘Nichts kann mich erretten’, which is distinguished in particular by the leaps that the singer is required to make from one extreme of his register to the other. It’s a dramatic piece and Derek Lee Ragin gives a graphic account of it. However, the timbre of his voice may not be to all tastes and I must admit a preference for Robin Blaze’s performance in Gardiner’s earlier account of this cantata, to which I shall come in a moment.

Finally we are given the superb cantata, O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe, BWV 34. This begins with one of the most exciting choruses in all of Bach. This large-scale, celebratory piece is adorned with silvery trumpets and makes a most splendid impression here. The music is like the rushing of the Pentecostal wind itself and it’s hard to imagine it done with greater fervour than in this exuberant performance. The Monteverdi Choir surpass themselves with singing that is light and effervescent yet which has the requisite weight too. It’s tremendously disciplined yet it still sounds spontaneous. I can see that some eyebrows might be raised at the strong accents in the central section of the chorus, but I love it. Gardiner says of this chorus: “In performance it generates colossal energy and elation” and that’s certainly the case here.

In the tenor aria that follows Christoph Genz’s singing reminded me of the splendid and sensitive work he did as the Evangelist in the performances of Christmas Oratorio with which the Pilgrimage began in December 1999. This is followed by the heavenly aria ‘Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen’. From his comments in the notes it’s clear that Nathalie Stutzmann’s performance made a deep impression on Sir John and I’m not surprised. She gives a serene account of the aria, which I find even more satisfying than Bernarda Fink’s fine performance in the earlier DG recording (see below.) The end of the cantata contains a stroke of genius, with the choir bursting in abruptly at the end of the bass recitativo. This is the prelude to “a typhoon of an orchestral finale” as Gardiner describes it, where choir and orchestra combine to bring what must have been a memorable concert to a jubilant end.

Collectors should note that Gardiner has recorded these four Whit Sunday cantatas, BWV 34, 59, 74 and 172 before. They were issued by DG in 2000 as one of the series of discs issued at the time the Pilgrimage was in progress (DG 463 584-2). The disc is still available, I believe, but it contains different performances, recorded under studio conditions in April 1999 and all the soloists on the DG disc are different, except for Christoph Genz. This earlier disc is by no means eclipsed by the newcomer. However, the SDG accounts seem to me to have that indefinable ‘edge’, which perhaps stems from the fact that they are live performances. I’ve highlighted above a couple of points where I have a preference for the newcomer. What clinches it for me, however, is the opening chorus of BWV 172. Here the new version has more life and buoyancy. The tempo is fractionally faster and the rhythms seem that tiny bit more urgently sprung. Though the 1999 performance is excellent, its successor is even more joyous: it’s a real winner.

The next day three more cantatas were given, all for Whit Monday. Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut, BWV 173 was a re-working of a 1717 cantata written while Bach was in Cöthen, to celebrate the birthday of Prince Leopold, his employer. In its adapted, liturgical format, as BWV 173, the cantata may well have been heard first in Leipzig in 1723 but Eliot Gardiner’s performance is of a further re-working of the score that Bach undertook in 1728. Christoph Genz’s combination of lightness of voice and steely ring, already noted in BWV 74, is again a source of pleasure in the gigue-like aria, ‘Ein geheiligtes Gemüte.’ The busy alto aria, ‘Gott will, o ihr Menschenkinder’ is not, perhaps, one of Bach’s most memorable inspirations. However, the following duet for soprano and bass is a delight. It’s something of a technical tour de force, as Bach moves through a succession of scoring, metres and keys. It’s very well done here.

Also hat Gott die Welt geliebet, BWV 68 is a work that, as Gardiner comments, “almost seems as if [it] were composed back-to-front” since it begins with what he terms a “lyrical and wistful” chorale and concludes with a much more dramatic chorus of the type that one might expect to find at the start of a cantata. However, as so often, Bach’s musical inspiration fits the text perfectly and the gentle, lilting rhythm of the opening movement serves to emphasise quiet joy that God sent his son to redeem the world. In this splendid performance both the singers and the instrumentalists are alive to every nuance of rhythm and dynamics. Both the second and fourth movements of the cantata were adapted by Bach from his ‘Hunt’ Cantata, BWV 208. The first of these movements is the celebrated soprano aria, ‘Mein gläubiges Herze’. Soloist Lisa Larsson conveys appropriately breathless joy. However, the extremely fleet tempo chosen by Gardiner may disconcert some listeners. This performance is a very different conception from, say, those by Edith Mathis (for Karl Richter) or the incomparable Agnes Giebel (for Fritz Werner) and it’s noteworthy that both of those performances last for over four minutes whereas Gardiner whips through the piece in 2:55. Miss Larsson’s singing isn’t anything like as full-toned as the other two ladies I’ve mentioned and, in fairness, I don’t think the tempo gives her the chance to be. The player of the obbligato violincello piccolo also sounds somewhat pressed. The other movement taken from the ‘Hunt’ Cantata is the bass aria. Bach gives his singer an accompaniment of no less than three gambolling oboes and a bassoon and I find the effect irresistible. The strong and energetic closing chorus is an exciting affair with a cornetto and three sackbuts doubling the choral parts.

The final cantata in what is a slightly short programme is Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174. The opening sinfonia is a memorable expansion of the first movement of the third Brandenburg Concerto. The expansion is to the scoring: Bach adds highly important parts for pairs of horns and oboes to the original string band and, in Gardiner’s memorable phrase unleashes a “living bombardment of instrumental sounds.” Even longer than the sinfonia is the alto aria from which the cantata takes its title. This is an outstanding aria and it’s sung radiantly and expressively by Nathalie Stutzmann. I had reservations about Gardiner’s pacing of ‘Mein gläubiges Herze’ but that’s not the case here. I feel he adopts an ideal tempo for this heavenly aria. It flows with a beautiful inevitability, with two intertwining oboes enhancing the vocal line. The concluding chorale uses the same music that Bach used for the final chorale of St. John Passion and it makes for a very satisfying conclusion to another fine disc.

As this series unfolds I have come to value increasingly the Sunday-by-Sunday presentation. Not only does this seem to me to afford the most logical way to order an intégrale of the cantatas, but also it allows one to appreciate the way in which Bach responded in different ways at different stages in his career to the same liturgical and scriptural themes. That, in itself, I am finding to be an enriching experience.

The Pilgrims’ sojourn in Long Melford was another highly successful artistic enterprise. This pair of discs has given me enormous pleasure. The very high standards of performance, presentation and recorded sound that were set in earlier releases has been maintained and I strongly recommend this latest addition to what is fast becoming a very important and distinguished cycle of the cantatas

John Quinn

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Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! BWV 172
Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten I, BWV 59
Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten II, BWV 74
O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe, BWV 34
Lisa Larsson (soprano); Nathalie Stutzmann; Derek Lee Ragin (altos); Christoph Genz (tenor); Panajotis Iconomou (bass)
The Monteverdi Choir/English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
Cantatas for Whit Monday
Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut, BWV 173
Also hat Gott die Welt geliebet, BWV 68
Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174