Bach JS The First Cantata Year, Vol. 1 Hänssler Classic

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) 
The First Cantata Year, Vol. 1

Cantatas from 1st to 4th Sunday after Trinity
Cantata BWV 75 ‘Die Elenden sollen essen’
Cantata BWV 76 ‘Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes’
Cantata BWV 21.3 ‘Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis’
Cantata BWV 185.2 ‘Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe’
Cantata BWV 24 ‘Ein ungefärbt Gemüte
Gaechinger Cantorey/Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec. live, May 2023, Liederhalle Beethovensaal, Stuttgart (75, 76); June 2023, Liederhalle Mozartsaal, Stuttgart (21.3, 185.2, 24)
German texts and English translations included
Hänssler Classic HC23025 [2 CDs: 131]

This is the first in a series of ten double CDs releases forming the year-long VISION.BACH project marking the 300th anniversary of Johann Sebastian Bach’s taking up the post of Thomaskantor in Leipzig in May 1723. The aim is to perform all 62 cantatas from Bach’s first year in Leipzig, in chronological order, and these are the first five. 

Bach was responsible for both teaching singing to the Thomasschule students and the performance of sacred music for the principal Leipzig churches. His duties specifically required cantatas to be sung during the liturgical year for the church services on Sundays and the Lutheran feast days outside the periods of Advent and Lent preceding Christmas and Easter respectively. The task of providing cantatas was one that Bach took on by writing them himself and over 200 of them survive. Of those, sixty or so were written in the years prior to arriving in Leipzig yet most were written in his early Leipzig years in annual cycles. Bach’s first Leipzig cantata Die Elenden sollen essen, BWV 75, was presented for the first Sunday after Trinity.

The Gaechinger Cantorey is the ensemble of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart and combines a choir with a baroque orchestra. It is performing twenty-three concerts from May 2023 to June 2024 in various churches and concert halls in the Stuttgart area. 

For these performances, director Hans-Christoph Rademann is using the most up to date Bach research from the 2022 catalogue of Bach’s works named BWV3. He employs up to four singers per voice, incorporating the soloists. Period instruments or period copies are used. Two notable replica instruments used by the orchestra, commissioned by the Bachakademie, are a 2016 copy of a chamber organ by Gottfried Silbermann unearthed in Seerhausen, Saxony and a 2021 copy of a Silbermann harpsichord.

The first CD comprises of two cantatas, both two-part works on a substantial scale. Bach set about his new Leipzig post with a renewed zeal. He marked the commencement of his first annual cycle of cantatas on the first Sunday after Trinity with the Cantata, BWV 75 Die Elenden sollen essen (The hungry shall be nourished). Concerning the parable of the wealthy man and Lazarus in penury, the message is that earthly possessions are of no benefit after death compared with those who have suffered and will receive their reward in heaven. The scoring is for four solo singers, a four-part choir (SATB) with trumpet, two oboes, oboe d’amore, strings and basso continuo. This is a rich score with admirable arias, one for each of the four voice types.

A dignified tenor aria Mein Jesus soll mein Alles sein! sung by Patrick Grahl praises the glory of God and has an especially glorious oboe accompaniment. Natasha Schnur sings the soprano aria Ich nehme mein Leiden mit Freuden auf mich a text concerning those who suffer on earth obtaining reward in heaven. Here the oboe d’amore assists in communicating a divine melancholy. Countertenor Alex Potter takes the alto part in Jesus macht mich geistlich reich singing with firm dedication as he relates how the reward of knowing Jesus is spiritual richness. Striking is Tobias Berndt’s performance of the bass aria Mein Herze glaubt und liebt, an expression of faith in the love of Jesus. Featuring here is a striking trumpet obbligato with strings.

Next is the Cantata, BWV 76 Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (The heavens are proclaiming the glory of God) written for the second Sunday after Trinity. In two parts, the text of the cantata concerns God’s invitation to mankind to follow his word. Bach wrote the score for a rich combination of four solo singers and four-part choir (SATB) with trumpet, two oboes, oboe d’amore, bassoon, strings and basso continuo. This is one of Bach’s finest cantatas which opens with a chorale fantasia and features a trumpet part. I especially enjoyed the sense of piety with which Natasha Schnur invests her gracious soprano aria Hört, ihr Völker, Gottes Stimme inviting people to respond to God’s calling. Accompanying the soprano is the solo violin weaving through her part. Singing with unwavering sincerity, Tobias Berndt excels in his bass recitative and aria Wer aber hört… Fahr hin, abgöttische Zunft! with trumpet and strings where Christians are instructed to shun idolatry and turn to God.

The second CD opens with the Cantata, BWV 21.3 Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (I had so much sorrow) a work that exists in three versions. The cantata probably originated in a shorter version during Bach’s time at Weimar for a funeral in 1713 and was then revived in Köthen c. 1720. For Bach’s first cantata series at Leipzig, Rademann is employing the third version having eleven movements in two parts for the second Sunday after Trinity. This is a much-loved work, admired by many, including Brahms. It was probably assembled by Salomon Franck from several psalms and bible extracts. The first part of the text concerns being consumed by grief or sorrow. Part Two concerns the joy of finding salvation in Jesus. Bach’s scoring is for three vocal soloists (STB) a four-part choir (SATB) and oboe, three trumpets, bassoon, strings, timpani and basso continuo. This may seem like a cantata that has been patched together yet that would be a disservice to the tightness of the structure and the many beauties in this outstanding score. 

My highlight of this cantata is undoubtedly, the soprano aria Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not… (Sighing, weeping, sorrow, distress…) accompanied by the melancholy strains of the oboe. The text, regarding those who are suffering, is sung with an uncommon sense of sincerity by Miriam Feuersinger. From Part Two, the impressive recitative and duet Komm, mein Jesu, und erquicke (Come, my Jesus, and restore) is accompanied by oboe and cello. The Soul (soprano) who is suffering asks Jesus (bass), who promises light and providence, for help. Here the contrasting voices of Feuersinger and Matthias Winckhler come together in relief of the distress to quite splendid effect.  

In six movements, Cantata BWV 24 Ein ungefärbt Gemüte (An unstained mind, or flawless conscience) is another of Bach’s shorter cantatas. Composed in Leipzig for the Fourth Sunday after Trinty, the cantata was first performed in 1723. At Leipzig in the same Sunday service this new cantata was used alongside a revision of an earlier cantata Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe, BWV 185.2. Based on a libretto by Erdmann Neumeister and additional scripture readings, the message of the text can be viewed as edifying or moralising depending on one’s point of view. Scored for three soloists (ATB) two obbligato oboes d’amore, strings and basso continuo.

The cantata opens with an affecting alto aria Ein ungefärbt Gemüte (An unstained mind, or flawless conscience) from which the cantata takes its name. In the alto-part countertenor Alex Potter clearly relishes the vibrant aria and its text where a pure conscience of faith and generosity of spirit are virtues praised by God. In the tenor aria Treu und Wahrheit sei der Grund Aller deiner Sinnen… (Faith and truth are the foundation of all one’s intentions…) Benedikt Kristjansson delivers the message of the text with charming warmth and a sense of piety.

Written in 1715 whilst serving as Konzertmeister at Weimar the cantata Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe(Merciful heart of love everlasting) BWV 185.2 is a setting of text by Salomo Franck and a Johann Agricola chorale. It was moderately revised for a revival at Leipzig in 1723 for the fourth Sunday after Trinity and performed at the same service as the newly written Cantata BWV 24 Ein ungefärbt Gemüte. Bach again revived Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe in 1746/47. The theme of the text concerns being merciful like Jesus and not passing judgment on others. In just six movements this is one of Bach’s shorter cantatas and scored for a modest sized ensemble of four vocal parts, oboe, strings and basso continuo.

Opening the cantata is the uplifting soprano and tenor duet together and the solo oboe having the chorale melody Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ. The voices of soprano Miriam Feuersinger and tenor Benedikt Kristjansson combine well, sincerely delivering the text extolling God’s mercy. In the alto part, countertenor Alex Potter sings the recitative and aria Sei bemüht in dieser Zeit with oboe, strings and a bassoon, very engagingly. The text of this gloriously inspiring aria emphasises the importance of sowing goodness generously before one is able reap the rewards. Hard to fault is Matthias Winckhler with his bass recitative and aria Das ist der Christen Kunst. Winckhler sings with utmost clarity and meaning about not judging and chiding others but ensuring that one’s own house is clean first. 

The seven well-chosen soloists contribute admirably to these top-class performances. Noteworthy, too, are the clearly well-drilled choral and orchestral members of Gächinger Kantorei. Rademann adeptly balances his solo, choral and orchestral forces to produce an engaging combination of sacred joy and piety. Especially pleasing is the sound of the period-instruments and the number of exemplary solo instrumental contributions.     

This double set was made across two separate recording sessions in 2023 in the Liederhalle and Mozartsaal, both in the Beethovensaal, Stuttgart. The engineering team provides consistently first-rate sound. Written by J.S. Bach specialist Dr Andreas Bomba the booklet essay and notes provide useful information for each work. I am delighted to report that full sung German texts complete with English translations are provided in the booklet.  

There is fierce competition for this music from a number of recordings, mainly from complete sets of the cantatas. My two favourite complete sets are those from the Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki on BIS and also the Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi. I notice that Helmuth Rilling directed the Gaechinger Cantorey Stuttgart (Gächinger Kantorei) and the Bach-Collegium Stuttgart on a complete set of the J.S Bach cantatas and oratorios. This was a 15-year project carried out between 1969-84, using modern instruments, on Hänssler Classic. My preference over Rilling is for the current sound of the Gächinger Kantorei, since its re-founding in 2016 by Rademann, as a joint ensemble of singers and an orchestra using period instruments.  

Directed by Hans-Christoph Rademann, this first volume in the projected series of J.S. Bach’s First Cantata Year, has got off to a most auspicious start. This engaging double set of the five cantatas from 1st to 4th Sunday after Trinity performed by four first-rate soloists and period instrument ensemble Gächinger Kantorei is entirely rewarding from start to finish.  

Michael Cookson

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Natasha Schnur, soprano (BWV 75, 76)
Miriam Feuersinger, soprano (BWV 21.3, 185.2)
Alex Potter, countertenor (all bar BWV 21.3)
Patrick Grahl, tenor (BWV 75, 76)
Benedikt Kristjansson, tenor (BWV 21.3, 185.2, 24) 
Tobias Berndt, bass (BWV 75, 76)
Matthias Winckhler, bass (BWV 21.3, 185.2, 24)