BACH Cantatas BWVs 21 & 31. Bach Collegium Japan/Suzuki (BIS Vol.6) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantatas Vol.6

BWV 31 Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubilieret
“The heavens laugh, the earth rejoices”

BWV 21 Ich hatte viel Bekmmernis “There were many afflictions”

Three alternative movements for BWV 21

MONIKA FRIMMER soprano
GERD TRK tenor PETER KOOIJ bass

Bach Collegium Japan directed by Masaaki Suzuki
performing on period instruments

Comprehensive Notes in English, German and French.
Includes libretto in German, with English translations.

BIS-CD-851
[68:01] full-price

by Ng Yeuk Fan
During the Weimar period, Bach wrote about 20 or so church cantatas, all filled with youthful vitality and remarkable sensibility. Cantata BWV 21, Ich hatte viel Bekmmernis (“There were many afflictions”) is a large cantata consisting of 11 movements organised in two parts. This is notable for its scale even among Bach cantatas. Some recent analysis have suggested that Bach added movements 1, 7, 8, 10 and 11 for a ‘repeat’ performance of this important cantata during the Third Sunday of Trinity in 1714, hence the text of the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:10).

The original work comprising only Track 2-6 and 9 was intended for the memorial service of the wife of a Prime Minister, held in Weimar on the 8th October 1713. Many further versions were available as Bach found favour with this and some of his other cantatas.

Unverified portrait of Bach, by Johann Ernst Rentsch, 1712Cantata BWV 31, Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubilieret is intended as a Easter day cantata and together with Easter Oratorio and Cantata BWV 4, no other works for Easter have survived. Again, these works, including the here described cantata was frequently reperformed even Leipzig. Cantata No. 31 takes a text from Salomo Franck, is a true festival piece and requires 3 trumpets, timpani and three oboes and an oboe da caccia. The rejoicing of Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated, further rejoiced and culminates in the final great chorale singing of death and eternity.

One should read the extensive notes provided by Tadashi Isoyama and Masaaki Suzuki. Details like various instruments added, parts omitted, changed and transposed, and into what key, etc. help the informed listener to go much further, and will of course reward the diligent novice.

Above right: Unverified portrait of Bach, by Johann Ernst Rentsch, 1712

The immediate substance of the Bach Collegium Japan is pleasing. The instrumental colours are remarkably beautiful and clear. Variously, instrumentalists are proficient. The chorus is only minimally untidy and the entire effect comes across very well. The sopranos are at times almost bird-like and as a result a little irritating. This is heard especially in the first chorus in Cantata 31. In addition, there seems to be a lack of choral direction, resulting in an almost uninvolved performance throughout. Dynamics are taken without fail but something is amiss here.

Peter Kooij has a commanding voice. Though not all registers are as full as his head tones, there is little to fault in his voice. Gerd Trk is light, fresh and very tender. High notes become ever sweeter. A detectable change in register between the higher and lower registers becomes distracting only when one listens hard for it, such as in “Adam mu in uns verwesen”. The soprano Monika Frimmer is tight at the highest registers such as is heard in track 12 “Seufzer, Trnen…” , but such purity of voice is already seldom heard and hers is a laudable baroque voice, a worthy replacement for these parts intended for the treble voice.

Further, the choice of soloists are well-balanced and most importantly, all are very ‘humanistic’ voices. This is an important point as few singers manage to bring out the unique nature of voice – primarily as the voice of man, and further as an instrument. Many successful soloists succeed precisely because their instrument is recognizably human, evocative, emotive, full of nuance on the meanings of words, yet unmistakably instrumental – superb tone and flawless execution.

The voice is the only instrument capable of carrying explicit meaning. In this recording, the many duets and solos benefit tremendously from the interpretation of these empathetic singers; clearly the biggest plus in this recording.

The Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki is insecure as a conductor in these two performances. Tempo problems abound and though mostly minor, the glaring ones irritate and leaves me terribly unsatisfied. The opening Sinfonia of Cantata No.31 appears to become hurried for no apparent reason. In addition, the oboe soli in track 8, “Letste Stunde, brich herein” sounds hurried – this soli requires more space and a slower tempo to fully evolve the Bach line… a very innate quality that must be felt rather than studied. Suzuki seems to be unaware of this. The failure to understand and deliver the Bach in Bach’s music is this disc’s greatest fault. This error is less felt in the choral segments but not entirely absent. As a result, the great depth of this music fails to come across.

The inclusion of alternative movements “Seufzer, Trnen…”, “Ach Jesu” and “Komm, mein Jesu” sung by tenor instead of soprano reflects the many versions of Cantata No.21 – that Bach frequently made changes to his scores to suit the number and the voice parts of his performers at different occasions is no secret. The fact that Bach also re-used this cantata on so many occasions testifies that the work has great relevance to, if nothing else, Bach himself.

The recording is superb. Sounds are balanced and well-placed. More can be heard; and more is thus demanded also.

NG YEUK FAN wonders how each and every Bach enthusiast will describe the ‘Bach line’…

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237: 12.7.1998 Ng Yeuk Fan

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