BACH Cantatas Vol.39 – BWVs 122-125. Various/Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Rilling (Hännsler) – INKPOT

Edition Bachakadamie Vol.39
BWV 122 Das neugeborne Kinderlein
BWV 123 Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen
BWV 124 Meinen Jesum lab ich nicht
BWV 125 Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin
Arleen Augér Helen Donath sopranos
Helen Watts Marga Hoffgen altos
Adalbert Kraus Kurt Equiluz tenors
Niklaus Tuller Philippe Huttenlocher Wolfgang Schne basses
Gchinger Kantorei Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
directed by Helmuth Rilling
Includes German texts with translations in French, English and Spanish.
Reissued 1999.

HÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.039
[74:57] mid-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
Bach composed and performed the four cantatas featured on this disc, along with five others, between December 31, 1724 and February 2, 1725. These dates fall at the midst of the chorale cantata cycle, with its numerous holidays and Sundays, and Bach was at the peak of his cantata composing skills at this time, turning out one gem after another despite the heavy work load and the continual rush to complete them.

Likewise, these performances, played on modern instruments but with chamber-sized forces and Baroque performance practices, consistently show Helmut Rilling (right) at his best. Tempos are fleet but not without sensitivity to text or music. For anyone even remotely interested in Bach’s music or wanting a different twist on holiday music, this disc is definitely worth a listen.

The only potential challenge is the sound, which, though generally good in this series, can occasionally prove inconsistent. Though allowances still have to be made for instrumental/vocal imbalances and sometimes-intrusive harpsichord work, the recording glitches are fewer on this disc than in Volume 38 and the ear adjusts readily. For both the high level of Bach’s inspiration in this music and the equally high level of general performance, this disc is highly recommended.

BWV 122 Das neugeborne Kinderlein (“The newly born, the tiny child”) has an especially seraphic opening, with unison strings introducing the choir and beautiful part writing for the singers mirroring the words “The newly born, the tiny child, / The darling, little Jesus-child, / Doth once again the year renew / For this the chosen Christmas throng.” This is indeed music of renewal, and Rilling’s chorus and orchestra give it a full measure of freshness and warmth.

After that opening, the sternness of the aria “O mortals, ye each day transgressing / Ye ought the angels’ gladness share” that follows is quite a surprise. Bass Niklaus Tuller’s voice is lighter than his compatriots on the last few discs, but he is in firm command of the music here and sings with a good deal of style. However, even with a good recording balance, I honestly wish the instruments were not given such prominence here, especially the harpsichord. He fares somewhat better in his recitative “This is a day the Lord himself hath made,” and sings even more pleasantly.

With soprano Helen Donath we have the opposite problem to Tuller’s – the harpsichord in her recitative is not as distracting, but there is an edginess to her voice that makes listening a challenge. The trio with choir that follows has a similar problem – the solo voices are miked so closely that they do not blend, but grate instead. Altogether, this is another performance that has wonderful contributions from all concerned except for the recording engineers.

BWV 123 Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen (“Dearest Emanuel, Lord of the faithful”) opens with a bucolic scene framed by the instruments, appropriate when you remember the story of Christ being born in a stable and his being called the Lamb of God. The choir here is imploring, their words a prayer of invitation: “Thou Savior of my soul, come, come now soon!” Though the tone is more urgent than in BWV 122, the music is no less compelling.

The recitative that follows acts as a balm as alto Helen Watts sings “Now heaven’s sweet delight … / To joyfulness doth Jesus pow’r transport,” and this mood is heightened with Adalbert Kraus’s aria. Both these singers handle their parts well but are overshadowed by bass Philippe Hunterlocher in his recitative and aria, singing with strength, full tone and considerable sensitivity to the text. Altogether, the vocal talent in this cantata is exceptional, and although the instruments remain intrusive, there is none of the harshness that plagued some of the singing in BWV 122.

BWV 124 Meinen Jesum lab ich nicht (“This my Jesus I’ll not leave”) contains lyrics more florid in imagery than has usually been the case in these cantatas, more in keeping with poetry than for a devotional text. Normally such a transcript could prove a challenge to set, especially on as a tight a timeline as Bach had to write this piece. Nonetheless, he rises to the occasion, highlighting the text effectively through both vocal and instrumental means.

The opening chorale, again a pastoral setting, takes on the added characteristics of a processional. Bach’s choral writing carries an excellent sense of lightness and fluidity perfectly matched by Rilling’s singers. Bach focuses special attention on the line “bound / Limpet-like to him forever” with a series of string trills that contrast to the previously smoothly flowing accompaniment. Throughout this movement, Bach underlines musically this idea of reconciliation which Christ represents, allowing the oboe to come in before the strings and play solo as though “separated” from the rest of the procedings before being recaptured by the theme.

BachTenor Aldo Baldin’s voice is not as pleasant as Kraus’s, but he handles the music expertly and brings considerable bounce and conviction to his aria “And when the cruel stroke of death.” Bach wrote a great deal of musical imagery into this number – the “galloping” figures in the strings symbolizing the horseman of Death riding out to strike his intended, and a considerable number of tritone intervals, the “diabolus” in music, in the bass. It surely frightened listeners in Bach’s day, and it is still extremely potent.

Bass Wolfgang Schöne sings as solidly as ever in his recitative, as does Helen Watts in her duet “Withdraw thyself quickly, my heart, from the world” with Arlene Augér. Augér’s voice, beautiful but light as it is, is not picked up as well by the engineers and sometimes becomes overwhelmed by Watts and the instrumentalists. When her voice does come through, however, Augér blends well with Watts and her bell-like timbre adds considerably to this number.

BWV 125 Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (“In peace and joy do I depart”) begins with probably the most beautiful and moving chorale on this disc. Again pastoral, but calm and melancholy, it depicts old Simeon, who, having seen the Christ child, can now leave this world in peace. The instrumental work, with the flute leading the oboe and strings, is considerable. It is among the most complex and delicate concertante work Bach has supplied so far and sets the scene perfectly.

The flute and oboe, this time playing in duet, also take a large role in setting the scene for the alto’s aria that follows. Marga Hoeffgen’s diction is muddy, however, and her voice too rich and plumy for comfort. Schone, who has been consistently excellent through this series, fares considerably better, with he and tenor Kurt Equiluz adding a delicious sense of wonder and joy as they sing “A great mysterious light hath filled / The orb of all the earth now. / There echoes strongly on and on / A word of promise most desired: / In faith shall all be blessed.”

JONATHAN YUNGKANS felt pretty blessed himself after hearing this disc.

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815: 2.11.2000 Jonathan Yungkans

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