BACH Cantatas Vol.40 – BWVs 126-129. Various/Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Rilling (Hännsler) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Edition Bachakadamie Vol.40
BWV 126 Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort
BWV 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott
BWV 128 Auf Christi Himmelfahrt
BWV 129 Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott
Arleen Augér soprano
Helen Watts Gabrielle Schreckenbach altos
Adalbert Kraus Lutz-Michael Harder Aldo Baldin tenors
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 92.040
[72:51] mid-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
Bach literally had to scramble for suitable cantata texts during his first year in Leipzig, according to Bach historian and musicologist Christoph Wolff. Given that plus all the other challenges and adjustments he faced, it is a wonder that the composer created an annual cycle of works that year, let alone one that set new compositional standards for both himself and the genre in general. But because of this scrambling, Wolff maintains, the works in this cycle lacked literary conformity and musical consistency.

For his second annual cycle of 1724-25, Bach possessed the luxury of increased preparation time, which allowed him to turn his thoughts to a cantata cycle based on a uniform libretto type. Each cantata would be based on a well-known church hymn appropriate for that time in the ecclesiastical year. The first and last stanzas of the hymn would serve unaltered as the cantata’s opening and final movements, while the stanzas in between would be paraphrased, condensed and reconfigured to serve as texts for recitatives and arias.

However, around Easter 1725, Bach had to cancel the project. Wolff explains:

“The way in which the project proceeded and eventually ended suggests that Bach’s anonymous librettist was a close collaborator who resided in Leipzig. According to the most likely among various hypotheses, the author of the chorale cantata texts was Andreas Stubel, conrector emeritus of the St. Thomas School, a man of solid theological background (if somewhat nonconformist views) and ample poetic experience. Stubel’s death on January 27, 1725, after only three days of illness and after he had received from the printer texts for the booklet of cantatas to be performed from Septugesimae Sunday (January 28) to Annunciation (March 25) 1725, would explain the abrupt ending of the chorale cantata cycle with “Wie schon leuchter der Morgenstern,” BWV 1, on the feast of Annunciation of that year.”

It also explains why Bach’s texts for the last two cantatas on this disc deviate from the usual formula. BWV 128 is not based on a chorale, while BWV 129, written for the 1725-26 annual cycle, features chorale lyrics without additions or paraphrases.

BWV 126 Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (“Maintain us, Lord, within thy word”), first performed on Septugesimae Sunday (February 4), 1725, was probably among the first compositions Bach wrote for the second annual cycle, knowing of Stubel’s death and the potential challenges he faced in continuing the cycle. This plus the words themselves would explain the somewhat martial air of the opening chorale, with a single high trumpet dominating the proceedings and the choir proclaiming:

“Maintain us, Lord, within thy word,
And fend off murd’rous Pope and Turk,
Who Jesus Christ, thy very Son,
Strive to bring down from his throne.”

The references to Catholicism and Islam notwithstanding, Bach evidently saw this not just as a rallying cry for Protestants but, understandably, for the personal fight of faith he set for himself in writing the new cantata cycle, and probably hoping someone as talented as Stubel would manifest before his texts ran out.

The aria that follows, “Send down thy great strength from heaven,” is similarly serious and imploring. Tenor Adalbert Kraus sings with fervor and great sensitivity to the text, while the Hanssler engineers, still following their recording strategy of “here are the instruments and out there are the singers,” are somewhat better behaved than usual. Kraus and alto Helen Watts handle their recitative movingly, and bass Wolfgang Schone sings “Crash to ruin, arrogant bombast” ringingly, with fullness of tone. In general, the solo work here is among the best in the series so far.

BWV 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott (“Lord Jesus Christ, true man and God”) was first performed one week after BWV 126, on February 11, 1724. In his notes for this disc, Dr. Andreas Bomba mentions the special significance the Sunday after Sexagesima held for Bach. On that day in 1722, Bach had auditioned in Leipzig on this Sunday, presenting cantatas BWV 22 and 23 and convincing the city council of his special approach to liturgical music.

More interestingly, the name for this Sunday, Estomihi, comes from the first line of the Latin introit of the mass for this Sunday – “Esto mihi in Deum protectorem,” which translates as “Be thou my strong rock.” Considering the circumstances in which Bach found himself with the loss of Steubel’s services, and his decision to forge ahead with neither a continued source of new libretti nor falling back on old texts, those words could probably not be more appropriate. Looking over Steubel’s texts, one cannot help but sympathize with Bach, as their excellence is readily apparent.

The quality of Steubel’s texts inspired Bach to some of his finest chorale music to date, and that in turn has rubbed off on the performances here. Schöne in “When once at last the trumps have sounded” and “In truth, in truth, I say to you,” soprano Arlene Augér in “My soul shall rest in Jesus’ bosom,” and tenor Lutz-Michael Harder in “When ev’rything at that hour strikes terror” are all outstanding, as is the chorus and orchestra. Neither can the recording be faulted this time – even Auger comes through clearly. Though there is still more echo with the singers than the instruments, the overall balance is first-rate.

BWV 128 Auf Christi Himmelfahrt (“On Christ’s ascent to heaven alone”): Since Steubel had adapted only the texts up to Annunciation (March 25), this left Bach in a dilemma on completing enough music to last through Trinity Sunday (May 27). Wolff comments:

“On Easter Sunday, he re-performed an old work, ‘Christ lag in Todes Banden,” BWV 4, which fit in well despite its traditional outlook; consisting of unaltered chorale stanzas only; it represented the per omnes versus (pure hymn text) type of chorale cantata. Works of mixed origin and structure followed until Bach turned, for the remaining weeks until Trinity Sunday, to nine cantata texts by the young Leipzig poet Christine Mariane von Ziegler, daughter of the former burgomaster Franz Conrad Romanus. However, he chose to make some substantial changes to her words, and although she published her cantata texts later in the form of a complete annual cycle, Bach did not return to her sacred poetry.”

One fact that becomes apparent on reading Ziegler’s text for BWV 128 is that it is not on the same level of quality as Steubel’s libretti. Therefore, it is a tribute to Bach’s craftsmanship that the music for the cantata, which was performed May 10, 1724, more than makes up for this deficiency, with an air of lightness and celebration that befits Ascension Sunday. Schöne, alto Gabrielle Schreckenbach and tenor Aldo Baldin outdo themselves once again, although there is a more pronounced echo-chamber effect to their voices than in the previous two cantatas.

BWV 129 Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott (“Give honor to the Lord”): On Ascension Sunday 1725, Bach should have performed a chorale cantata to close out the ecclesiastical year. Instead, the congregation heard the cantata BWV 176 “Es ist ein trotzig und vergatz Ding” (“There is a daring and a sly thing), based on a text by Zeigler. With BWV 129, which was performed for Trinity Sunday of the following year (June 16, 1726), Dr. Bomba suggests that Bach intended to complete his project of a chorale cantata cycle after all, and added this cantata, along with a dozen others, to replace compositions based on Zeigler’s texts. The only two cantatas with her words that he did not replace were BWV 128 and BWV 68 “Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt.”

BWV 129, like some of these newly-composed cantatas, utilize hymn texts without any changes. Unlike many of Bach’s cantatas, the lyrics bear no reference to the Gospel reading for the day. Rather, it is a song of praise that Bach augments with equally festive instrumentation. The arias, though not as opulently scored, are equally celebratory. Bass Phillipe Huttenlocher’s voice quavers in his solo; Auger’s is full, steady and beautiful; and Schreckenbach’s, while a bit rich, is equally solid. The recording quality is excellent.

Altogether, this disc is one of the high points in the Hanssler series — definitely not to be missed.

Wolff, Christoph, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000), 275-279.

JONATHAN YUNGKANS fully understands Bach’s challenge with finding the right words, especially when writing some of his taglines. Usually, some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream helps.

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