INKPOT#106: BACH Cantatas BWVs 36, 61, 132. Various/Aradia Ensemble/Mallon (Naxos)

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Christmas Cantatas

BWV 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor
Ring out joyfully to the stars on high
BWV 132 Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn!
Make ready the way, make ready the paths!
BWV 61 Nun komm der Heiden Heiland
Now come, Saviour of the people

Teri Dunn soprano
Matthew White countertenor/alto
John Tessier tenor
Steven Pitkanen bass (BWV 36, 61)
Thomas Goerz bass (BWV 132)
Genevieve Gilardeau violin obbligato (BWV 61)

NAXOS 8.554825 Aradia Ensemble directed by Kevin Mallon

[62:17] budget-price

by Benjamin Chee

The first observation to be made is that the label “Christmas Cantatas” on the title of this album is not accurate, if only in the sense that these works were not specifically composed with the festive theme in mind. Rather, they were part of an annual set of sixty cantatas required of Bach each church year, that included Sundays and major feast days and excluding Lent and part of Advent. BWV 61 and 36 were both written for the First Sunday of Advent, and BWV 132 for the Fourth Sunday.

While Advent is, by definition, the period of four Sundays before Christmas, it is still a bit of a stretch to make the connection. The programme notes by Keith Anderson, interestingly, omits this association entirely, not mentioning “Christmas” even once. But I suppose that some, ah, artistic flexibilty has to be allowed for in marketing and packaging of the product.

“Capital for all times”
Robert Schumann (left) once wrote of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music: “Bach’s works are capital for all times.” (‘Bachs Werke sind ein Kapital für alle Zeiten.’) This double-entendre, of course, was made not just as a statement of Bach’s merit as a prolific composer of many types of music, but also of the fact that his music, perhaps in view of this, was potentially lucrative. Schumann went on – this was the year 1839 – to exhort “all who are in possession of yet unpublished works by Bach to assist the national undertaking by sending them to the publisher (C.F. Peters)”, if only because, Schumann concluded, “a tidy profit cannot fail to be made !”

This statement perhaps disregards the fact that when Bach composed his music, he was always very aware his music as being, in the economic sense, a form of “capital for all times”. It is not as well known – or not as loudly spoken in general company, as the case may be – that Bach was ready to adapt, modify and recycle music written for one occasion to another.

The scholar Albert Schweitzer even bent over backwards, writing of the Mass in B Minor, to say that “the Mass… contains borrowed pieces. These are, however, not parodies, but revisions which are at times so substantial it would be better to consider them as new compositions along the lines of the respective earlier pieces than as appropriations.” It was, one gathers, not an uncommon practice and Bach was only one in a long line of composers and kapellmeisters who freely and readily borrowed tunes from each other.

A predictable consequence of such practices is that today’s musical scholars are faced with a cataloging nightmare with originals and copies, variants, parodies, imitations and fragments. The Bach Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV), as authoritative a list of the Grand Master’s music as any, tries to account for Bach’s reuse of music by arbitrarily giving either similar or different catalog numbers and appendix letters to works depending on how similar each was to the original.

Of the 200 liturgical cantatas which Bach produced – “composed” would be technically an inaccuracy – no less than 74 have been shown to contain instances of reuse, in one way or another, with additions, deletions or changes of instrumentation. Their numbers, for the interested, are: BWV 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 16, 18, 21, 23, 29, 31, 36, 37, 40, 41, 42, 47, 58, 59, 62, 63, 64, 66, 68, 69, 70, 73, 76, 78, 79, 82, 83, 91, 93, 94, 96, 97, 100, 102, 103, 110, 114, 120, 125, 129, 132, 134, 137, 139, 147, 151, 154, 155, 157, 161, 162, 165, 168, 170, 172, 175, 177, 181, 182, 184, 185, 186, 187, 190, 194, 195 and 199.

That said, this is a recording informed by Joshua Rifkin’s pioneering practices in period performances in Bach in the last two decades: for two of the cantatas (BWV 36 and 132), each of the parts are taken by one musician or one vocalist, with an added body of ripienists joining the soli quartet in BWV 61. Also, director Kevin Mallon follows Rifkin’s lead in using male countertenors in the alto parts, and female sopranos instead of boy trebles.

These choices of performance still remain issues of contention but regardless of how one may feel, a lighter ensemble would be expected to produce a level of responsiveness and sensitivity that makes up for the sparseness of volume and timbre. In this respect, the Aradia Ensemble – afficionados of Greek mythology may recognize the name – are only partially successful.

In general, Bach is interpretatively not difficult to “get right”, and the ensemble responds well to the lead of Mallon, who also plays on violin. The solo instrument obbligatos, especially the violin parts shared between Mallon and colleague Genevieve Gilardeau, are eloquent models of style and the phrasing is beautifully articulated. But in the ensemble, looking for that extra level of distinction, the fresh insight into fairly standard works of the genre, one senses that their full potential still has not been reached.

The vocalists more than manage to hold up their end as well, with an impressive ebb-and-flow in the nuances of attack, voice colour and dynamic range. The solo sections, while generally acceptable, also display minor blemishes on closer scrutiny.

Teri Dunn, who as the soprano has the major share of the solo parts, has a rich, vibrant tone in the warm acoustics of the Church of St Mary Magdalene, but her pronunciation of the words are slightly suspect. She does not sound altogether comfortable at the lower ranges of pitch, either.

Tenor John Tessier sings with great warmth in his arias, but the recitatives simply do not have enough declamatory quality to carry them through – certainly, not with the narrative fervour of counter-tenor Matthew Best, singing in the alto’s part. Best’s voice is one which has been warmly nurtured and a pleasure to listen to in the aria Christi Glieder, ach bedenket.

But the strongest contributions from this cast must be the basses, Steven Pitkanen in BWV 36 and 61, and Thomas Goerz in BWV 132. Their narratives are expressive and pointed, injecting just the right amount of ecclesiastical conviction into their respective accounts – as minimal as their quota of the solo music-making is.

No major complaint, then, about any of the performances here, even if some of the items are less than perfect. The quality of the recording is rich and well-balanced, with a convincing church acoustic: there is some good sound engineering here.

Overall, while I would not recommend this album to collectors looking specifically for Bach’s Christmas music (because it isn’t), there is still enough merit in these performances to reward the listener looking for specimens of Bach’s cantata cycle – and particularly so at this price.

Benjamin Chee still prefers singing the descant in the chorus of O Holy Night!

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