BACH Cantatas Vol.33 – BWVs 103-105. Various/Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Rilling (Hännsler) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Edition Bachakadamie Vol.33
BWV 103 Ihr werdet weinen und heulen
BWV 104 Du Hirte Israel, hre
BWV 105 Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht
Arleen Augér soprano
Helen Watts Doris Soffel altos
Adalbert Kraus Peter Schrier tenors
Walter Heldwein 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 92.033
[58:25] mid-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
Bach was running out of time and options by April 1724. He had started composing a second year of chorale cantatas in late 1723 but was stymied by the sudden loss if his librettist. Rather than falling back on existing texts, he opted to forge ahead with his plans, using what texts his late collaborator had supplied, in hopes that another librettist would come on the scene before those libretti were exhausted.

At this time, several social changes were going on in the Leipzig music scene. One personality emerging from these changes was the poetess Christiane Marianne von Zeigler. Though Zeigler ended up supplying texts for Bach, he did not care for her very much personally, writing, “… Among other things, her conduite is almost overtly feminine and her spirit too much animated and alert to submit to ordinary male reason … she plays many musical instruments and sings, she shoots with guns, pistols and crossbows en compaigne.…” In short, Zeigler was too free-spirited and of her own mind for Bach’s comfort, but as theirs was basically a collaboration of convenience, he had very little choice in the matter.

As much a study in contrasts as Bach and Zeigler was Bach’s approach to BWV 103 Ihr werdet weinen und heulen (“Ye will be weeping and wailing”), the one cantata on this disc that is set to a Zeigler text. The title itself is a stark contrast; why should we be weeping and wailing on Ascension Sunday, for which this cantata was written? This is normally considered a day of celebration in the Christian church, not one of mourning. There is also, at least for modern ears, the anachronistic touch of a part for solo recorder in this cantata (which Bach later allowed to be replaced with either a solo violin or transverse flute, but which Rilling restores in this performance).

Bach’s preoccupation here, though, is the drama of moving from mourning to celebration, from the trauma of Christ’s departure from this earth to His promise of eventual return. He parallels this with the individual’s guilt over sin being overtaken by his joy at the prospect of divine forgiveness. In this plan, the composer orders the movements in this work very effectively.

After a decidedly minor-key opening chorale, Bach places the two recitative-aria pairs in direct opposition to one another. The first recitative closes with an expressive setting of the word “sorrow,” and the aria immediately following focuses on the “wounds of my transgressions.” The second recitative moves from this air of contrition to “trust in what thy word assures, / That all my sadness now / To gladness shall find transformation,” while the second aria instructs, “Recover now, O troubled feelings, / … Leave off your sorrowful beginning.”

Though I am generally not a Peter Schreier fan, I have to admit he is very effective here, the timbre of his voice very successfully capturing the pain of the lines “Who ought then not in lamentation sink, / If our beloved is torn from us?” while both ringing and soothing in “Recover now, O troubled feelings.” If you can bear the occasional whininess of his tone (which is my primary objection to his singing in general), he is actually quite enjoyable.

Alto Doris Soffel is also excellent, and though recorded further back than necessary, she has no problem in making herself heard. Her work in “There is beside me no physician” is well-shaded and sensitive, especially in Bach’s emphasis on the word “perish.” She not only fully characterizes the anguish of loss which the composer expresses so well here, but adds an extra layer of empathy that makes listeners care about her plight. As such, it is Soffel’s best work so far in this series.

Bass Walter Heldwein is less effective in the opening chorale. Granted, Bach and Zeigler gives him extremely little from which to work (how much can you really do with one line of text, even if it is repeated?), but Heldwein’s voice lacks focus and direction. He is not helped by the engineers, who have recorded him so far back as to be almost inaudible – much further back than the chorus, and with enough reverberation to make his tone sound all the more hollow. Fortunately, his solo is a brief one.

BWV 104 Du Hirte Israel, höre (“Thou guide of Israel, hear me”), much like BWV 112 , evokes the image of the shepherd watching over his flocks – both a common sight in 18th century Europe and symbolic of Christ watching over the Church, guarding it from harm and providing for its members. The long, flowing melodic lines of the introduction to the opening chorale – one of Bach’s more beautiful and gentle utterances – sets the pastoral tone.

Tenor Adalbert Kraus delivers “The highest shepherd cares for me” with more melodrama than is needed, but redeems himself with some excellent shaping of the melodic line in the aria “Whene’er my shepherd too long hideth.” Bass Wolfgang Schöne is up to his usual high standard, with a solid voice and butter-smooth tone. He gives a very nice flow to his aria “Ye herds, so blessed, sheep of Jesus,” another of Bach’s long-lined bucolic niceties, complemented by the brook-like gurgling of the instruments.

However, the engineering in this cantata is haphazard. The engineers allow enough reverberation in Schöne’s voice in his aria to seriously muddy his diction and spoil our enjoyment. Kraus has the same engineering challenge in “The highest shepherd” – though his diction is clearer than Schöne’s, he is very far back in the sonic picture. The engineers bring him closer to the foreground in “Whene’er my shepherd,” a measure almost as disconcerting aurally as it is corrective.

From idyllic bliss, we move to darker themes. At the start of BWV 105 Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht (“Lord go thou not into court”), man sighs under the burden of his sins, imploring God not to enter into judgment with him. Though the theme is familiar enough, Bach brings an operatic level of emotion to the scene, making it both gripping and thoroughly moving. The multi-part vocal work in this chorale, used more sparingly than in the corresponding movements of the two preceding cantatas, is some of his most beautiful and accomplished so far, with quartet work by soprano Arlene Augér, alto Helen Watts, Kraus and Heldwein that is equally stirring.

Watts invests considerable pathos to “My God, reject me not,” though her voice sounds plumy and her diction uneven with some words, especially “Mein Gott” at the opening, overemphasized, and other words entirely smoothed over. Augér fares better in “How tramble and waver” – despite a couple of strained notes, her translucent, bell-like tone is as beautiful as ever. For once, though, the engineers do not defeat her despite their efforts. Both she and the instruments have more echo than usual (and more than Watts did), but they have the balance right this time and everything can be heard, albeit with a slightly more veiled tone than would be best.

The engineers do more serious damage to Heldwein and Kraus. Though Heldwein projects and shades his passages here with much greater sensitivity than he did in BWV 104, his efforts are thoroughly submerged in reverberation. Kraus’s solo is so echo-ridden that, if it weren’t for his dramatic overemphasis, we wouldn’t make out a single word. Since both these numbers are supposed to be the emotional turning point of the cantata, this problem is especially maddening.

Despite some heroic efforts, this disc is not one of Hänssler’s more memorable efforts, thanks almost entirely to highly variable sound quality. If you can stand the engineering, several of the performances are worth a listen, but you have to make considerable allowances at times for the sound.

JONATHAN YUNGKANS seriously wanted some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream after hearing this disc. Whether his waistline or his ability to fit into his pants agreed with him is an entirely different story.

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