BACH Cantatas Vol.6. Various/Amsterdam Baroque/Koopman (Erato) – INKPOT
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Complete Cantatas Volume 6
|Ruth Ziesak soprano Elisabeth von Magnus alto
Paul Agnew tenor Klaus Mertens bass
Includes full texts in German, English and French
|Volume 6 in Ton Koopman’s Complete Bach Cantatas Edition is a milestone and the beginning of another journey – this is the first volume of sacred cantatas composed during Bach’s employment as Kantor and director of music at the Thomaskirche and Nikolaikirche (churches) at Leipzig, from 1723 to 1750. The cantatas are presented in almost chronological order. The ones here were composed between May 1723 and May 1724, except for Cantata 69, which actually comes from the end of Bach’s career (1748).
The first disc couples Cantatas BWV 76, Die Himmel erzhlen die Ehre Gottes (“The glory of God are the Heav’ns declaring”) and BWV 75, Die Elenden sollen essen (“For the meek shall not go empty”). Averaging 30 minutes each, these God-praising cantatas represented Bach’s debut at Leipzig in May and June 1723, just a mere 275 years ago. Each is in two parts, each part unified by the use of the same music for their individual final chorales. Contemporary reports welcomed the music as a great success.
As usual, the Amsterdam Baroque maintains the high standards of performance shown in previous volumes. Take the opening chorus of Cantata 76, with solo parts for each section of the choir; or the trumpet-accompanied bass aria “Fahr hin” [disc 1: track 5]. BWV 75 is a fairly laid-back affair, but full of amiable music such as the stringwork in the chorales and sinfonias.
Both cantatas include effective parts for one each of trumpet, oboe and oboe d’amore, demonstrating Bach’s wonderfully luminescent scoring. In fact, the continuo group of violin/viola d’amore (Margaret Faultless[!]), cello (Jaap ter Linden), oboes (Marcel Ponseele), trumpet (Stephen Keavy) and of course Koopman himself (right) on organ is a common source of pleasure throughout the discs. You feel so safe with these people around! (Linden recently did a highly praised account of the Bach Cello Suites on Harmonia Mundi).
Cantata BWV 186, rgre dich, o Seele, nicht (“Fret thee not, thou mortal soul”) is the only other half-hour cantata, also a two-parter, dealing with themes of salvation. The predominant mood is either of sorrow or of contented resignation and preaching. Of note is the soprano-alto duet La, Seele, kein Leiden (3:11, “Tho[ugh]’ suffering smart thee”)
As usual for me, throw in a few trumpets and drums into a Bach chorus and I’m hooked. Thus begins disc 2 with Cantata BWV 190, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (“Sing unto the Lord a new song”), composed for the Feast of the Circumcision on New Year’s Day 1724. Certain parts of this cantata are lost and were reconstructed by Koopman from reliable (re)sources. Anyway, this in no way denies the fact that it is a finely crafted cantata – the opening chorus with its exciting changes of pulse, the interchanges between soloists and chorus, the tenor-bass duet on 2:5, or the concluding chorale with its proclaiming flourishes on trumpets.
Cantata 179 Siehe zu, da deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei begins with a choral fugue with some delicious chromatics. This 14-minute cantata, for the 11th Sunday after Trinity (8 August in) 1723, is scored for strings, oboes, bassoon and continuo. Its relative austerity (and the somewhat pained atmosphere) reflects the theme of the “sorry state” of Christianity, beseeching God for mercy.
Cantata BWV 59 Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten, to my surprise and delight, begins with a stately duet for soprano and bass (the notes do speak of the uncertain ordering of movements here), followed by an extended and beautiful recitative for soprano. A chorale sits in the middle of this 11-minute work. For Bach (left) of course, size never matters and this is a valuable little gem.
Trumpets and drums return in Cantata BWV 69, Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele (“Bless thou the Lord, O my Spirit”), composed and used during the Inauguration of the Leipzig Town Council, probably on 26 August, 1748 (just two years before Bach’s death). It is a revised version of Cantata 69a, which shares the same text except recitatives. Modifications to the music are considerable though not extensive – some transpositions of key, rescoring of instruments (BWV 69 trades trumpets for a recorder), and a new final chorale, majestically reinforced with trumpets and timpani.
The gentle Cantata BWV 104, Du Hirte Israel, hre (“Thou Shepherd bountiful, hear us”), sports three different oboes to paint its pastoral scenery.
BWV 50, Nun ist das Heil und die Kraft (“Now has the Hope and the Strength”) refers in fact to just a single chorus, scored with an orchestra including trumpets and timpani. It is a dramatic piece with a jubilant character, which either began or concluded the lost cantata. A version for double chorus begins the CD while a single chorus reconstruction ends it, sandwiching three cantatas in between.
Of the three discs, the first two contain the more interesting music with regards to my biases. Of the four soloists, the women (and their music, perhaps) sing with much more direct appeal.
Soprano Ruth Ziesak’s singing is satisfyingly secure: the sudden rockets into high registers delivered with ease, and even the occasional dissonant modulation sung with grace and practised ease. Add a beautiful vibrato to her fresh but strong voice, and she wins hands down among the four. Compared to earlier volumes in the series, Elisabeth von Magnus’ voice has become, happily for me and much to her credit, much more relaxed and refined. This is her fourth appearance in six volumes.
Of the guys, I have no complaints of any real consequence. Paul Agnew is the more distinctive and characterized of the two, and at best his word painting deserves praise (try 1:10 “Hate ye me, hate ye me well, /Foul fiends of Hell!”). Oddly, Klaus Mertens’ parts throughout these cantatas never seem to actually descend into the familiar depths associated with a bass. In fact, his parts sound more like that of a low tenor. I’m speculating that as a result, he seems a little out of his element, and sings throughout with a rather neutral tone – but this is perhaps how it should be in sacred cantatas.
The superb Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and the equally excellent Amsterdam Baroque Chorus perform with technical brilliance and beautiful uniformity of tone, colour and musicality. Just occasionally, I wished they would give some of the big, fast, festive choruses a little more kick – but again, maybe not for sacred works.
Documentation in the CD sleeves has been consistently sparse. The serious collector is expected to follow the CDs with the accompanying books. Three will be published, and the first one complementing Cantata Volumes 1-3 is already out: The World of the Bach Cantatas: Early Sacred Cantatas (ISBN 0-393-04106-9). It is basically a collection of essays by various authorities, prefaced by Koopman and editted by Christoph Wolff (who writes the notes in the CD sleeve).
What is truly unforgivable is that no information regarding the soloists is provided. This is extremely unfair to them. I for one would like to see and read about who these fine people are singing for such a magnificent project.
Oh well, no major faults in Volume 6. However, if you are just starting out on the series, try Volume 3 or Volume 4 first. Here, everyone’s a winner, especially Bach himself – whose 250th anniversary we celebrate in just two years’ time.
At precisely 1:26 am every morning, CHIA HAN-LEON puts on his Cape of Brave Fronts and transforms into “Spray-and-Smack Man”, Supreme Grandmaster of the Cockroach Slayers’ Guild.
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151: 3.5.1998 Chia Han-Leon
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