BACH Cantatas Vol.7. Various/Amsterdam Baroque/Koopman (Erato) – INKPOT
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
|LISA LARSON soprano
BOGNA BARTOSZ ELISABETH VON MAGNUS altos
GERD TRK tenor KLAUS MERTENS bass
Includes full texts in German, English and French
|Volume 7 here presents, in chronological order of composition, a whopping 12 cantatas from the first cycle composed from mid-1723 to mid-1724. This is when Bach was Kantor at the Thomasschule (St Thomas School, not the Thomaskirche or St Thomas Church), Leipzig – the post which he took up in April 1723 and held up to the end of his life.
As is well known, Bach was taking over from his great predecessor Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722), whom despite being a skilful composer himself, only had his works performed occasionally. Bach wasn’t going to be mild about his post however, and characteristically, set about planning cantata cycles of huge scale. These cantatas were performed at the Nikolaikirche (left) and the Thomaskirche.
Well, my experience with Bach’s sacred cantatas has generally always been that at first, the religious text is very boring and repetitive, but on closer inspection, there often appears interesting things in the libretto, or Bach may have done something quite smart with the music’s structure, scoring or such like.
Cantata 25 Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe is scored for an large orchestra which includes trumpet, three trombones and three recorders. The remarkable libretto by Johann Jacob Rambach uses imagery of body, disease and medicine to reflect on man’s sin and its divine cure. The opening choral lamentation features a superimposed brass chorale, and is a slow grand movement in Bach’s best traditions. It ends rather abruptly in a semi-resolved state, at which point the tenor opens his recitative on the sins of the world, cast in imagery of virus, fever, itch and leprosy. Bass and soprano declare that no medicine can cure man except… you know. The first sign of cheer appears as soprano Lisa Larsson, accompanied by chirping recorders, sings to God in thanks, with bright and sweet voice. A religious chorale ends the cantata.
Cantata 95: Christus, der ist mein Leben deals with death from the mortal world and the eternal afterlife: “My death is but a sleep,/ Whereby my soul will find, when dawns the happy morrow,/ Relief from sorrow.” Unusually, the 5-minute opening chorus is divided into three parts, the middle section a quite-melodious recitative for tenor! Lisa Larsson’s impassioned cry of “Hear, faithless world”, at the beginning of her recitative, strengthened with a ring of light vibrato, goes to show how she has risen from strength to strength in this series of recordings. It is a horrible sin of the producers that up till now (Vol.8 has been released as I write this), no word has been spoken of these fine singers – indeed I don’t even know how Ms Larsson looks like! Anyway, she is the beautiful soloist for the cantata’s third movement, a chorale set as a trio for soprano, oboes and continuo (which includes a lute here, lightly played). Her part goes fairly low at points.
Tenor Gerd Trk, who also records on Harmonia Mundi (where I have seen his bio and photo), employs his smooth and warm voice in the very lyrical, almost Mozartian aria Ach, schlage doch (“Ah, strike you now soon, blessed hour”). Accompanying him are two tonally matched oboes and strings pizzicato, supposedly imitating the death knell (hence the striking of the “blessed hour”). The final chorale includes a high part for violins, singing calmly above the chorus.
Cantata 144: Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin opens with a choral fugue, demonstrating the bright clean voices of the Amsterdam Baroque Choir, one of this series’ best assets. The libretto treats the theme of contentment with “the blessings God has sent thee” with an aria for alto and then soprano. Alto Bogna Bartosz (Spanish?) makes her first appearance in this series with her aria here, with confident singing and regal tone. Only her second aria on disc 1, Larsson uses her slightly dark but sweet tone for her aria here which I greatly enjoyed.
The last two cantatas on Disc 1 are quite a delight. First is Cantata 67 Halt im Gedchtnis Jesum Christ: the celebration of Christ’s resurrection begins with a joyful chorus coloured with flutes, oboe d’amore, bassoon and trumpet. An ascending scale on the word erstanden (“arisen”) in the tenor aria is an example of Baroque word painting; meanwhile the painter Gerd Trk demonstrates his comfort with the German words.
Another delight in this series is of course the superb Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra – listen to the curving turns of the violins in the orchestral introduction to the bass (representing Jesus) aria “Friede sei mit euch!”. Very remarkable too is the structure of this movement, with its contrasting sections of tempo and mood, portraying the chorus of solo soprano, alto and tenor representing the community receiving Jesus’ single serene line (“Peace be unto you”).
Cantata 24: Ein ungefrbt Gemte moralises and instructs upon the virtues of truth, honest and integrity – to be honest, it’s pretty unpalatable for our cynical late 20th-century culture. But that’s where Bach’s music comes in. I am very glad to report that as Koopman’s survey has progressed, the voice of alto Elisabeth von Magnus has also improved. Some will probably still take exception to her rather unflattering tone; but at least it has attained some stability which unfortunately was not always present in earlier volumes. Recitatives for tenor and bass (one on integrity, the other hypocrisy) frame the central chorus on “what you would others do to you…”. The final chorale is particularly beautiful, with instrumental obbligato (the winds are nice) and interludes between the choral text.
On to disc 2: Cantata 136: Erforsche mich Gott, und erfahre mein Herz includes a horn in the orchestra, heard to rather trumpetty effect in the opening fugal chorus with a busy orchestral ritornelli. The libretto strikes out at sinners, and describes the purifying of sins by Christ’s blood. The two arias featured here demonstrate Bach’s easy tone and fine craftmanship. The alto aria is taken by Bartosz with beautiful singing.
The 21-minute Cantata 184: Erwnschtes Freudenlicht is one of the jewels of this collection. It begins immediately with a pleasant tenor recitative followed by a gorgeous duet for soprano and alto accompanied by full orchestra (strings with flutes). The sound of Larsson’s soprano against von Magnus’ alto is not only well-matched but vibrant, ringing with honeyed tone. A solo violin accompanies the tenor in his aria. The chorus appears only in the last two movements, first a chorale (listen to the beautifully executed swells and rises, and the choral trills), and then a very lively final chorus with a central duet for soprano and bass. The tone of the entire cantata is almost completely joyous and “cosy”.
Cantata 105: Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht is another gem, beginning with a 5-minute chorus which would not have been out of place in a Bach Passion. The slow preludial first part gives way to a fugal finale, after which von Magnus’ pleading recitative to God paves the way for Larsson’s gentle and consoling aria to fearful and sinners. The repetitive violin figure seems to depict the latter’s “quiver[ing] and quaking”, but with the plaintive yearnings of the oboe, the result is oddly soothing. Larsson creates a tone of gentle tension even as she sings of the tormented conscience of the sinful. A very interesting aria. The melodious artistry of the bass recitative, with lute continuo employed here above a simple string figure, introduces the confident trumpet-led tenor aria “Kann ich nur” (“If but Thou, Jesus, be my dear companion”). To be picky, the words are somewhat incongruous with the mood of Bach’s music throughout this cantata – but who cares…
Disc 2 ends with Cantata 148: Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens, which starts with a celebratory chorus with trumpet, welcoming the listener to the court of God. The rest of the music has a tone of formality though: a solo violin leads the tenor aria again, praising the sweet and joyful songs of the Angels. Oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia accompany Bartosz in her aria asking to be embraced by God’s virtues. Both singers perform with much formal elegance and stable technique, likewise the choir in their 45-second final chorale – which, remarkably, begins and ends with the word “Amen”, an effect lost in the English translation.
Incidently, the English translations in the libretto provided in the set follow certain rhyme schemes. These schemes, however, do not always follow that of the German original. I suppose that some of the English versions are based on standard Biblical sources (eg. many of the psalm settings here). An interesting compromise, but I dread to wonder if any meanings have been modified/lost.
One of the most famous cantatas in this set is Cantata 147: Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, a half-hour two-parter and home to the well-known chorale “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring”. The tune is used twice to conclude both parts of the cantata, written for the Feast of the Visitation and first given on 2 July 1723. A festive chorus with a large orchestra opens the work, here performed lightly. I’m not particularly pleased with this performance, as the performers sound uninspired and even uninterested – there is no kick!
The energy comes across much better in Cantata 181: Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister, though I’d expect more force in the opening bass arioso deriding “scatterbrained and shallow people”. Perhaps Koopman (right) is bearing in mind the use of these cantatas in the church in keeping things “soft”. At the end of the disc, the later versions of this opening aria and the final chorus are presented as appendices.
The libretto of the work uses the imagery of agriculture. The alto recitative speaks of the fallen seed of the sinful, who are devoured by the “fowls of hell”(!) or left to decay. The Word of God is “strewn” and “scatter[ed]” on barren and bare land to nourish the “goodly ground”, while the tenor sings of the “venomous brambles of pleasure and gain” which fuel Satan’s eternal fires of torment. The joyful final chorus for four soloists ask God to “make our hearts a fertile land, /Wherein Thy Word may grow and flourish.” An interesting cantata. Makes me wonder how Bach’s music would be like if he had the opportunity to read some modern poetry!
The set ends with Cantata 173: Erhhtes Fleisch und Blut. With its scoring for flute and strings, I found the musical atmosphere rather French, especially the opening of the tenor aria. A short alto aria and a duet for soprano and bass follows and all ends with a pleasant chorale.
Conclusion: a worthy addition to the continuing series. And again there is no info at all on the soloists: I WANT TO KNOW SOMETHING ABOUT THE SINGERS, dammit!!!! Notes are again minimal and mostly descriptions on the orchestration – quite boring. It has taken me longer to appreciate this set (due to the relatively less-“exciting” music), but great art always takes time to understand, and I’m glad that I didn’t spend the money (choke choke, three full-price…) in vain. Collectors of the series need not hesitate, but samplers or beginners should try elsewhere (more exciting stuff: the earlier volumes 4 and 5 – see below). As I type this review, Vol.8 is out – choke choke, boom! (sound of bomb exploding in my wallet) – and Y2K (of the “Millenium Bach” fame…) continues its approach.
CHIA HAN-LEON receives his fuse on the 18th and lights his bombs thereafter.
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471: 25.4.1999 Chia Han-Leon
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