INKPOT#: BACH Cantatas Vol.38: BWVs 118-120. Various/Gächinger Kantorei/Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Rilling (Hänssler)
Edition Bachakadamie Vol.38BWV 119 Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn BWV 120 Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille
BWV 121 Christum wir sollen loben schon
Arleen Auger Helen Donath sopranos
Ann Murray Hildegard Laurich Doris Soffel altos
Adalbert Kraus tenor
Wolfgang Schne bass
Gchinger Kantorei Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
directed by Helmuth Rilling
Includes German texts with translations in French, English and Spanish.
HÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.038
by Jonathan Yungkans
Along with Bach’s other duties as cantor and music director of St. Thomas School in Leipzig, he was responsible for music for such state events as the Changing of the Councilors in St. Nikolai Church each August 24, after the feast of St. Bartholomew. Both the sermon and the music for these occasions were commissioned separately from salaried duties, with both the minister and the cantor receiving extra fees. Thus, commissions like these were attractive not only for their prestige, but also financially, since Bach had taken a sizable salary cut in accepting the position at St. Thomas.
Despite this monetary disadvantage, and despite normally having a meager number of musicians to use for Sunday services at the four churches in the city for which he was responsible, Bach had excellent opportunities in Leipzig to enhance his reputation. He applied to the honorary post of Court Composer to improve his status, and could not only draw upon sufficient numbers of the town’s university students to meet the needs of church services, but also have an optimum number of vocalists and instrumentalists on hand, including trumpeters and timpanists, for special events. When he received the commission for BWV 119 Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn (“Praise, O Jerusalem, the Lord’) in 1723, the same year he was appointed to St. Thomas School, Bach was ready to shine, and shine he did.
After Rilling’s disappointing BWV 115 and 116 (REVIEW), it is good to start this disc with such a captivating performance as we have here. The cantata begins with a stately French overture, into which Bach inserts a rousing choral setting, announced by trumpets, in place of the fugue. Although the instrumentalists already establish the sense of occasion winningly, the performance really takes off when the choir enters, making the most of the opportunity.
Now if the recording engineers had only behaved themselves as well with the soloists as they did with the choir, this performance would be an unqualified joy. Fortunately, they have not totally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, though they come reasonably close in a couple of spots.
Tenor Adalbert Kraus is a pleasure to hear despite an overly intrusive harpsichord in his aria. Bass Wolfgang Schone has a similar problem, but holds his own admirably against some seriously overmiked trumpets, oboes and bassoons. Alto Ann Murray fares better here than she did in BWV 116. Though we still have to struggle at times to hear her, she is having a better time with her phrasing. However, soprano Arlene Auger develops an edge in her voice that I hadn’t noticed in her earlier efforts, and is considerably louder, as though someone is overcompensating for the instruments. If it was the engineers, they should have left well enough alone.
BWV 120 Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille (“God, we praise Thee now in the stillness”) may have been written for the Changing of the Councilors in 1729 or earlier, but very little is known about this cantata. Dr. Bomba postulates that Bach may have recycled some movements and musical ideas from this piece repeatedly. “In view of the fact that this church service as occasioned by such a nonrecurring event,” he writes in the notes, “it is quite obvious that Bach would either fall back on music he had already used in another context, or compose new music which he could later use for other purposes.”
This cantata starts off in a pastoral tone not with the chorus, but with an aria for alto framed with decorative passagework from the oboes. As unexpected as it is charming, it gives Hildegard Larich the chance to stand out with sophistication and grace; despite a heaviness that manifests in lower tones, her voice is lovely.
Schone and Kraus are their usual excellent selves, and soprano Helen Donath’s clear, bell-like voice is wonderful, but thanks to the engineers, they sounds like they are delivering their lines from inside a cavern compared to Larich. When Bach set the line “Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille” (“God, we praise Thee now in the stillness”), I’m sure he did not mean the world to be this still around the singers.
The chorus, again, is excellent, though it has almost too much bounce at first in “Triumph, all ye joyous voices,” and though this cantata is not on the same level of inspiration as the one that precedes it, Rilling makes the most of the material at hand.
Bach wrote BWV 121 Christum wir sollen loben schon (“To Christ we should sing praises now”) as a Christmas Cantata in 1724, using as his source the Latin hymn “A solis ortus cardine” by fifth-century cleric Hrabanus Maurus, as translated by Martin Luther. This could explain the strangely archaic vein in which this cantata begins. As Dr. Bomba mentions in the notes:
“Without any instrumental introduction, the chorus sets in, accompanied colla parte by trombones. The soprano sings the melody one line at a time, while the lower voices, which had prepared this entry, provide a counterpoint whose motifs are bound to the themes of the cantus firmus. The continuo bass unites with the vocal bass, so that the actual limitation to four voices is nowhere infringed, despite the plethora of instruments. The key fluctuates between Dorian and Phrygian, and underscores the antiquated disposition inherent of this movement.”
“Antiquated” is probably the best way to describe this movement – so much so that it is virtually unrecognizable as Bach’s work, with the unusually close intervals of its part writing and thoroughly un-Bachian voice leadings. Compared to the previous cantatas, it sounds shockingly old-fashioned. Rilling’s chorus and singers actually make this opening sound interesting, giving a committed reading that almost belies the shock of hearing this music for the first time.
With the aria “O thou whom God created and extolled,” we are back on somewhat more familiar ground. Though the oboe accompanying Kraus is still recorded a little too close for comfort, there is a better balance here than in the other cantatas, and Kraus sings the best that he has on this disc.
Soffel is also outstanding in her recitative and likewise well recorded, but with Schone’s aria “Then John’s own glad and joyful leaping” we have the singer-in-the-back-of-the-cave syndrome once again, and Schone’s voice is starting to sound strained, as well, with this aria set at a fairly high register. Auger returns in this cantata, and we can hear her clearly enough, but she is still fairly far back in the cavern, and she is straining at some of her high notes, as well. Even the choir is stuck in the cave when it sings the final chorale.
The bottom line is, the performances on this disc are generally very good, but buyers will have to make allowances for the inconsistencies in engineering. Once that allowance is made, there is much to be enjoyed, but for me, it’s an awfully big step to take.
Jonathan Yungkans is still an unrepentant modern-instrument lover in Bach’s music. Nobody’s perfect.
7xx: 1.11.2000 Jonathan Yungkans
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