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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cantatas, Volume 21

Cambridge/Walpole St. Peter
  • Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, BWV 1
  • Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, BWV 22
  • Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23
  • Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54
  • Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott, BWV 127
  • Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV 159
  • Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182
Malin Hartelius & Ruth Holton, sopranos
Claudia Schubert & Nathalie Stutzmann, altos
James Gilchrist & James Oxley, tenors
Peter Harvey, bass
The Monteverdi Choir
The English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Soli Deo Gloria Records SDG118 2CDs
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Volume 21 in John Eliot Gardiner's acclaimed complete series of Bach cantatas contains – as usual – two beautifully-recorded and presented CDs: one recorded at a live performance in March 2000 in Kings' College, Cambridge, for Quinquagesima (the last Sunday before Lent) and the second at the church of Walpole St. Peter in Norfolk – also in March 2000 for the Annunciation, Palm Sunday and Oculi (the third Sunday in Lent). The music is profound, mature and uplifting in every way. The soloists, English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir are at their very best while the conducting of John Eliot Gardiner is exemplary. This volume is one of the most satisfying of the series so far and can be unhesitatingly recommended.

Gardiner explains in his notes for the first CD that the date of recording (March 5th 2000) was exactly 36 years since the Monteverdi Choir was formed – also at Kings', at a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers. Such examples of personal infrastructure add to the sense of occasion, continuity and consistency with which this entire project was conceived and is imbued. It's to be hoped that SDG will commission a book with larger photographs (than can be reproduced in a CD-sized booklet) of and background to all the locations for the performances throughout the 'pilgrimage'. Kings', of course, is notorious for its overlong echo that – if not handled properly – can draw the teeth of music when precision is vital. In this case the recording engineers obviously had the place by its tail.

Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, BWV 22, and Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23, are of special interest in that they were the pieces that Bach wrote when auditioning for the post of Cantor at St. Thomas' church Leipzig in February 1723. In effect they were his first cantatas to be performed there. And the last that year before the statutory period when music was not permitted until Good Friday. It seems likely that BWV 22 was actually composed in Leipzig itself, BWV 23 in Cöthen. The texts are based on two accounts in St. Luke's Gospel describing Christ's announcement to his disciples of his imminent crucifixion; and of the restoration of sight to a beggar. The first is plain in design and execution, though with much beautiful vocal and instrumental invention; the dance-based aria, 'Mein Jesu, ziehe mich nach Dir' sung exquisitely by Claudia Schubert, with a delightful oboe obbligato in 9/8 stands out in BWV 22; as does the soprano and alto duet, 'Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn' also with oboe accompaniment at the start of BWV 23. For all that BWV 22 is staid, utilitarian almost, and conventional, BWV 23 shows the excitement and exuberance of the composer's Passions.

The other two cantatas on this CD were written two and six years after Bach's appointment to Leipzig, for the same Sundays: Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott, BWV 127, is more complex, experimental and intellectually rich – it makes melodic references, for example, to existing Passion chorales. For the opening chorus, 'Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott' Gardiner asked the choirs of Clare and Trinity colleges, invited on the occasion (they were two of the four choirs from whose numbers the Monteverdi Choir was drawn in the 1960s), to add the German text to Bach's Agnus Dei motif in the interests of providing a 21st century audience with points of reference of which the Lutheran congregation would have been instantly aware in 1725. Track 20 of CD 1 is a rehearsal take without this addition.

Sehet! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV 159, is dramatic in exciting ways. For example the soul in the opening arioso pleads with Christ not to go to what awaits him in Jerusalem. This cantata is redolent of the St. Matthew Passion not only because its librettist is Picander, but also because of the preoccupations which Bach must have had with the pathos and pity of Christ's calling. Throughout these four works the blend of supporting solo instruments, the entry of lively brass and the figurative use of basso continuo and strings are remarkable. Gardiner and his forces make the most of all of this color, passion and emotion – but without making a meal of it.

The only soloist on the second CD who sang in the Kings' performance is the venerable Peter Harvey. The location, a tall Perpendicular-style Fenland church, Walpole St. Peter, clearly adds to the atmosphere and evocativeness of this one performance with three cantatas, BWV 182, BWV 54 and BWV 1 for Palm Sunday, falling close to the feast of the Annunciation; Oculi, the third Sunday in lent; and the Annunciation respectively. East Anglia in the late English winter can be as cold and biting as anywhere in the British Isles: there are no intervening hills before the Ural mountains, from which cold northeasterlies can blow mercilessly at that time of year. Rain was apparently pounding on the church roof during rehearsals on the Saturday. But the sprightly opening of Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (from ten years before Bach went to Leipzig) is taken up by almost Italianate color and elevated instrumentation without any such distraction. Based on the Epistle to St. James warning against sin, BWV 54, Widerstehe doch der Sünde, is barely 12 minutes long and has but three movements… a short recitative and two arias for low alto; perfect for Nathalie Stutzmann accompanied by a small string ensemble.

The most substantial and most spectacular cantata on the set is surely the last, BWV 1, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, which was performed at the end of the Walpole St. Peter concert. Written in 1725, as Bach was becoming established at Leipzig, it too was performed on a Sunday when the Annunciation co-incided with Palm Sunday and must have made as much of an impact on those in the congregation that year as on the likes of Schumann and Brahms, early subscribers to the first edition (1850) of the Bach-Gesellschaft cantata volume. After a long (eight minutes) opening chorus followed by a brief recitative, the beautiful soprano aria, sung equally beautifully by Malin Hartelius, 'Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen göttlichen Flammen' continues the sense of dignity, majesty and elevated celebration. Another brief recitative is followed by the tenor aria (expertly executed by James Gilchrist), 'Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten'. This and the closing chorale are unalloyed, forward-pushing joy. Those listening in the 'Queen of the Marshlands' were obviously at one with the performers and performance.

Not that the magic (or potential lack of it) is really what makes this – or any other of the CDs in this series from SDG – worthwhile in and of itself. The circumstances under which Gardiner and his musicians undertook the enterprise, and are now seeing it through against earlier odds, undoubtedly contribute to what makes the whole thing special. But there are at least two other sets of the complete Bach cantatas vying for our attention and plaudits… those of Koopman with the Amsterdam Baroque on Challenge and Suzuki with the Bach Collegium Japan on Bis. None is unsatisfactory. Each has its supporters. Significantly, each series has definite and defining strong points (but never weaknesses to eliminate it from consideration). The interpretations of all three are nicely complementary and prospective buyers are best advised to consult as wide a range of opinions as possible on a release by release basis. The evidence of this wonderful set, though, is unavoidable: extremely strong soloists, tight and genuinely compelling playing and insightful, generous and informed conducting without doubt make this volume one to treasure. Unreservedly recommended.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey