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V 4: Bach Cantatas
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Gardiner and crew consisting of the different configurations of the Monteverdi Choir, period instrument band, and two separate quartets of soloists, continue with the Bach Pilgrimage heading first for Ansbach Bach Festival where they record live two cantatas for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, the quartet of soloists being: Joanne Lunn, Michael Chance, James Gilchrist and Stephen Varcoe, esteemed names to be sure!
The program opens with BWV 9 "Es ist das Heil uns Kommen her" (Salvation has come to us.) Though the composing score dates from 1732, stylistically and formally this belongs to the choral cantatas of 1724-25. Bach and his librettist chose to ignore the Gospel for the day, which deals with reconciliation between brothers and adversaries, and to refer instead to the Epistle, with its theme of victory over death, belief in the Resurrection being an underlying theme of the of the main hymns of the day.
This cantata is evidence of Bach's genius in being able to write both clever and fun-loving music at the same time as is clearly shown by the soprano and alto duet 'Herr, du siehst statt guter Werke'(Lord, instead of looking on good works) sung skillfully and tunefully by Chance and Lunn, accompanied most interestingly by the flute and oboe d'amore, over a simple basso continuo. The most striking aria of all is the central aria for tenor wherein James Gilchrist truly desplays his considrable ability to handle Bach's music stylistically and skillfully. It was quite dramatically rendered as befitted the text 'Wir waren schon zu tief gesunken' (We had already sunk too deep, the abyss swallowed us completely). It is unfortunate that Stephen Varcoe, Bass, did not have an aria to sing in this cantata, for he too sings Bach expertly as shown by his resonant delivery of the three lengthy recitatives.
This is followed by the chamber cantata BWV 179 "Vergnugte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust" (Pleasant rest, beloved soul's joy), expertly and passionately sung by internationally known and renowned countertenor, Michael Chance. This is the first of two solo cantatas for alto that Bach wrote in 1726 and comprises three large arias for alto, between which are placed two recitatives. I would mark this as the the high point of the entire package. All of you would-be Bach singers 'out there' listen to Chance's delivery of the recitatives; the high drama present; every word he sings is totally fitting to the overall and specific meaning therein. Easy to see why he is on call to give 'master classes' at notable places of higher musical learning; especially on the singing of Bach!
A definite highlight is the first alto aria - an aria of pure enchantment, a warm luxuriant dance in 6/8 in D, denoting perhaps the 'harmony of heaven'. which tells, through rich and passionate music, that 'pleasant rest' can be attained only through union with heaven. In this cantata Bach was setting a decidedly old-fashioned text rich in baroque imagery at a time when the 'galant' style was coming into fashion and even encroaching upon church music. It is really fascinating to see how Bach manages to achieve a convincing synthesis of these diametrically opposed modes of expression. One could go on 'ad infinitum' about Chance's ethereal tone quality, his most intelligent grasp and interpretation of Bach demonstrated throughout this entire solo cantata; it makes one want to weep with the beauty of his rendition.
The program ends with the very moving funeral motet "Der Gerechte Kommt um"(The righteous man perishs) attributed to Bach, a truly lovely five-voiced Latin motet composed by Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722). The several features of this new arrangement lend credence to the theory that Bach is it's author: the throbbing accompaniment provided by a pair of oboes, strikingly similar to the 'litui' in 'O Jesu Christ, mein's Lebens Licht', BWV 118, the subtle harmonic recoloring, and the heightened expressivity of the text underlay.
Thirty miles from Edinburgh that was hosting its World Famous Festival, J.E. Gardiner and forces performed three cantatas for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity. The solo quartet is: Katherine Fuge, Richard Wyn Roberts, Kobie von Rensburg and Stephen Loges.
WV 186 "Argre dich, O Seele, nicht", consists of eleven movements and is in two parts. The kernel of this work is the injunction to the soul 'not to fret' when it sees the Heavenly Light represented on earth in humble guise, for in the 18th century they were more comfortable with the concept of Christ as creator and Christ in majestic splendour. The glorious soprano and alto duet (no 10) containing the crucial injunction 'Sei, seele, getrui' (O Soul, be true) is reserved until the last two bars. The very fine tenor soloist Kobie van Rensburg presented his arias skillfully with his lovely resonant and intense tone-quality, especially the aria:'Mein Heiland lasst sich merken'(My saviour reveals himself).
We then hear BWV 107, "Was Willst du dich betruben"(Why are you distressed)), a choral cantata which reverts to a seventeenth century design, with all the verses of a hymn set unaltered. Bach here cleverly overcomes the limitations of being confined to rigidly structured hymns without monotony and repetitiveness by making use of the usual devices of changing voice types in the arias, the key and the meter. The most striking aria in this work is the tenor Aria with Basso continuo, a vivid portrait of Satan and his wiles delivered with typically Lutheran relish 'Wenn auch gleich aus der Hollen'(Though Satan should rise from Hell against you), presented most dramaticlly and expertly by van Rensburg.
The final choral cantatas BWV 187 "Es wartet alles auf dich" (These wait all upon thee)is again designed in two parts with gentle beautifully seductive music. This is based on texts thought to have been written by Duke Ernst Ludwig and set to music at the time by his progressive Kapellmeister, Georg Schumann. In this work there is an intriguing soprano aria wirh obligato oboe sung masterfully by Katherine Fuge ''Gott versorget alles Leben' (God provides for all life).
We need not elaborate on the quality of singing of the Monteverdi Choir, or the skill of the English Baroque soloists, for throughout what must have become an exhausting endeavor, their dedication and excellence is predominant. It should be noted, however, that just as Bach had to deal with changes of personnel in his choirs from time to time, Gardiner obviously had a somewhat similar situation, so it is prudent to note that although the choir and instrumental forces are not so affected by this, the quality of the soloists is somewhat varied; none that I have heard in this series thus far can be called 'poor', but certainly some are more skilled than others. At first, I was surprised by this, but upon analysis, I had to remember that this 'finding' of personnel went for an entire year, so Gardiner and forces should be commended for the inspirational and enjoyable overall result.
The enjoyment for me CONTINUES as Gardiner CONTINUES to release his 'live' recordings of an incredible year!
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH: "Gardiner's Bach is in a class of its own for colour, drama and rhetorical subtlety. His choir and instrumentalists respond with breathtaking virtuosity".
BBC MAGAZINE: "This is Bach at a very high level - a match for anything else currently available on disc."
The packaging of this 2 disc album is very attractive and information as well and librettos are presented in English and German.
The cantatas here are for the 6th and 7th Sundays after Trinity, of which two and three respectively survive. Making up some space on the first disc there is a motet by Kuhnau, the arrangement in the form we have here being thought by some to be by Bach. Not so thought by me, I must say, but a pleasant enough piece and new to me. I am getting familiar with the names of the soloists by now, and indeed quite a few of them are famous from other contexts also. In each case the alto soloist is a counter-tenor, and although I am not hugely fond of the counter-tenor sound I am always relieved and encouraged to see the name of Michael Chance. He performs on the first disc, and the strength of tone that I have always associated with him is here unfailingly. I was less familiar with his counterpart Richard Wyn Roberts on disc #2, but again I greatly like his tone, almost suggestive of a high tenor. The other soloists tick all the boxes as they usually do, the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists are on excellent form, and above all Gardiner himself deserves enormous credit for his sheer leadership as well as for the insight into Bach that shines though every bar.
Reservations regarding the sound quality have been rare so far, and I have none this time. The sung texts are translated for us, as are the accompanying essays, two of them as usual. There is always a short personal statement by one of the performers, this time a violinist, and there is the customary long, loving and profound essay by Gardiner himself. Does he perhaps read more illustrative elements into the music than are really there? I guess he does, but such immersion in the music is always likely to have that effect, and it is a small enough price to pay for the guidance he offers in any number of other ways. I sometimes remember and sometimes forget to mention that although the format of these sets in a kind of book form is original and attractive you need to be careful when handling the discs themselves, as they are difficult to extract when you want to do that, and liable to fall out when you don't.
Otherwise it is just a matter of Gratias.
Five of the six pieces are, like most of the other Gardiner Cantata series I've heard, absolutely spectacular. There are too many highlights to attempt to illustrate, but I must mention that the Kuhnau/Bach motet is particularly stunning.
To my ears, there is one failure on this 2-CD set: It is the cantata "Vergnugte Ruh," where the alto soloist seems to be having a very bad day. (These are live recordings... There are no re-takes.) His poor intonation makes the piece painful to listen to. But perhaps you might disagree... I'd be curious to know.
If I skip over this particular cantata, I am left with quite a bit of amazing music performed spectacularly.