Notes and Editorial Reviews
Gardiner gets to the heart of the music’s spirituality much more profoundly than others.
Cantatas: No. 148;
class="ARIAL12bi">Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf. Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit
John Eliot Gardiner, cond; Katharine Fuge (sop);
Frances Bourne (alt);
Nathalie Stutzmann (alt);
Charles Humphries (ct);
Robin Tyson (ct);
Mark Padmore (ten);
Christoph Genz (ten);
Stephan Loges (bs);
Gotthold Schwarz (bs);
Monteverdi Ch; English Baroque Soloists (period instruments)
SOLI DEI GLORIA 159 (2 CDs: 138:41
Text and Translation)
The cantatas of Volume 9 were composed for the 17th and 18th Sundays after Trinity and were performed by Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in Lund, Sweden, and at Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, respectively.
In his notes, Gardiner admits that he approached the Lund program with the fleeting thought that its three scheduled cantatas might be “less than top drawer,” at least in comparison with the cantatas sung the previous week, but he quickly discovered each had its special attractions, nonetheless. (This, I suspect, is the fate of anyone who tries to rank Bach’s cantatas.) Certainly Gardiner and his musicians treat everything on the disc as if it were a masterpiece, with the usual splendid results. Tenor Mark Padmore’s aria, partnered with flutist Rachel Beckett, in Cantata 114 and soprano Katharine Fuge’s aria in Cantata 47 (the two longest pieces on either disc) deserve mention, as does the choral singing throughout. The concert ended with
Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf
, the only one of Bach’s cantatas for which the voice-doubling orchestral parts have survived.
Gardiner also remarks about the surprisingly cool reception his musical pilgrims got at the Thomaskirche, in contrast to the warm welcome they received at Nicolaikirche, Bach’s second charge in Leipzig. I was reminded of the difficulties reported by the musicians who recorded Gabrieli’s music some 40 years ago at San Marco in Venice. The major difference was that the skeptical authorities at San Marco apparently had forgotten about their priceless musical legacy, whereas the patronizing officials at St. Thomas were all too aware of theirs, advising Gardiner and his incredulous musicians that their parish was “the only place with a living, authentic tradition of Bach performance practice.” Fortunately for the rest of us, the Columbia group (Vittorio Negri, Gregg Smith, Edward Tarr, E. Power Biggs, et alia) did manage to complete its Gabrieli project, and Gardiner’s pilgrims were able to give, and record, a memorable concert at the Thomaskirche. Two highlights of the Leipzig concert were Nathalie Stutzmann’s exquisite solo cantata, BWV 169 (with an assist from organist Howard Moody) and the
presentation by the choir, encircling Bach’s final resting place in the church’s apse, of Bach’s “deathbed” chorale,
Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit
. The audience response, Gardiner reports, was a reverent silence. To capture the moment, of course, one had to be there, but home listeners, one hopes, can sense the awe. It turns out that these sojourners may have known a thing or two about Bach too.
Another winner from the Pilgrimage project.
FANFARE: George Chien
Being the longest in the church year, the season of Trinity covers a vast range of human emotions and devotional themes. The huge number of Biblical texts that it provided gave Bach a chance to showcase the diversity of his talents, shown in this set of post-Trinity cantatas covering loss, shame, joy, pride, humility and much else in between.
The Lund disc begins with a gloriously upbeat performance of
Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens, a cantata all about the joy of worshipping God. The bouncy excitement of the opening chorus, complete with trumpets (but not drums), reflects the congregation’s enthusiasm for worship, while the two main arias concern rushing towards the house of God. The instrumental obbligatos - a wistful, somewhat withdrawn violin to accompany the tenor, a fruity trio of oboes for the alto - add a fantastic level of colour to the vocal line. Frances Bourne’s alto isn’t anything special, but Mark Padmore’s tenor is light and supple in the way he sustains the long lines. The playing of the English Baroque Soloists and the singing of the Monteverdi Choir, needless to say, is flawlessly responsive throughout.
The opening chorus of
Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost sounds surprisingly French, almost Handelian, in style, its vigorous contours representing the rigours of chastisement which the sinful believer has brought upon himself. Gardiner points the shape of this chorus so that the rather slight consolation offered in the concluding part of the music stands in marked contrast to the trials of the first, while he spins out a seemingly endless musical line for the following tenor aria, accompanied by a desolate but hypnotic flute obbligato. For this wonderful piece Padmore pales his voice down to a virtual shade to represent the misery of the soul in this vale of sorrow. Throughout this cantata Bach’s writing shows the possibility of consolation in the midst of trouble and the duality of his writing is matched by endlessly subtle playing from the instrumentalists, though Charles Humphries’ alto solo is less compelling than it might be.
BWV 47 has the weakest text (“Mankind is filth, stench, ash and earth!”) but Bach transcends it with some remarkable writing, nowhere more so than in the opening chorus which is brilliantly structured to represent the debasement that comes with pride and the exaltation that follows humility. Katharine Fuge’s clear, unaffected soprano is perfect for her aria concerning the virtues of humility, though she hardens her tone remarkably for the aria’s savage central section concerning God’s hatred for the arrogant. Stephan Loges’ bass sounds authoritative yet approachable and his arias about humility are lent conviction by the golden tone of his voice. The concluding performance of the motet
Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf is vigorous and instrumentally conceived, but the performance broadens out for the balm of the closing a cappella chorale setting.
The second disc was recorded in the Thomaskirche itself where Bach laboured for the last 27 years of his life. Even by Bach’s standards, the opening chorus of BWV 96 is extraordinarily beautiful: there is a compulsive lilt to the music which conveys the feeling of a journey, perhaps the Magi following the “Morgenstern” of the text, and the orchestral textures are enriched by a sopranino recorder which manages to be persistent without ever being cheeky. The sopraninist proves herself equally adept at the transverse flute to accompany the tenor aria, before the bass aria, heavily influenced by the grand French style, provides excellent musical illustration of the soul’s steps wandering to the left and the right before Jesus’ guidance sets him (temporarily, in this case) back on the right path. This cantata is a real winner.
The sheer ebullience of the opening
Gott soll allein mein Herze haben really lifts the listener’s spirit. Every instrumental texture shines through in the excellent recording with a touch of prominence given to the organ part, entirely appropriately as this movement probably began life as a (now lost) concerto. However the instrumental playing is the best thing about this cantata: I wasn’t impressed by Natalie Stutzmann’s singing. To my ears she often sounded overly strident and steely rather than warm and inviting. In fact I was convinced that it was being sung by an over-parted counter-tenor until I looked at the CD booklet. This is the disc’s only major disappointment, redeemed somewhat by the chorus’ beautiful singing of the final chorale. I found Stutzmann altogether more convincing in the alto aria of BWV 116 where her hard-edged expression is ideally suited to the expressing the soul’s terror at appearing before the judgement seat. She is accompanied here by a marvellously expressive oboe d’amore, plangent and tortuous, raising this aria to, in fact, a duet. Bach also gives us a remarkable vocal trio, a rarity in his cantatas, whereby the soprano, tenor and bass acknowledge their guilt as one and beg for forgiveness. The upbeat spirit of the opening chorus and final chorale go only a small way towards alleviating the penitential angst that sits at the heart of this work.
Making the most of their location, the final “Deathbed Chorale” (BWV 668) was sung right next to Bach’s own grave, a lovely touch which adds palpable poignancy to the performance. The choir sang a cappella, standing in a horseshoe around the grave which is set in the church’s choir, but the microphone settings from the rest of the concert were not changed so that the sound comes from a distance, sounding recessed and much more reverberant. I found it tremendously effective, and the piece itself is tremendously beautiful, dictated by Bach on his own deathbed, so tradition says, in preparation for his own final journey before the throne of God. It’s a fitting culmination of the disc.
Alto issues aside, then, this is a very satisfying release. The thing that really sets Gardiner’s Bach cycle apart from its rivals is that, to my mind, he gets to the heart of the music’s
spirituality much more profoundly than others, and this volume does it every bit as successfully as its companions.
-- Simon Thompson, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Du Freidefürst, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 116 by Johann Sebastian Bach
John Eliot Gardiner
English Baroque Soloists,
Written: 1724; Leipzig, Germany
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