Friday, 21 March 2014

Bach Cantatas volume 18

Bach Cantatas volume 18: La Petite Bande, Sigiswald Kuijken: Accent
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 21 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Volume 18 in Kuijken's admirable one to a part survey of Bach'c cantatas

This is volume 18 in Sigiswald Kuijken and La Petite Bande's traversal through Johann Sebastian Bach's cantatas on the Accent label, recording one cantata for each Sunday and high feasts of the liturgical year. This disc consists of cantatas BWV 70, BWV 9 and BWV 182, that is Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! for the 26th Sunday after Trinity, Es is das Heil uns kommen her for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity and Himmleskonig, sei willkommen for Palm Sunday. The performances use the most update of research into Bach's forces and performance practice with both the vocal solos and the chorus parts being taking by the four soloists, soprano Gerlinde Samann, alto Petra Noskaiova, tenor Christoph Genz, and bass Jan Van der Crabben

This recording follows the one to a part principle which we know applied to much of Bach's vocal output (particularly the cantatas), and Kuijken's attention to detail also runs to concern for the bass line of the instrumental line up. Here we have a basse de violon in the ensembles, but they also use a violoncello da spalla, a curious instrument which was a small cello played on the arm and which we are beginning to recognise as important.

But two elements give the recordings a particular and distinctive quality, which may affect how listeners react. The first is the organ, which appears to be a relatively discreet chamber organ whereas conductors like Paul McCreesh have made recordings of this repertoire with similar forces but using surviving organs from Bach's day; instruments which are highly characterful rather than discreet supports. The second is that the recording is rather closely miked, which gives the disc a rather old-fashioned quality to the sound. There is no sense of the acoustic and listening to the opening track on headphones I was first struck by how close singers and players were to me. This is something I got used to, as I came to appreciate the discs many virtues, but it does need saying up front.

Cantata BWV 709 Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! was composed in Leipzig in 1723 for the 26th Sunday after Trinity (21 November). It was originally written in 1716 for the second Sunday in Advent for Weimar, though this version has not survived. It starts with a chorus where the voices are vividly combined with instruments, making a lively and brilliant wake-up call. Bass Jan Van der Crabben is the flexible soloist in the accompanied recitative, which is followed by the alto aria Wann kommt der Tag in which Petra Noskaiova is accompanied by Sigiswald Kuijken on obbligato violoncelle da spalla. A modest but nicely expressive number.

The following highly chromatic recitative introduces the lovely tenor of Christoph Genz. The soprano aria, Lass der Spotter Zungen schmahen has Samann accompanied by a rather athletic part for unison violins and violas. She has a bright and focussed tone with a nice warmth to it. After another tenor recitative there is a chorale where the strong contribution from the instrumentalists makes it clear how closely balanced voices and instruments are, making them far more equals than on some discs. The tenor aria, Hebt euer Haput empor has a slow-ish but rather athletic role for strings and oboe complemented by a lovely solos from Genz.

The bass accompanied recitative has strong instrumental support and the result is rather exciting complete with Van der Crabben's great solo line. The subsequent aria is rather more contemplative at first, but with an amazing middle section complete with trumpet (the words here are crash and crackle, roar and knell!). The bass solo line is quite wide ranging and admirably taken by Van der Crabben. We conclude with a brilliant chorale with instrumental accompaniment.

This cantata has Bach at his most engaging and imaginative and the early origins of the piece probably account for the extensive writing for woodwind and trumpet. The performers pay suitable due to the work's subject matter, but they also bring out the sheer delight of performing the music.

Cantata BWV8 Es ist das Heil uns kommen her comes from the early 1730's and was written for Leipzig for he Sixth Sunday after Trinity. The opening coro, complete with lovely writing for flute and oboe d'amore has some fabulously perky instrumental writing around the central vocal chorale. The long bass recitative (the first of three in the cantata, as if the bass's train of thought keeps being interrupted by the arias), is followed by a tenor aria with obbligato violin, Wir waren schon zu tief gesunken. The vocal line is quite chromatic and wandering, which Genz makes admirably expressive and displays lovely flexibility in his upper register. The next section of the bass's ruminations are followed by one of the highlights, a duet for soprano and alto with lovely accompaniment including both flute and oboe. Samann and Noskaiova complement each other nicely here making the movement a lyrical delight. The final bass recitative is followed by just a short chorale. This is one of those cantatas (and there are many such) were the words are profoundly important with form and music being dictated partly by the text.

For the final cantata on the disc we return to Weimar in 1714 when Bach wrote Himmelskonigh, sei willkommen for Palm Sunday (25 March). He would re-use cantata in Leipzig for the Feast of the Annunciation but here the group play the original 1714 version. It starts with an instrumental movement, Sonata, which is a lovely duet for violin and flute, followed by a lively and rather infectious chorus with a great intermingling of voice and instruments. Here, as elsewhere the words are pointed beautifully with fine musicality. The subsequent recitative is more a lyrical arioso for the bass and the aria which follows, Starkes Lieben, is very appealing with its steady but crisp accompaniment and quite elaborate vocal line. There is no recitative, the alto aria Leget euch dem Heiland unter follows straight away. There is a fine obbligato recorder and a quietly involving solo from Noskoaiova. The final aria, again without an intervening recitative, Jeus, lass durch Wohl is for the tenor, with an extensive violoncello part. The vocal line is quite chromatic as it ponders on Christ's crucifixion and sacrifice, and Genz renders it expressively albeit with a bit of edge to his tone. The concluding movements are a chorale which pits the soprano's chorale against a contrapuntal texture from the other three soloists, and a delightfully joyful chorus.

The CD comes with extensive notes by Sigiswald Kuijken, which go through the cantatas movement by movement in admirable fashion. In addition you get a further booklet which explains the philosophy of the whole recording project and how to get the most out of listening to the cantatas, plus of course texts and translations. The disc is worth buying just for the documentation.

The four soloists are entirely admirable, providing beautifully focussed solo singing and characterful ensembles. The are a nicely balanced group and whilst there are the odd moments of smudginess and less than perfect passagework, I could happily live with them singing the entire sequence of cantatas.

My only caveat regarding this disc is the closeness of the recording. Many people will already be collecting these discs, and this will form a fine addition. But for the casual listener, this forms an admirable and fascinating selection.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) - Cantata BWV 70, Wachtet! betet! betet! wachtet!
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) - Cantata BWV 9, Est is das Heil uns kommen her
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750) - Cantata BWV 182, Himmelskonig, sei wilkommen
Gerlinde Samann (soprano)
Petra Noskaiova (alto)
Christoph Genz (tenor)
Jan Van der Crabben (bass)
La Petite Bande
Sigiswald Kuijken (director)
Recorded 3-4 December 2012, Predikherenkerk in Leuven (Belgium)
ACCENT ACC25318 1 SACD
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