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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cantatas, Volume 26

Pentecost at Long Melford

  • O ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe, BWV 34
  • Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten I, BWV 59
  • Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68
  • Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten II, BWV 74
  • Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget ihr Saiten!, BWV 172
  • Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut, BWV 173
  • Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzen Gemüte, BWV 174
Lisa Larsson, soprano
Nathalie Stutzmann & Derek Lee Ragin, altos
Christoph Genz, tenor
Panajotis Iconomou, bass
Monteverdi Choir
English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Recorded Holy Trinity, Long Melford, 11-12 June 2000
Released July 2006
Soli Deo Gloria Records SDG121 2CDs 69:42 + 47:58
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The two CDs in volume 26 of John Eliot Gardiner's Bach cantata pilgrimage from the year 2000 are for Whit Sunday (BWVs 172, 59, 74 and 34) and Whit Monday (BWVs 173, 68 and 174). In his essay for the CD booklet – comprehensive, personal and informative, as usual – Gardiner is struck by how large a festival in the Lutheran year Whitsuntide was – celebrated over three days… and hence comparable with Christmas and Easter. This meant an immense amount of work for Bach, exceeded perhaps only by the effort which his musicians would then have had to put into the realization of the cantatas. But you'll listen in vain for even the slightest hint of torpor or lassitude in this music, which is wholeheartedly recommended both for those collecting this outstanding Soli Deo Gloria series and for anyone new or undecided having heard the other Bach cantatas in this or other series. It's splendidly conceived and meticulously executed music making.

For these seven Whit Sunday and Whit Monday cantatas Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists and a quintet of solo singers traveled to the late Perpendicular style (late fifteenth century) church in the former wool town of Long Melford, Suffolk. For all its spacious exterior, this location has a somewhat dry acoustic. The music, nevertheless, is full and open, never boxy. The balance between soloists, chorus and instruments is better than on some CDs in this series and adds to the sense of presence which is otherwise conveyed by extremely intense and focused performances. The recordings took place on two consecutive days at, fittingly, the Holy Trinity Church in Long Melford.

The first CD contains the joyful cantatas, 'Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget ihr Saiten!' (BWV 172), the two 'Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten' (BWVs 59 and 74) and 'O ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe' (BWV 34). 'Erschallet, ihr Lieder' ('Resound, Ye songs') is an appropriate opening with its fugal chorus, two sonorous arias and duet; it pushes the celebration of the completion of Christ's work on the Earth gently yet firmly forward. Triple imagery, scoring and thematic material is everywhere: reference to the Trinity. Composed originally in Weimar in 1714 shortly after Bach's 'promotion' to Konzertmeister, it was subsequently revised, probably in Cöthen and three times in Leipzig. The solo singing – particularly by Genz – is unforced. It's probably the duet, 'Komm lass mich nicht länger warten' (Larsson, Lee Ragin) which will affect you most deeply. Their phrasing is rounded and the touch upon the music light, almost moving bodily in unison with the music's momentum. It seems to exemplify the joy of this time of year: in the northern hemisphere midsummer is not far away; it's also harvest time for the Canaanites, some of whose feasts were taken over by the Israelites on arriving in the promised land. Without letup the opening 'Resound' chorus returns at the close; not for long, but long enough to satisfy. The Choir here sings as if applauding the creativity of the composer, rather than over-sweetening the joy.

The two cantatas, 'Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten', BWV 59 and 74, have texts by Luther and Christiane Mariane von Ziegler respectively; von Ziegler uses the Gospel (as elsewhere here, St. John) as the basis for her text. Composed only two years apart, each is complex in its way; each alludes, for example, to the intricate relationship between the life on Earth and life after death with God, who is nevertheless present with believers now. The shortish aria, 'Die Welt mit allen Königreichen', is beautifully sung by Greek bass Panajotis Iconomou. Lacking a closing Chorale and having only the inscription 'Chorale segue', Gardiner's repetition of the earlier one this time with the third verse of the Lutheran hymn is short but effective. BWV 74 is grander and more celebratory; Gardiner's forces live up to the sense of surety and fulfillment bestowed on those who have readied themselves for God's love. The tonal progression as the eight movements suggest the prefiguring of a significant journey reflects the text beautifully. Genz again shines in tenor aria, 'Kommt, eilet, stimmet Sait und Lieder'. The chorus in particular seems at one with this stately quest. To some minds, perhaps, not quite so dignified is the depiction of the results of an ungodly life with its höllischen Kettern (hellish chains) rattling in the alto aria, 'Nichts Kann mich erretten' (tr. 19) in almost operatic (Italian operatic, at that) vividness. But taken in the right spirit, the performers make it work; although one wonders if there is just a tiny dose of sardonic anti-Calvinism here?

Dating from just a few years before Bach's death, 'O ewiges Feuer, O Ursprung der Liebe', BWV 34, began life as a wedding cantata. It contains pastoral elements, melodic lines winging up and down the scales, open-hearted joy and elation. Gardiner and his performers certainly rise to the occasion, borrowed or otherwise. It's light, upbeat and uplifting. That's how it's been recorded too, and so positive is its entire tone that you almost want to play it again on finishing.

Potential buyers should note that the earlier recording (DG Archiv 463584-2) by Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists is still available. But the performances are different and the soloists with the exception of Genz (though including Kožená and Peter Harvey) not the same. The later issue is the one to be preferred. Good and resounding though the 2000 single CD was, there is extra depth and joie de vivre on the SDG set.

The second CD is even more exuberant than the first; it's clear that the singers in particular were really enjoying the experience. The three cantatas on the second CD all began life as cantatas composed in either Cöthen or Weimar. And secular cantatas at that. 'Render unto Caesar…' seems relevant at this point; but the divinity of Bach's three Whit Monday cantatas performed here is far from diminished. Gardiner argues that it may even be strengthened; he also points out that Bach was under pressure to produce three cantatas on the three successive days at this time of year.

So listen to 'Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut', BWV 173, for what it is: a heavily dance-inspired celebration of God's relationship with the earth… God so loved the world that He gave us His son. This is also the theme of the next cantata, 'Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt', BWV 68, when he returns to text by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler and fits the salvation theme into material from the 'Hunt' cantata (BWV 208). Again, the performances are excellent; the soloists lend dignity and sprightliness to the music in equal and appropriate measure.

The final cantata, 'Ich liebe den Höchsten', BWV 174, opens with an expansion of the first movement of the third Brandenburg. This was most likely done to expose his players to town approval, rather than for the kinds of expediency just discussed; Bach added two horns, three oboes and doubled the strings into a full concertino group. Aside from boosting any professional pride, this arrangement achieves the same festive sparks and delight with which this CD set it permeated. And Gardiner's forces carry things off with almost jolly aplomb – listen to the (close, particularly, of the) bass aria, 'Greifet zu', for real momentum, for example; and to the exultant and short, final Chorale, which seems to sum the whole set up as conveying 'joy with honor'.

As with other reviews on Classical Net of the Soli Deo Gloria Bach cantata series, Volume 26 is recommended. In this case recommended without hesitation. The singing is restrained yet committed; mention should also be made of the consistently fine singing of contralto Nathalie Stutzman; she manages to sing from 'on high' yet with a controlled immediacy that is very telling and totally at one with Bach's music. The chorus is clear and persuasive and John Eliot Gardiner's conducting of the English Baroque Soloists full of life yet also of respect. His familiarity with the works here presented graces and enhances with a lightness of touch matched only by its consistency.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey