Bach Cantatas – Kontrabande – CR5154
£9.99 – £15.99
“For anyone eager to explore the solo cantata literature of Bach, this is a good place to start. Recommended”
“For my money, this is a fine disc to have in one’s collection in that it is well-performed, highly focused, and gives a more reflective view of a selection of Bach’s often intricate sacred music”
“…beautiful Counter tenor voice smooth througout the range…”
It is impossible to grasp the significance of J.S. Bach’s musical achievements without coming to terms with his Lutheran world view. Bach’s personal library was filled with theological works and Bible commentaries and his copious margin notes demonstrate a determination to come to terms with all of it. Lutheranism encouraged Bach to see himself in harness with the other ministers of the church not only as a worship-leader and teacher but also as a prophet, connecting him to a tradition looking back to King David dancing and singing before the Ark of the Covenant, which empowered him to fill his music with limitless meanings and inferences. The proper role of the complete church musician was to lead his listeners to a right view of God and also, through God’s eyes, to a truthful assessment of the human condition. God’s perfect world has suffered corruption through sin and part of Bach’s mission was to unmask that false world order. The two cantatas presented here, replete with Good News and bad, show how far Bach was willing to exercise his art and bend musical conventions in order to communicate his convictions. Cantata 170, Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul) was first performed on the 28th of July, 1726, the Sixth Sunday after Trinity. Bach’s task was to illuminate the prescribed readings of the day: Romans 6.3–11 (Through Christ’s death the believer is dead to sin) and Matthew 5.20–26 (Righteousness comes through faith rather than observance of the Law). The libretto, by George Christian Lehms, addresses these themes through the reflections of a single, troubled believer and, appropriately, the personal nature of the message is conveyed through the voice of a single alto soloist. After a pastoral aria which contrasts the enduring pleasures of Godliness with the fleeting gratifications of sin, a recitative contemplates how far man has strayed from God’s perfect plan. To illustrate his point, the second aria presents a vivid demonstration of musical organizational depravity: unison violins and violas are enlisted to deliver the somber bass line while the organ, its mighty pedals silenced, provides two drooping, chromatic obbligato lines as the alto intones forlornly with no continuo support. For Bach and his fellow congregants, this was the world turned upside down! After a recitative in which the soloist considers an early exit from a world of wickedness, the final aria rescues the beleaguered Christian as he flies up into the comforting arms of Jesus. His joy is tempered somewhat by the prominent tritone (the dreaded diabolus in musica) that initiates the main tune, illustrating God’s power to turn even the discord of Hell into the concord of Heaven.
Cantata 54, Widerstehe doch der Sunde (Resist sin, indeed) was possibly from 1713, also with a text by Lehms, who assigned it to the Third Sunday in Lent. The readings for that day include Paul’s appeal to lead a pure life (Ephesians 5.1–9) and a warning from Jesus to keep it pure at all costs (Luke 11.14–28) but, in common with most Weimar cantatas, it was suitable for any day of the liturgical year. Bach nails the message in the very first bar: he characterizes sin by striking the dominant seventh over a tonic pedal, an unwholesome and unprepared dissonant effect. Painfully, through many wickedly attractive suspensions, the music struggles into more consonant territory, thus representing the earnest effort of the believer to separate himself from the Devil and strive toward Godliness. The ensuing recitative is notable for the lurid harmonies describing the “empty shadow and whited sepulcher” of sin’s deception, segueing into an arioso in which the rapid continuo line pictures the “sharp sword” of sin piercing body and soul. The final aria further describes the menace of sin by employing a four-part fugue with a subject that descends chromatically; but a swiftly running countersubject shows the Devil beating a hasty retreat in the face of the devoted believer.
The Sinfonia to Cantata 49, Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen (I go and seek with longing), originally formed the finale of a three-movement concerto, possibly from Bach’s Cöthen period. Later, in Leipzig, this became the model for the first movement of the familiar Harpsichord Concerto, BWV 1053. Alfred Dürr notes that the inclusion of a virtuoso concerto movement for organ in a sacred cantata was perhaps compensation for the absence of a chorus and it also contributes to the celebratory wedding character of this cantata, a dialogue between Christ, the Groom, and the Church, his Bride.
The Sinfonia from Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekummernis (I had much grief in my heart), for the Third Sunday after Trinity, sets the somber mood for a grim dialogue between Jesus and a soul burdened with doubts. The exact origin of the work is obscure, but the evidence shows that Bach adapted it for many performances, including, possibly, as part of an application for an organist position in Hamburg. The brief Sinfonia that begins the second half of Cantata 76, Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (The heavens are telling the glory of God), is scored for oboe d’amore, viola da gamba and continuo. It sounds very much like a part of a typical sonata da chiesa whose other movements have been lost, unless those “lost” movements are not in fact part of Bach’s Organ Trio Sonata, BWV 528, which opens with this very movement, scored for two manuals and pedal.
The lovely aria Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde, BWV 53 (Strike then thou, O blessed hour) is now thought to have been composed by Georg Melchior Hoffmann (c. 1679–1715) who studied law in Leipzig, played keyboard in the Collegium Musicum under Georg Philipp Telemann, and assumed the leadership of that ensemble when Telemann left. (J.S. Bach also directed this ensemble from 1729–1739). Although only a fraction of his music has survived, Hoffman was a greatly respected organist and composer and, in addition to BWV 53, two other of his works were mistakenly attributed to J.S. Bach: BWV 189 and Anh. 21. An interesting feature of the present aria is the use of handbells, instruments never specified in any of J.S. Bach’s extant works.
The Concerto for Oboe d’amore, Strings and Continuo in A major, BWV 1055R is a reconstruction from the Concerto for Harpsichord, Strings and Continuo in A major, BWV 1050. It is interesting to note that of all Bach’s concertos for harpsichord, only the 5th Brandenburg was originally conceived for that instrument. It is fortunate indeed that the composer saw fit to arrange so many of those now-lost works for his coffee house concerts in Leipzig since otherwise not a single concerto for oboe or oboe d’amore would have come down to us. In common with so many of these reconstructions, the present concerto demonstrates the advantage of assigning the harpsichord’s right hand to a sustaining instrument so that every note can be given the full value and expression that Bach originally intended. © 2014 Steve Mullany.
Steve Mullany is a flutist, recorder player, composer, arranger, co-founder of the Columbia Recorder Quartet and, for over forty years, an arranger, performer, and admirer of the music of J.S. Bach.
With his career starting as a chorister at Salisbury Cathedral in the United Kingdom, Charles Humphries has been paired with some of the worlds finest conductors and early music ensembles. Concert, Recital or Opera, Humphries has been one of the most sought after counter tenors of his generation. In 2006 he moved away from the UK to persue his career in Europe and most recently now resides in the USA with a flourishing career throughout the country. With over 40 recordings to his name, it is his sensitive and intelligent performances of Baroque repertoire that have stood out. He has a private voice studio in the Washington DC area and is in demand as a visiting professor in many universities throughout the United States.
On a train journey from London to Edinburgh, the name KontraBande was created. With a deliberate play on the French words for Counter tenor (Kontratenor) and small ensemble (La petite Bande) KontraBande emerged. I had always decided that at some stage in developing my career the opportunity to promote concerts and work with fellow artists was necessary, not to mention the opportunity of programming music that perhaps was not appearing just yet in the more established ensembles programmes for this particular combination.
With repertoire touching on the 16th century through to the 18th century, libraries were scoured and music and parts bought or created enabling both regular repertoire and lesser known repertoire to be performed. The combination of the counter tenor voice and string ensemble with the addition of various obligato instruments was too tempting for words and suddenly KontraBande were appearing regularly at London’s Wigmore Hall, the South Bank, as well as a memorable tour to Estonia. Whilst going into a brief period of retirement, or rather contemplation, KontraBande rises from the ashes with this wonderful disc of music by the great man himself, Johann Sebastian Bach. Performed by some of the worlds greatest soloists in their own right, eight musicians came together.
“Small forces, Big results”
It certainly is!
Review: I – Christopher Brodersen
We take it for granted that Sebastian Bach was an innovator in everything he touched, but what about the sacred cantata? Beginning with his tenure in Leipzig, Bach started writing in a new, highly personal style, one that diverged from the older choral cantata by featuring a single solo voice in alternating recitative and aria. But Bach didn’t invent the solo cantata all by himself; he found impetus in the writings of a certain Erdmann Neumeister, a Leipzig theologian who around 1700 had published a cycle of cantata texts. Neumeister was firmly in the camp of the adherents of Orthodoxy, who despite their name had very progressive ideas when it came to the words of the Lutheran service. Following Luther’s admonition that “God’s Word is dead unless it is proclaimed and explained to the faithful,” Bach and the Orthodoxists found a more direct, expressive way of reaching the individual congregant: the sacred aria, typically sung by a Gläubiger, or believer, who reflects in quasi-operatic fashion on the dictum, or lesson of the day.
At the other end of the spectrum from the Orthodoxists stood the Pietists; they argued that only biblical passages or Lutheran hymns should be set to music, and polyphonically at that. The Pietists even went so far as to proscribe arias and the arioso style from the Lutheran service. Bach battled the Pietists off and on throughout his whole career; luckily for us he prevailed long enough to write a splendid series of solo cantatas for every voice type, not to mention all the other arias and solo passages in his cantatas and Passions. The alto cantatas recorded here are some of the finest examples of this groundbreaking new style.
Charles Humphries is one of the better-known countertenors before the public. He’s British-born and trained, and hearing his performances on this CD caused me to reflect on how far the countertenor voice has “progressed” since the 1960s. Back then, if you wanted to hear a countertenor singing Bach, you had your choice of two Englishmen: Alfred Deller, whose laid-back style and somewhat emasculated sound didn’t work in Bach; or the rather edgy, operatic approach of Paul Esswood, which despite his artistry always seemed a little overblown. (James Bowman hadn’t recorded much Bach at this point).This is not to disparage the stature or accomplishment of these two artists, which is considerable—I’m talking about the actual vocal quality or delivery, which admittedly was somewhat of a turn-off for many listeners. I even remember a few record critics, such as Paul Henry Lang, arguing rather vociferously that (English) countertenors had no place in Bach.
Fast forward to the 1980s and 90s, and the numbers of vocally pleasing countertenors—mostly British, but a few Continentals and North Americans as well—have grown considerably. The countertenor voice has fully ensconced itself in Baroque performance—indeed, the female alto is somewhat of a rarity these days.
Humphries is very much of the latter generation of countertenors. His voice is smooth and well-balanced from top to bottom. There is nary a trace of hootiness or edginess to be found. The basic tone color is a little darker than most; you could say a little meatier and more masculine. And best of all he sings with refinement and intelligence, always in tune with the stylistic and linguistic demands of Bach’s music.
Humphries’s performances of Cantata 170, “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust,” and Cantata 54, “Wiederstehe doch der Sünde,” compare quite favorably with those of Andreas Scholl on Harmonia Mundi, heretofore my favorite. Now that I’ve listened to it again, I find Scholl’s habit of “spinning” the end note of a phrase by adding vibrato a little irritating and anachronistic. Humphries, by comparison, sticks to a basically straight tone that is attractive enough as to not require varnishing with a lot of vibrato. Scholl also has trouble occasionally in the high register; by comparison, high notes don’t faze Humphries at all.
This is some of Bach’s most familiar and beloved music: the Sinfonia to Cantata 49, with its jolly concertato organ part (presumably played by James Johnston—no attribution is given in the booklet), or the lovely oboe solo in the Sinfonia to Cantata 21. The later marks the only appearance of the soprano oboe in the program; elsewhere it’s all the creamy-sounding oboe d’amore (Cantata 170, Sinfonia to Cantata 76, Concerto), ably played by Alexandra Bellamy. The one-to-a-part string band, led by Clare Salaman, is quite effective, allowing the solo instruments to shine. The recorded sound is super-realistic; it’s as if the musicians had set up shop in my listening room.
Potpourri CDs of Bach are legion, but this one is more satisfying than most. For anyone eager to explore the solo cantata literature of Bach, this is a good place to start. Recommended. Christopher Brodersen.
Review: II – Bertil van Boer
There seems to be two ways to perform successfully cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach; either one applies a rough-and-tumble energy of the sort that began back in the days of vinyl with the Telefunken series, or one takes a more gentle, pensive approach, which is the case with this recording. Of course, there may be other approaches, and certainly if one uses Bach’s often powerful and penetrating brass, such as in Cantata 76 “Die Himmel erzählen,” a rather copious amount of energy is required to be devoted, but in the solo cantatas often reflection tends to be preferred by the composer over pomp and power. As a result, one often finds, as here, a program of works that may or may not be ideally suited to one another, but which offer an interesting and broad view of Bach’s own ideas.
The early music group Kontrabande, along with countertenor Charles Humphries, has created a nicely copasetic program that includes three solo cantatas, the sinfonias that introduce a further three, and, just to show off the considerable skills of oboist Alexandra Bellamy, a reconstruction or “restoration” of an oboe d’amore concerto drawn from a harpsichord concerto in the same key. As the notes point out, many of Bach’s concertos for the latter are taken and reconfigured from those for other instruments, most of whose originals have been lost. As a group of pieces, this disc is remarkably unified through the solid and thoughtful performances by these musicians. For instance, the opening of the Cantata, BWV 53, “Schlage doch,” has gentle, susurrating strings that make the rocking motion seem almost like a polite dance. Of course, the use of handbells creates an ethereal sound that seems to make the work other-worldly. Humphries carefully phrases his music, with a nice mezzo di voce which eases out and ornamentation that is extremely tasteful. The music is very the antithesis of what one might expect from Bach, and of course it seems that this work was actually composed by one of Bach’s predecessors of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum, Georg Melchior Hoffmann (c. 1679–1715). Although probably not authentic, the music fits the remaining pieces well. Speaking of BWV 76, the Seconda parte opens with the antithesis of the powerful trumpets and drums of the opening, with a rather nice duet between the d’amore and viola da gamba, indicating that Bach was not all about bluster. The weaving of both the woodwind and string around each other is a lovely arabesque, as much to play off of each other’s best ranges. Elsewhere, in the first movement of the cantata “Widerstehe doch der Sünde,” one finds a series of pungent close harmonies and steady rhythmic foundation that seems to echo a slow movement in Vivaldi’s Seasons. In the closing aria, “Wer Sünde tut, der ist vom Teufel” (Whosoever sins, is of the Devil), the bass line relentlessly pushes forward against a chromatic string line and admonitory vocal part. It is about as preachy as Bach can get.
All of these works are readily available on other discs (though not in this program order or selection), so there seems to be nothing really new. The clarity and discipline of the ensemble, however, really makes this performance stand out. My only quibble is that there are no texts, but since the Bach cantata texts are readily available, this should only cause a momentary difficulty. For my money, this is a fine disc to have in one’s collection in that it is well-performed, highly focused, and gives a more reflective view of a selection of Bach’s often intricate sacred music. Bertil van Boer.