This recording of four cantatas by Bach seems to be put together
at random, as I can't see any connection between them. Two are
among the most popular: BWV 62 and 140. The ensemble's choir consists
of four sopranos, five altos, four tenors and four basses, and
members of the choir also sing the solo parts. Remarkable is the
contribution of Max van Egmond, the Dutch singer who some years
ago retired from the stage and now restricts himself to singing
in ensembles and teaching. Here he also sings the duets and one
recitative in cantatas BWV 192 and 140.
While listening to this disc I was pleased by the level of singing
and playing of most participants. This is a good ensemble and
they seem to have a fairly good idea of how Bach's music should
be performed. According to the booklet Thomas Folan has special
interest in German music, so that perhaps explains it. And there
are many things to enjoy from a strictly musical point of view.
But stylistically there are reasons for criticism and the amount
of text expression is too limited. I'll try to explain that
below in the light of the performances of the individual cantatas.
The disc starts with Cantata 62, one of two cantatas based on the Advent
chorale 'Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland'. The opening chorus is
well sung and played, and the cantus firmus is clearly audible.
But as the dynamic accents are a bit scarce, the performance
as a whole is a bit flat. Next follows the tenor aria 'Bewundert,
o Menschen, dies große Geheimnis'. Pablo Bustos is the main
weakness in the cast of soloists: his German pronunciation is
pretty poor, and the slight tremolo in his voice is very unpleasant.
In addition he sings too much legato and, again, there are too
few dynamic accents. The recitative for bass is sung very well,
with the right rhythmic freedom. Jonathan Rohr's pronunciation
is a lot better than his colleague's, and his diction is good
too. In the aria 'Streite, siege, starker Held' he articulates
very well, but the aria is spoilt by the slowish tempo which
- in combination with a lack of accents - makes this aria not
as powerful as the text requires: "Fight, conquer, o strong
champion! Show yourself mighty for us in the flesh! Be active,
the power that is in us weak ones strong to make!". Next
follows a recitative in which soprano and alto blend well. The
closing chorale is - as all chorales in this recording - characterised
by a lack of accents and too much legato singing.
A number of features of this performance is present everywhere, therefore
I am not going to mention them every time. What is disappointing
is the lack in consistency. In Cantata 45, for instance, the
opening chorus is followed by a recitative, which - unlike the
bass recitative in BWV 62 - is rhythmically too strict. In baroque
music declamation is an essential tool. In this recording there
is inconsistency in this respect as well: Jonathan Rohr's declamation
is excellent in the arioso 'Es werden viele zu mir sagen', but
there is very little of it in the tenor recitative 'Der Höchste
läßt mich seinen Willen wissen'. Deborah Rentz-Moore has a very
nice voice, and sings the aria 'Wer Gott bekennt' quite beautifully.
The obbligato part for the transverse flute is also played well,
although with too much legato.
Cantata 192 is a so-called 'chorale cantata': all three sections are
based on stanzas of the chorale 'Nun danket alle Gott' (Martin
Rinckart, 1636). Two choruses frame a duet of soprano and bass.
The tutti blocks in the opening chorus are well realised, and
although there are too little dynamic accents in the closing
chorus, its dance-like character - a gigue - comes out well.
Anne Harley and Max van Egmond are no ideal match, as the former
tends to overpower the latter. Max van Egmond's voice has clearly
diminished in power, probably one of the reasons he only rarely
sings and records these days. But otherwise his performance
is still very good, in particular in regard to diction and articulation.
And the duet is performed with much verve.
'Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme' is one of Bach's best-known cantatas.
It is based on the beloved chorale by Philipp Nicolai (1599).
This chorale has only three stanzas which are all used unchanged
in this cantata. The unknown poet has added free poetry which
Bach has set as two recitatives for tenor and bass respectively
and two duets for soprano and bass. Again soprano and bass don't
ideally match up, but in general the duets are sung well. Here
we notice again that Max van Egmond's voice lacks its former
strength, but his text expression is still exemplary. In comparison
the tenor in his recitative and in the chorale 'Zion hört die
Wächter singen' is disappointing, as both diction and pronunciation
are pretty bad and there is hardly any expression of the text.
In the booklet Peter Watchorn writes that for this recording the Neue
Bach-Ausgabe (NBA) has been used. But then why is the wrong
text used in the duet 'Mein Freund ist mein'? The NBA has as
the text of the bass "Und ich bin sein" (I am his),
whereas here the bass sings "Und ich bin dein" (And
I am yours). (Strangely enough the English translation gives
the former version.) This has to do with the way the poet (or
Bach) makes use of the quotation from the Song of Songs. In
his book on Bach's cantatas the German Bach scholar Alfred Dürr
writes that even if the text is changed in as it is sung here
- which was also in older editions of this cantata - it is strictly
speaking wrong. Since I'm pretty sure his book has been used
for the preparation of this recording I wonder why are his remarks
on this subject been ignored.
Let me sum up. I am convinced this ensemble has good potential and
its basic approach to Bach's sacred music is correct. It is just
that there are too many loose ends and too little consistency
in the way this approach has been put into practice. In particular
more attention to a declamation of the text and more dynamic differentiation
should help this ensemble to deliver more convincing performances
of Bach's cantatas.
Johan van Veen