Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, BWV 22 (1723) [16:18]
Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23 (1723) [15:04]
Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott, BWV 127 (1725) [18:45]
Seht! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem, BWV 159 (1729) [13:21]
Dorothee Mields (soprano); Matthew White (alto); Jan Kobow (tenor); Peter Kooy (bass)
Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. November 2007, Stolberger Saal, Cologne, Germany. DDD
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC901998 [63:47]

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote approaching 200 cantatas for church use. They were almost always intended for a specific function in the Lutheran liturgical calendar. Complete (or virtually complete) cycles of Bach’s surviving cantatas have already been recorded. These cycles include: Helmuth Rilling on Hänssler; Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt on Teldec; Pieter-Jan Leusink on Brilliant Classics and Tom Koopman for the Erato and Antoine Marchand labels. Sir John Eliot Gardiner recorded his Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 1999/2000 at performances in more than sixty European churches. Archiv Produktion, part of Deutsche Grammophon, pulled the plug part-way through the series. In 2005 Sir John formed his own label Soli Deo Gloria to release the remaining recordings. There are four volumes to be issued in 2010 and that should complete the series. Masaaki Suzuki with his Bach Collegium Japan on BIS launched his complete cantata cycle in 1995 and is now on the home stretch having reached volume 45.

I do not subscribe to the notion that one particular type of Bach performance style is preferable over another. For me the overriding factor is the quality of the performance. As well as the current trend for period instrument performances I can take much pleasure from Bach recordings using large-scale forces on modern instruments that were the norm in the 1950s and 1960s. One of my favourite Bach interpreters is Karl Richter who in the period 1958-75 released over seventy cantatas for Archiv Produktion - Deutsche Grammophon. Richter’s older contemporary and fellow countryman the conductor Fritz Werner recorded around 60 cantatas in the 1950s-1970s. These were released on Erato, Warner Classics.

Early music specialist Philippe Herreweghe began recording Bach cantatas in 1987 for Harmonia Mundi. By my reckoning he has released around fifty sacred cantatas which have been issued in clusters over that time. The project was conceived as an occasional series to commemorate various themes or feasts of the Lutheran church year. Of all the period performance interpreters I find Herreweghe the most consistently satisfying in this genre. His erudite and scrupulously prepared interpretations are impeccable and I always sense that his orchestral and choral forces have been exceptionally well rehearsed. Conscientiously maintaining an impressive devotional restraint the assured Herreweghe seems consistently to reach to the sacred core of the music. His assured interpretations provide just the right level of dynamics and phrasing displaying the ability to contrast qualities such as buoyancy and spirit with reverence and solemnity.

For his latest Bach cantata release on Harmonia Mundi, Herreweghe has selected four sacred scores all penned during his time at Leipzig, Germany (1723/30). Bach composed a number of rather complicated and attractive cantatas for the final Sunday (Quinquagesima) prior to the start of Lenten fasting; which is 49 days before Easter. The cantatas BWV 22 and 23 intended for Quinquagesima Sunday were written evidently in 1723 as musical testimonials for his audition as Thomaskantor, at Leipzig. The cantatas BWV 127 (1725) and BWV 159 (1729) were composed in later years for the corresponding Quinquagesima Sunday. 

The Herreweghe disc opens with the chorale cantata Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe (Jesus took unto Him the Twelve), BWV 22. It is in five movements for alto, tenor, bass, four part-choir, oboe strings and basso continuo. I enjoyed the opening arioso Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe sung in turn by the tenor and bass. It ends with a choral fugue. In the aria Mein Jesu, ziehe mich nach dir (My Jesus, draw me unto thee) Marcel Ponseele’s splendid oboe cantilena weaves through the alto vocal line. The voice of ever-sympathetic alto soloist Matthew White is in excellent condition being clear, smooth and secure. A true highlight of the disc is the second aria Mein alles in allem, mein ewiges Gut (My all in all, my eternal treasure). It contains a most memorable and joyful melody sung by tenor Jan Kobow delivering even phrasing and clear enunciation. The cantata concludes with the chorale Ertöt uns durch dein Güte (Mortify us through thy goodness) lively and abounding in dance-like textures.

Cast in four movements, the cantata Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23 is for soprano, alto, tenor, four part-choir, a pair of oboes, strings, basso continuo with a trumpet in the final chorus. The opening Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, an aria duet between soprano Dorothee Mields and alto Matthew White with a pair of oboes and basso continuo, is beautiful, affecting music and another highlight of the release. Bright and attractive, the chorus Aller Augen warten, Herr (The eyes of all, Lord) is designed in the form of a rondo. I was struck by the deeply meditative final movement chorale Christe, du Lamm Gottes (Christ, thou Lamb of God).

The cantata Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott BWV 127 is designed in five movements for soprano, tenor, bass, four-part choir, trumpet, pair of recorders and oboes, strings and basso continuo. This is undoubtedly one of Bach’s finest Leipzig cantatas and follows a theme of death. In the glorious aria for soprano Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen (The soul will rest in Jesus’s hands) funeral bells are represented by the pairs of oboes and recorders.  
The opening chorale, Herr Jesu Christ, wahr' Mensch und Gott is uplifting and notable for its sparkling use of oboes and recorders. Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen (The soul will rest in Jesus’ hands) is a wonderful extended aria for soprano, oboe, a pair of recorders and basso continuo with a notable organ part. Dorothee Mields is a silky-toned soprano. Her voice is pleasingly focused and conveys a sense of piety. The inclusion of the trumpet part by the composer is a master-stroke. A short yet striking chorale Ach, Herr, vergib all unser Schuld (Ah, Lord, forgive all our guilt) provides a satisfying conclusion to the cantata.

The fourth and final cantata here is the five movement Seht! Wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem BWV 159 for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, four part-choir, oboe, strings and basso continuo. During the engaging alto aria with chorus Ich folge dir nach (I follow after thee) I was struck by both the alluring utterances of soprano Dorothee Mields and the prominent basso continuo part. The aria Es ist vollbracht (It is finished) for solo bass is accompanied by oboe writing that conveys a sorrowful character. Direct and steady with restrained expression Peter Kooy demonstrates that he is a deeply reverential soloist. In the chorale Jesu, deine Passion (Jesus, thy Passion) the immaculate Collegium Vocale Gent bring the score to a conclusion in a caress of comforting humanity.

The engineers have provided clear and well balanced sonics. Programme notes are reasonably informative with full texts and English translations. The attractive front cover of the CD sleeve and booklet both contain a reproduction of the painting Ecce Homo (1505/07) by Italian painter Bartolomeo Cincani di Montagna from the Louvre, Paris. A remarkable sacred work of art, Ecce Homo aptly complements this wonderful disc of Bach sacred cantatas.

These are reverential and inspiring yet comforting performances where I just sat back and let Bach’s world of sacred music wash over me.

This is an outstanding release in all respects. Certainly a worthy Record of the Year.

Michael Cookson