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Cantatas for Soprano

 

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid - Dialogue Cantatas
Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (BWV 58) [13:09]
Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (BWV 32) [21:45]
Concerto for oboe d'amore, strings and bc in A (BWV 1055R)* [12:29]
Selig ist der Mann (BWV 57) [23:17]
Hana Blažíková (soprano), Dominik Wörner (bass)
Kirchheimer BachConsort/Alfredo Bernardini (oboe, oboe d'amore*)
rec. January 2016 at the Protestant Church, Kirchheim/Weinstraße, Germany DDD
Texts and translations included
CPO 555 068-2 [71:00]

The oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach includes three cantatas in the form of a dialogue between two singers: a soprano and a bass. The dialogue has a long history which goes back to the Middle Ages. In sacred music the liturgical play is good example of a dialogue. Such pieces were mostly performed at the main feasts of the ecclesiastical year, such as Christmas and Easter. The biblical stories connected to them were ideally suited to be set as dialogues, for instance the meeting between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary and that between Mary Magdalene and the risen Jesus on Easter morning.

Obviously the emergence of opera - which also left its mark on sacred music, especially in Italy - was a strong incentive for the composition of dialogues. Heinrich Schütz, for instance, composed several sacred concertos with the description of dialogus (or, in Italian, dialogo). Johann Philipp Förtsch, who was active as a composer of church music in the 1670s and 1680s, had a special liking of dialogues. It is notable that at the same time he played a role in the Hamburg Opera and wrote several opera librettos. He particularly used episodes from the New Testament for his dialogues, such as Jesus's parody of the Pharisee and the publican and the confrontation between St Stephen and the Jews (Acts of the Apostles).

The latter's fate was remembered on the second day of Christmas, also known as St Stephen. Bach's cantata Selig ist der Mann (BWV 57) is written for this feast; the text is from the pen of Georg Christian Lehms. It opens with a dictum, sung by the bass: "Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for after he is tested, he will receive the Crown of Life" (James 1,12). The word "crown" is stephanos in Greek (the original language of the New Testament) and that clearly refers to St Stephen. In the ensuing recitative we find a reference to Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, who was murdered by his brother Cain. In the Christian tradition he was considered the first martyr of the Old Testament, like Stephen was the first of the New Testament. Whereas the dialogue by Förtsch is about the event itself, in Bach's cantata we find a more general reflection on the meaning of the story. There are two 'roles' here as well, but these are not strictly connected to the Bible. The bass represents the vox Dei (the voice of God), the soprano Anima - the soul, meaning the faithful, comparable with the daughter of Zion in other sacred music. Even the closing chorale is part of the dialogue: "Direct yourself, beloved, according to my pleasure, and believe that I remain always and forever your soul's friend".

The text of Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid (BWV 58) was probably written by Christoph Birkmann, a student of theology and mathematics in Leipzig, who took part in performances in St Thomas's between 1724 and 1727. It is a cantata for the Sunday after New Year. The Gospel of this Sunday is from Matthew 2, which tells about the flight of Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus to Egypt. The Epistle is connected to this episode: in 1 Peter 4 the apostle writes about the suffering of the Christian. In this cantata temporal suffering is juxtaposed to heavenly joy. As the first recitative puts it: "Though the evil world persecutes you, you nonetheless have God as your friend". Here there are no 'roles'. The opening duet is a kind of 'inner dialogue' within the soul: the soprano sings the first stanza of the hymn which gave the cantata its title (Martin Moller, 1587) whereas the bass tries to settle his soul: "Just patience, patience, my heart (...). [The] way of eternal Salvation leads to joy after pain". In the ensuing recitative the bass ends with words put into the mouth of God: "He says: though mountain and hill sink down, (...) yet I will surely neither leave nor forsake you". This indicates that the bass part does not represent here the vox Dei. It is probably telling that Bach at first assigned this part to an alto in the score and gave it to the bass while writing out the parts.

Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (BWV 32) is called a Concerto in Dialogo and is written for the first Sunday after Epiphany; the text is again written by Lehms. The Gospel of the day is from Luke 2, which tells about Jesus in the temple. This story is an expression of Jesus's desire to be with his Father. That motif is taken up in the opening aria of the soprano: "Dearest Jesus, my desire, tell me, where do I find you?" Here the soprano represents the soul and the bass sings words either by Jesus himself or put into his mouth. The recitative is a dictum - Jesus says to his parents: "Why is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father's business?" In the ensuing aria this is extended with the words, addressed to the faithful: "Here in my Father's abode a distressed spirit finds me". In the next recitative we find a true dialogue between the soul and Jesus. They join in the duet 'Nun verschwinden alle Plagen' - "Now all torments vanish".

In these three cantatas oboes are part of the instrumental scoring. In BWV 32 the ensemble includes a single oboe, which has an obbligato part in the opening aria and the duet which closes the cantata. In the two other cantatas there are two oboe parts and one for taille, played on the oboe da caccia. This was probably the reason to include a concerto for oboe d'amore: the Concerto in A is the reconstruction of a piece which has only been preserved in a later reworking for harpsichord. The latter was one of the concertos which Bach performed with the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. Like most of Bach's concertos it is based on the ritornello form developed by Antonio Vivaldi. Bach seems to have liked the oboe d'amore a great deal as he often gives it a prominent part to play. The name of the instrument literally means 'oboe of love', and that is another reason to include this concerto here: the dialogue cantatas are expressions of the soul's love for Jesus.

As Bach's oeuvre includes only three dialogue cantatas for soprano and bass it is obvious that they have been recorded together quite often. There is certainly no lack of recordings of them, but the present, under the direction of Alfredo Bernardini, is probably the best available right now. That is due to the two excellent soloists. Both Hana Blažíková and Dominik Wörner deliver an incessant interpretation of the text, in which key words are singled out through colouring of the voice or dynamic accents. The recitatives are performed in true declamatory style. The two voices also blend perfectly. Dialogues between the soul and Jesus always have strong pietistic traits, and these cantatas are no exception. That comes well off in these performances. The ensemble doesn't play a minor role. Alfredo Bernardini is one of the world's leading exponents of the baroque oboe and plays the obbligatos wonderfully. The mellow tone in the Concerto in A is admirable. I also should mention Yukie Yamaguchi who delivers fine performances of the obbligato violin parts.

The Kirchheimer BachConsort was founded by Dominik Wörner in 2008. This seems its first recording, and they could hardly have done better. I recently heard it on German radio with performances of cantatas by Bach's contemporary Graupner. These will appear on disc in the near future. That is something to look forward to. In the meantime we should enjoy this disc. Even if you have these cantatas in your collection, I urge you to add this disc to it. I am sure you will return to it frequently.

Johan van Veen
www.musica-dei-donum.org
twitter.com/johanvanveen



 

 




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