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Reformation 1517-2017
Martin LUTHER (1483-1546)
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott [0:50]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, BWV 80 (arr. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach) [24:36]
Johann CRUGER (1598-1662)
Nun danket alle Gott [0:37]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild, BWV 79 [11:10]
Georg NEUMARK (1621-1681)
Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten [0:47]
Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847)
Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, MVW A 7 [11:48]
Martin LUTHER
Mit Freud und Freud ich fahr dahin [0:5]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Warum ist das Licht gegeben? Op 74 No 1 [10:31]
William CROFT (1678-1727)
O God, our help in ages past [0:31]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Lord, thou hast been our refuge [8:04]
Mary Bevan (soprano); Robin Blaze (countertenor); Nicholas Mulroy (tenor); Neal Davies (bass)
Paul Sharp (trumpet); Nicholas Morris (organ);
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
Clare Baroque/Graham Ross
rec. 2017, St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London
Texts & translations (English, French & German) included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902265 [73:25]

All concerned have got their skates on to issue this CD very promptly. It will be seen that the sessions took place at the beginning of April and as I write this review August still has several days to run. Moreover, Graham Ross says in his valuable booklet essay that the disc is the culmination of a project at Clare College whereby on each of the eight Sundays of Lent term 2017 a Bach cantata was performed in a liturgical context in the Clare College chapel.

This disc goes beyond Bach and includes not only two of his Reformation Day cantatas but also music by three composers who admired him. Factor in also that all five pieces here are preceded by the Chorale on which they are based and you have a most perceptive CD programme to mark 500 years since Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation. It’s very good to hear Luther’s chorale Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott before the Bach cantata on which it is based. Here the chorale is suitably confident and the music has a genuine spring in its step.

The Lutheran church celebrates Reformation Day on 31 October and both of the cantatas included here were written for performance on that day – BWV80 is a revision of an earlier, pre-Leipzig Lenten cantata. Here Graham Ross has chosen to perform BWV80 in the edition which includes the parts for three trumpets and timpani which were added by Bach’s son, Wilhelm Friedemann. Purists may say that these parts are inauthentic and I wouldn’t disagree with that. However, they don’t sound inauthentic and in this particular context, celebrating the Reformation, I think Ross has made the right decision. The extra instruments certainly make a telling contribution to the two movements in which they’re involved. The exuberant, highly contrapuntal opening chorus is pretty spectacular here, festive with trumpets. Alfred Dürr says that this movement “probably represents the high point of Bach’s chorale-based vocal music.” It sounds splendid, the Clare singers making a fine job of the complex vocal writing. Incidentally, Ross here employs a bass trombone to reinforce the bass line and the instrument makes its presence felt. In his version of the cantata, eschewing Wilhelm Friedemann’s trumpets, Sir John Eliot Gardiner also felt that bass line reinforcement was essential and he roped in a very splendid bass sackbut (review) .

Ross has employed an impressive roster of soloists for these two cantatas. Neal Davies makes a fine job of the challenging passagework in his aria in BWV80. Later in the same cantata Mary Bevan treats us to a lovely account of the aria ‘Komm in mein Herzenshaus’. I enjoyed just as much the contributions that both these singers make to the performance of BWV79. They combine as agile partners in the duet ‘Gott, ach Gott, verlass die Deinen nimmermehr!’. In the same cantata Robin Blaze is the excellent soloist in the aria ‘Gott ist unser Sonn und Schild’ in which the agile oboe playing of Frances Norbury is much to be admired. In this cantata Bach enriched his orchestral palette with two natural horns. They are heard to excellent effect in the opening chorus and, a little later, in the Chorale movement. The parts sound extremely taxing and the players aren’t always exactly pitch-perfect but, to be honest, I quite like that; the fact that the horns don’t offer pristine perfection adds a certain something. Overall both of these Bach cantata performances are very good and highly enjoyable. I notice that I haven’t specifically mentioned tenor Nicholas Mulroy so let me hasten to say that he makes excellent contributions too.

Mendelssohn’s admiration for Bach is well-known: he was personally responsible for a revival of interest in the St Matthew Passion, of which in 1829 he gave the first performance since Bach’s death. What is rather less well-known, certainly to me, is the series of eight chorale-based cantatas he composed between 1827 and 1832. Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, written in either 1828 or 1829, was the third of these. It’s based on Georg Neumark’s hymn, a verse of which we hear first. Mendelssohn’s cantata is cast in four movements, three of which are for choir while the third is a soprano aria. A string band accompanies. I wouldn’t say that the work, which was lost until fairly recently, is top-drawer Mendelssohn but it’s worth hearing, not least for the rather touching if not very innovative aria. Mary Bevan sings this movement very nicely indeed.

On the other hand, Brahms’ motet Warum ist das Licht gegeben? is a work of no little stature. I especially admire the first of its four sections in which Brahms shows that counterpoint can be highly expressive. Here his music is truly searching and it’s very well sung by the Clare College choir. The motet is based on a Lutheran chorale Mit Freud und Freud ich fahr dahin. We hear that twice: once before Brahms’ piece and then as the concluding section of the motet.

Finally, Vaughan Williams’ Lord, thou hast been our refuge more than holds its own in this company. His use of the chorale tune known as ‘St Anne’ in this piece is inspired; it imparts a timeless quality to the composition. When the tune comes back at the end, now played by a shining solo trumpet, the effect is very moving. Ross and his choir give a very fine performance of the piece and at the very end the throaty sound of the organ pedal is most exciting.

This is another fine album from the Clare College choir. As ever, the standard of their performances is very high. The programme is imaginative and represents a most thoughtful way to mark the anniversary of the Reformation. The performances have been very well recorded by John Rutter and the documentation is up to Harmonia Mundi’s usual excellent standards.

John Quinn

 




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