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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Arias and choruses from Cantatas
Anna Prohaska (soprano)
Lautten Compagney/Wolfgang Katschner
rec. 2020, Christuskirche Berlin Oberschöneweide
Texts and translations included.
Reviewed as 24/96 (wav) press preview.
ALPHA 658 [77:47]

What’s not to like here? An album crammed with favourite Bach Cantata arias and choruses, sung by one of today’s top sopranos, with very able assistance from members of the Lautten Compagney, all recorded in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic yet on the market in less than a month. Only the ultra-purists who demand the treble voice which Bach would have expected will be disappointed, and they can turn to the Teldec series of the cantatas directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt, still available as inexpensive downloads. And, just in case an all-soprano programme is too much, Anna Prohaska is ably assisted in the one-to-a-part choruses by Susanne Langner (alto), Christian Pohlers (tenor) and Karsten Müller (bass) and there are several instrumental tracks. At the time of writing, this release is available as a download or for streaming only; I assume that it will be available on CD by the time that you read this review.

It’s good to see that ways are being found around the lockdown. BBC Radio 3 has been broadcasting lunchtime concerts from the Wigmore Hall with soloists and duos, and that has been very welcome, but this recording goes one better; for me it’s an even greater achievement than the delayed cricket test matches to which I’m greatly looking forward as I write, even though they will be played without an audience.

The recording arose from a suggestion from Prohaska to the Lautten Compagney at the outset of the pandemic to get together as soon as they could – and there they are on the cover and inside the booklet, all wearing their facial coverings, except, of course, Prohaska herself, who could hardly sing in a mask. The idea had been gestating in 2019, but it’s especially appropriate that it has come to fruition now. For the concept alone, all concerned deserve to be congratulated, especially as there are not too many really good albums of Bach soprano arias. One such which received praise from several reviewers left me unmoved: Elizabeth Watts with The English Concert and Harry Bickett (Harmonia Mundi HMU807550).

Prohaska is no stranger to the music of Bach and the Bach family. If, as I expect you will, you enjoy this recording, let me direct you to a recent Accent recording on which she sings Cantatas 84 (Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke) and 52 (Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht) (ACC24347, with oboe concertos BWV1055, 1056 and 1061).

A recording of Johann Ludwig Bach’s Trauermusik (funeral music, 1724), on which she features, earned a well-deserved Recording of the Month award – review. That’s no longer available on CD but can be obtained as a download. One of John Quinn’s Recordings of the Year, if you missed it when it appeared, it comes in 16- and 24-bit from, albeit without booklet, which doesn’t seem to be available from any download provider, but is offered to subscribers to Naxos Music Library, where it can be streamed.

Prohaska is only one of a distinguished team of soloists there, but she is one of the main reasons for investigating the recording. It falls to her to sing the first recitative and aria – always a tough act, but one which she accomplishes very well.

We seem to have missed the Accent recording when it was released in 2018, so let me briefly repair the omission. Three oboe concertos entwine the two cantatas, performed by Xenia Löffler with Collegium 1704 and Václav Luks: in g minor for oboe, strings and continuo, BWV1056R; in C for oboe, viola da gamba, violin, bassoon, strings and continuo BWV1061 (arranged by Tim Willis) and in A for oboe d’amore, strings and continuo, BWV1055. All these are extant as concertos for keyboard or two keyboards, but two have long been believed to have originated as oboe concertos and the concertos for multiple keyboards are also suspected to have been arrangements of earlier works.

In the case of BWV1056R, little rearrangement was needed to reconstruct the original, and the two other works are generally convincing in this form. The performances are first-rate and the two cantatas also feature the oboe. The opening Sinfonia of No.52 is reworked from Brandenburg Concerto No.1; if the Marquis of Brandenburg couldn’t be bothered even to acknowledge the receipt of these works, why shouldn’t Bach reuse the music?

The cantatas also contain sections which Bach mined for or from other works. Most of the arias and choruses on the Accent and the new Alpha recording are shot through with sentiments which hardly chime with modern thinking, but come from a time when all knew and were happy with their lot. Cantata 84, Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Glücke, proclaims that we should all be content with our station in life, even to the extent of being happy without enough food: Ich esse mit Freuden mein weniges Brot. Luther was no social reformer; when the peasants of the Bundschuh claimed his reforms as authorising a revolt, he wrote Wider die Mordischen und Reubischen Rotten der Bawren (Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants) as fierce a denunciation as anything that he had directed against papal indulgences.

In Cantata 52 (on Accent), while we may shere the title’s distrust of the falsche Welt, the false world from which we feel rejected (verstoßen), we are less likely to revert to the simple faith of the cantata. That faith is part of the deal in listening to some of Bach’s cantatas, and those of Buxtehude and Telemann. Like the J L Bach album listed above, some of the most beautiful music of the period was composed for funerals: try the Ricercar reissue of Trauerkantaten by Bach, Telemann, Boxberg and Riedel (RIC148) to which I gave Recommended status in Spring 2020/1b.

You don’t have to subscribe to Bach’s Lutheran theology to enjoy the Accent recording or the new Alpha release. For Bach it was confidence in ‘sure and certain hope in the resurrection’ that coloured the words that he set and which gives the new album its title. Prohaska, however, takes us beyond the pietism of the time and makes the music both timeless and relevant to the current crisis. As a great believer in the healing power of music, I find this recording as timely as the music included is timeless.

Most of the excerpts are taken from Bach’s church cantatas, but one of the most familiar, Schafe können sicher weiden (Sheep may safely graze, track 5), though often played in school assemblies and frequently associated with Jesus the Good Shepherd, comes from a secular cantata in praise of a human shepherd, Christian, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels, BWV208. That doesn’t make the music any less beautiful, as played here in an instrumental arrangement reminiscent of, but more authentic than Walton’s orchestration in his ballet The Wise Virgins. Which is not meant to decry the Walton, as recorded by Bryden Thomson for Chandos (CHAN8871, with The Quest).

Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (Begone, you troubled shadows, track 19) comes from the Wedding Cantata, BWV202. From the several very fine recordings of this cantata, I singled out for comparison Carolyn Sampson with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Petra Müllejans (Harmonia Mundi, with Cantatas Nos. 152 and 199, HMM902252: Recording of the Month – review) and Emma Kirkby with the Academy of Ancient Music/Christopher Hogwood (Decca 4559722, a programme of wedding music by Bach and others) and Kirkby with The Taverner Players/Andrew Parrott (Hyperion Dyad two-for-one CDD22041, with Nos. 82 and 208).

Both Sampson and Kirkby have lighter voices than Prohaska. She sparkles a little more, and I think she might drive away the recalcitrant shadows from the wedding more effectively than either of the others, but I really can’t give you a best buy here, with three such splendid sopranos, even though Kirkby is not on top form on the Hyperion. In any case, the other two singers come on complete recordings, so the context is different. My heart remains with Kirkby on Decca, where the aria is given noticeably longer to expand. All three are very well served by the oboist – it’s Elisabeth Grümmer on this and several tracks on the new recording. Were Alpha now to give Prohaska a complete recording of this cantata, however, perhaps with No. 208, who knows where my preference might lie?

The two excerpts from the soprano version of Cantata No.82 (tracks 15 and 16) also encourage me to believe that she should record that work complete, a conclusion that I had already reached before I read that she regards these two arias as the ‘beating heart’ of the album. That would make an excellent alternative to the classic recording with John Shirley-Quirk in the baritone version of this cantata, with Janet Baker in Cantatas Nos. 159 and 170 and Neville Marriner at the helm (Decca Eloquence 4762684, download only - review - or 4827922, 2 CDs - review).  Those who think that the Eloquence recording of the opening Ich habe genug proceeds at too glacial a pace will find Prohaska refreshingly alert here.

The Alpha download ends with a ‘lounge version’ of the opening Bete aber auch dabei, a bluesy arrangement in the manner of the Swingle Singers. I like the Swingle Bach, but in its own right: the arrangement seems totally out of place here and should be avoided; there’s enough swing in the ‘straight’ version on track 1.

The previous track, Meine Tage in dem Leide (track 20), a chorus from Cantata No.150, makes a much better conclusion to the programme. It contains all the virtues of the album as a whole, including making a strong case for one-voice-per-part in Bach choruses. Having been dismissive of the Teldec series with boys’ voices, however, I listened to the Hanover Boys Choir, Collegium Vocale, the Leonhardt Consort and Gustav Leonhardt in this chorus and found myself enjoying it as a reminder of the virtues of these alternative recordings – no longer available as a complete set, but Cantatas 138-162, almost 7 hours of very fine Bach performances, can be downloaded for around £21 in lossless sound (2564671894).

The boy soprano, Sebastian Hennig, on the Leonhardt recording of Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen, from Cantata 127, may not have the power of Prohaska (Alpha, track 18), but serves as yet another reminder that these recordings offer an important alternative to Bach with a female soprano. Prohaska provides my Desert Island version, but I also want Leonhardt, who takes a little more time to allow the music to develop; Hennig sounds ethereal. The Teldec set of Cantatas Nos. 119-137, over six hours, can be downloaded on 2564671846, again for around £21 in lossless sound. As well as the boy sopranos, there are some distinguished soloists on these recordings, such as Max van Egmond (bass), René Jacobs (counter-tenor) and Kurt Equiluz (tenor).

Prohaska acquits herself very well on the Accent recording, but she takes second seat to Löffler’s superb solos there, so I’m pleased that Alpha has given her the new album to herself. I enjoyed the Accent, but I have nothing but praise for the new recording. It’s high time now, even with the plethora of excellent recordings of the Bach cantatas, including the complete sets on BIS (Suzuki) and SDG (Gardiner), that she was given an album to herself of complete cantatas. She has more than proved her worth with collections such as Serpent and Fire (Alpha 250 – review) and Enchanted Forest (DG 4790077 – review).

On all of those earlier recordings she receives excellent support, but none better than from Lautten Compagney and Wolfgang Katschner on the new Alpha. All are very worthy of consideration, the new recording the most recommendable of all. What looks like a large ensemble is smaller than it appears in practice; of the three oboists, for example, only two at most ever perform together.

With good recording, especially as heard in 24-bit format, and useful, if short, notes, I expect to return frequently to this album.

Brian Wilson

Bete aber auch dabei BWV115/IV [5:55]
Chorus: Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe BWV25/I [5:00]
Chorale: Ehr sei ins Himmels Throne BWV135/VI (instrumental) [1:12]
Ich ende behende mein irdisches Leben BWV57/VII [3:27]
Schafe können sicher weiden BWV208/IX (instrumental) [3:45]
Es ist und bleibt der Christen Trost BWV44/VI [5:10]
Wie zittern und wanken BWV105/III [5:22]
Sinfonia BWV150/I [1:12]
Chorus: Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich BWV150/II [3:04]
Chorale: Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist BWV430/I (instrumental) [0:51]
Letzte Stunde, brich herein BWV31/VIII [3:43]
Chorale: Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist BWV430/II (instrumental) [0:47]
Liebster Gott, erbarme dich BWV179/V [5:13]
Chorus: Leite mich in deiner Wahrheit BWV150/IV [1:47]
Ich habe genug BWV82a/I [6:20]
Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod BWV82a/V [3:08]
Chorale: Jesu, der du meine Seele BWV105/VI (instrumental) [2:56]
Die Seele ruht in Jesu Händen BWV127/III [7:04]
Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten BWV202/I [5:22]
Chorus: Meine Tage in dem Leide BWV150/VII [3:20]

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