BACH Cantatas, Vol.41 – Leonhardt/Harnoncourt
Volume 41 of Telefunken's Bach cantata series takes us from Nos. 175 to 179 with Gustav Leonhardt in charge of the first two and Nikolaus Harnoncourt responsible for the remaining three. In fact Cantata No. 179 is the earliest of the group and was performed by Bach within his first Leipzig cycle on the eleventh Sunday after Trinity in 1723. Cantatas Nos. 175, 176 and 178 all belong to the second cycle and were performed during the church years 1724–5. Cantata No. 177, a particularly impressive work in this present group, is dated 1732 on the autograph score and was perfommed on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity that year.
There are few changes to the personnel and format with which followers of the series by now will be thoroughly familiar. Paul Esswood has switched camps and sings for Leonhardt in Nos. 175 and 176. Harnoncourt replaces him with a boy alto, Panito Iconomou, whom readers may recall in a handful of cantatas earlier in the series and in Andrew Parrott's EMI B minor Mass. He is a musical singer with a strong voice and his perfommances offer both a cogent alternative and a lively contrast with those of Esswood. The new issue is something of a mixed bag in which I found Harnoncourt's readings more imaginative and of greater conviction than those of Leonhardt. It's not a matter of style but rather one of approach and, in this instance, Leonhardt seems to have adopted a comparatively detached view of the music whilst Harnoncourt has thrown himself into the midst of it with a vigour which on occasion is almost startling. In fairness to Leonhardt, his allotted cantatas, predominantly pastoral in character, call for a milder approach than the fierce confrontation, for instance, which takes place between God and the Devil in No. 178. This splendid work is coloured almost throughout by a warlike spirit and Harnoncourt and his artists provide a wonderfully compelling account of it. Bach chose a hymn by the sixteenth-century author, Justus Jonas and set six of its eight verses adapting the remaining two to suit aria treatment. The opening choral-based chorus is masterly in its vigorous condemnation of false prophets and the Tolz Boys' Choir are on cracking form aided and abetted by crisp, biting interjections from the strings of the Vienna Concentus Musicus. Verse two of the hymn, sung by a solo alto here rather than unison voices, is ingenious in the skill with which Bach imitates each line in diminution in the continuo. Here, as throughout, Harnoncourt seems to have overlooked nothing in his exploration of a score as rich in imagery as it is in invention, Kurt Equiluz and Robert Holl are both outstanding in their respective arias and the performance generally, is representative of much that is finest in this colossal undertaking.
Cantata No. 177, Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ contains a profound and elaborate opening choral fantasia—a striking feature is the inclusion of a concertante violin independent of the first violin Harnoncourt sounds less certain about what to do with the music than in No. 178; phrases are clipped in rather an ugly manner and the Tolz choir sound lustreless. There are some fine solo contributions later on notably, perhaps, from the boy treble, Helmut Wittek, whose 6/8 aria in triosonata style with oboe da caccia, comes off well; and from Kurt Equiluz whose aria with concertante violin, bassoon and continuo is a ravishing number. Cantata No. 179, Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei assumes a stern aspect with its opening chromatically orientated four-part fugue. The style is severe, complementing the textual denunciation of the false heart; Harnoncourt is a little lightweight here, perhaps and the choir sound only just on top of the task which Bach sets them: The remainder of the work is impressive in this performance and the lovely grief-laden soprano aria with two oboes da caceia is well sustained by the treble, Helmut Wittek, though not without traces of vocal strain. This movement, incidentally, along with the tenor aria and the opening chorus were later parodied by Bach in two of his Lutheran Masses (BWV234 and 236).
The cantatas allotted to Leonhardt both have texts by the Leipzig poetess, Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, though adjusted to clarify or emphasize the Lutheran theological message. Cantata No. 175 Er rufet seinen SchaSen mit Namen is given a distinctively pastoral character both by the inclusion, singular amongst Bach's cantatas, of three treble recorders and by a generous quota of 12/8 and 6/8 rhythmic patterns. I felt the tempo of the alto aria, though sensitively sung by Paul Esswood, was a little too slow, sapping it of lyricism. The tenor, Marius van Altena partnered by Anner Bylsma (violoncello piccolo) is not on such good form in his aria as he has been in previous issues and the result is both dry and dull, a considerably greater degree of involvement comes over in the bass aria sung by Max van Egmond. Cantata No. 176, Er ist ein trotzig und verzagt Ding is perhaps the least interesting of the present group, though almost needless to say, it contains some fine music. An instantly appealing number is the gavotte-like soprano aria well sung by another treble, Matthias Eehternach.
Recording quality and presentation are up to and conforming with Teldec's customary standards. There are some disappointments amongst the performances but, as so often before, strong though maybe on occasion, controversial points far outweigh weak and unconvincing ones. Harnoncourt's account of No. 178 is certainly not to be lightly passed over.'