Surveying the Choral Works of Bach – Total Immersion with the J. S. Bach-Stiftung St. Gallen

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bach: Joanne Lunn (soprano), Sören Richter (tenor), Peter Harvey (bass), Choir and Orchestra of the J. S. Bach Foundation / Rudolf Lutz (conductor and harpsichord), Reformed Church, Trogen, 15.9.2017. (RP)

Reformed Church, Trogen, Switzerland © J.S. Bach-Stiftung.
Reformed Church, Trogen, Switzerland © J.S. Bach-Stiftung.

Bach – Cantata BWV 25, ‘Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe’

‘Study Bach: there you will find everything’. The J. S. Bach Foundation (Bach-Stiftung) has taken Brahms’s advice to heart. Founded in 2006, the Bach-Stiftung has embarked upon a 25-year mission to perform the complete choral works of the great composer. Each month, in the beauty of a late-Baroque church in the village of Trogen in the north-east corner of Switzerland, one of Bach’s cantatas, oratorios or passions is heard. The Bach-Stiftung is not just another exceptional troupe of period musicians, however: it seeks to provide insights into Bach the man, his music and the theological and historical contexts of the texts. Each work is performed in accordance with its proper placement in the church year.

Cantata BWV 25 was composed for the 14th Sunday after Trinity and first performed on 29 August 1723. It follows the format that Bach generally used in his early years in Leipzig. The short cantata is made up of an opening chorus (in this instance a chorale), a series of recitatives and arias and a concluding chorale. It is scored for soprano, tenor and bass soloists; choir; and an instrumental ensemble of cornetto, three trombones, three recorders, two oboes, two violins, viola and basso continuo. The opening chorus is unusual for its dense texture and also Bach’s ingenious use of the chorale tune. The melody is first heard in the continuo, then as a complex double fugue sung by the chorus and, finally, harmonized in the brass and recorders over the accompaniment of oboe and strings.

The readings for the 14th Sunday after Trinity are both from the New Testament. The first, from the Epistle to the Galatians, contains Paul’s admonishment to ‘Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh’. It’s followed by the parable of the cleansing of the ten lepers from the Gospel of Luke. The actual text that Bach set, written by Johann Jacob Rambach and published in 1720, compares the lamentable spiritual condition of mankind to being afflicted with leprosy. The final chorale begins with the text ‘Faithful God, I must lament to you the miserable state of my heart, even though my troubles are better known to you than to myself!’

It fell to tenor Sören Richter to give voice to the great throngs of humanity that have been fallen ill, afflicted by the burning fever of lust or consumed by avarice. Sören, who was a choir boy with the Freiberger Knabenchors and the famed Dresden Kreuzchor, is making a name for himself as a Bach specialist. This was his debut as a soloist with the Bach-Stiftung, and he opted for restraint instead of histrionics in this overwrought recitative, which was the right call. With his lovely lyric tenor, fine musicianship and sensitivity to text, I expect we will be hearing much more of him in the future.

The other two soloists, baritone Peter Harvey and soprano Joanne Lunn, have established international careers singing with the finest early music ensembles. The bass aria is a rhythmically charged acceptance that only Jesus, not balms nor herbs, can cure man’s afflictions. Harvey too opted for restraint, providing a lesson in the marriage of elegant diction and burnished, rich tone. The soprano sings a joyous aria in which she dedicates her life to her Savior. Lunn beamed with ecstasy and her voice sparkled as she sang to the accompaniment of the three recorders above the oboe and string continuo.

In between the two performances of the cantata, Andreas Kruse gave a reflection upon the text (in German). Kruse is the Director of the Gerontology Institute at the University of Heidelberg and from 1998 to 2002 was a member of a United Nations Commission of Experts dealing with the global dynamics of aging. He has also authored a book on psychological insights into Bach’s music. In his talk, Kruse stressed the relevance of the cantata text to contemporary society where so many are afflicted with serious illness and the accompanying strains in providing care for them. He also pointed out that Bach was no stranger to illness and death. He composed Cantata BWV 25 while he was still grieving over the loss of his beloved wife Maria Barbara, and only ten of his more than 20 children survived to adulthood.

Rudolf Lutz led a brisk performance of the cantata, which reverberated through the eighteenth-century church. Orchestra and chorus do this once a month and are highly polished ensembles. How many times have I wished I could hear a performance all over again, and the Bach-Stiftung provides the rare opportunity to do just that. The second performance of the cantata was not a copy-paste of the first, the human factor being what it is. For an encore, Lutz arranged the chorale tune in a more joyous manner with interludes for the woodwinds and brass. All left uplifted, with Lutz giving musicians and audience alike one last opportunity to revel in the spirit of Bach.

Rick Perdian

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