Early Music America
May 6, 2019
Bach’s Luther Cantatas Inspirited
Lutheranism was essential to Bach’s personal and professional life, so religious music honoring the origins of the faith likely had a special significance for him. For the eighth release in ATMA Classique’s Bach sacred cantata series, Montréal Baroque under Eric Milnes’ direction highlights works celebrating the day Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to All Saints’ Church.
These Reformation Day cantatas were all composed or completed within the early years of Bach’s Leipzig period. “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes,” BWV 76, and “Gott der Herr ist Sonn und Schild,” BWV 79, both use words by unknown poets, while Bach’s frequent librettist Salomon Franck wrote “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” BWV 80. Like many of Bach’s cantatas, these three combine original texts with Lutheran chorale hymns into settings for chorus, vocal soloists, and recitatives, with rich instrumentation.
The texts’ imagery and metaphors clearly inspired Bach. A repeating arioso for the closing lines of the first alto recitative of BWV 76 softly reinforces the speaker’s prayers. The faithful’s voices extolling God’s words in BWV 79’s penultimate movement are conveyed through soprano and bass in a strong yet lyrical — and mostly non-contrapuntal — union. That cantata opens with a martial instrumental fugue ingeniously unwinding its thematic material before the voices declare God’s strength.
Montréal Baroque and four confident vocalists prioritize solemnity over extroverted spirituality. Soprano Hélène Brunet sings with calm conviction and resolute delivery. She is refreshingly restrained in BWV 80’s solo aria, avoiding the tendency to exaggerate its wide intervals. Countertenor Michael Taylor brings a cool androgyny and understatement to his solos that is well-suited to the otherworldly side of this music. His alto aria in BWV 79 hails God with a maturity missing in more overtly youthful performances.
These readings are far from lacking in energy. Baritone Jesse Blumberg laces into the “idolatrous band” of BWV 76’s bass aria without bluster here or throughout the disc. Clear-toned tenor Philippe Gagné spits out “hate” in increasingly dissonant lines in his aria in BWV 76 before turning sweet for the second section. The affects remain natural and compelling on their own terms, yet some listeners might make comparisons with performances featuring bolder expression and bigger choruses.
The four soloists sing together for the choral movements. This one voice per part interpretation adds clarity without seeming slight, even if BWV 79’s fugue is more like a ceremonial procession than a regiment. The haunting chorale finishing both parts of BWV 76 has more than enough weight to convey this uncanny communion with God. When a four-person ripieno choir joins for the opening of BWV 76, it comes off like an interesting contrast rather than a “fuller” sound, per se.
The orchestra is likewise balanced and sympathetic. The eight-person string section plays with a breadth that belies its size: lushly seconding praise of God in BWV 76’s tenor recitative or, along with oboes, racing in imitation of devils around the resolute voices of BWV 80’s central chorus. Bright, clear brass add majesty, for example alongside the chorus in BWV 79’s central chorale (though the horns and trumpets are sometimes oddly forward, such as the pedals in BWV 76’s bass aria).
Several obbligatos demonstrate Bach’s signature contrapuntal craftsmanship with voice and oboe as well as this ensemble’s unity of concept and texture. Warm, transparent instrumental dialogues also appear, such as violin and viola da gamba in BWV 76’s soprano aria or the instrumental sinfonia for oboe d’amore and gamba opening the second part of the same cantata. Oboe da caccia and violin form a double trio sonata alongside the alto and tenor for BWV 80’s last aria, further highlighting the richness of Bach’s writing and this group’s sound.
Milnes’ modest tempos and subtle direction maintain musical as well as narrative cohesion. He conjures powerful but elegant massed effects, such as BWV 79’s closing chorale, without overdoing it as well as utterly lucid moments like BWV 80’s second movement, where Blumberg pours out the aria while Brunet and oboe chant the chorale in airtight unison over an insistent string ritornello. “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty fortress is our God), a hymn virtually synonymous with Lutheranism, opens BWV 80 and exemplifies this album’s reverent yet uniquely moving aesthetic.
Andrew J. Sammut – Early Music America
December 7, 2018
From the opening trumpet and oboe calls, varied in tone and texture from refined to rough, everything is focused on the authentic emotional content that lies beyond mere dazzling virtuosity.
Equally impressive, and quite a virtuoso feat in itself, is how versatile the four soloists are, that they can sing their recitatives and arias with such refinement of sound and intimacy of phrase and yet also form a choral force of not only poetry but weight, which works surprisingly well throughout, even in the massive opening chorus of Cantata No 79.
Although the countertenor Michael Taylor dominates the proceedings to some extent by the sheer seductive beauty of his approach, each of the quartet contributes strong, expressive singing and works hand-in-glove with the instrumental forces. Bach’s exquisite ensembles of different configurations, especially those with solo oboe d’amore, viola d’amore and viola da gamba, are led by Eric Milnes so that balance and flow seem to regulate themselves. The concluding chorale of the first part of No 76, which is unforgettably magical, is just one of many moments of illumination, and, as always, supported by highly imaginative continuo work.
The recordings in the Église Saint-Augustin in Mirabel near the city’s former international airport have the natural sense of space that has long characterised the work of ATMA, whether it is this eighth volume in their projected complete cycle of Bach’s sacred cantatas or Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s Bruckner cycle with his hometown Orchestre Métropolitain.
© 2018 Gramophone
BBC Music Magazine
October 25, 2018
A quartet of soloists make up the entirely of the chorus in these surprisingly full-bodied performances of joyful, often winsome cantatas written to celebrate the Lutheran Reformation
BBC Music Magazine
August 27, 2018
A glorious capture from June 2016 at the Eglise Saint- Augustin, Mirabel in Quebec, this new ATMA Classique recording features some of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most beloved religious work. Duke Ellington’s sacred output aside, this body of Bach’s work arguably presents the greatest blending of the artistic with the spiritual, wherein artistic intentions are done explicitly as an article of faith and a testament to devotion.
Bach’s music is simultaneously ornate with specific detail (representing his faith) and straightforward in its clarity of purpose and messaging. To translate these intentions with creativity and respect is no easy task, but Eric Milnes – period music scholar, performer and conductor – does that and so much more when bolstered by a supremely talented group of Canada’s early music performers (who often band together as part of Montreal Baroque for that city’s annual early music festival).
The decision to use four vocalists (Helene Brunet, Michael Taylor, Philippe Gagne and Jesse Blumberg) to sing the chorus portions of these cantatas imbues a resonant tonal clarity to the recording, while representing an admirable blend of musicological scholarship and creative decision making. Well-conceived and creatively inspired, this disc is a valuable addition to ATMA’s goal of releasing Bach’s entire body of sacred cantatas – and one that maintains their high standard of recording.
Andrew Scott - The WholeNote
July 12, 2018
2017 was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Thesis on the church door at Wittenberg. The outlining of specific ways the church had fallen off the path of the Gospel inadvertently resulted in the creation of communities that split with the Catholic Church. After October 31, 1517, the world would subsequently enter a new religious age started by these “Protestants”. Those who followed this upstart German monk would take on his name as their denominational identity, Lutheran. We might be hard pressed to wonder what the musical world might have lost had things gone differently. But, there was an explosion of new music that would shape worship and music history well beyond it theological foundation. The Feast of the Reformation is celebrated yearly by Lutheran congregations to mark this historical moment.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote hundreds of cantatas and a massive amount of music that would be used in Lutheran worship. The cantatas are like mini sermons and the three on the present release, which is the latest volume in Montreal Baroque’s survey of Bach cantatas, focuses on the intended use of these pieces on Reformation Sunday. Both BWV 80 (ca. 1723) and BWV 79 (1725) were specifically written for the celebration. BWV 76’s (1724) was written for the Second Sunday After Trinity, but Bach later sent the second part to the St. Paul Church, Leipzig, to use for Reformation Sunday.
For their performances, the group has streamlined their ensemble to a chamber size (2 2 2 1 1) with the requisite winds as called for in the score. The other rather interesting aspect is the decision to have the four soloists also serve as the chorus, one voice to a part. Using a countertenor in place of an alto is another slightly unique choice. The goal is to perform the music using the latest in Bach scholarship.
Die Himmel erzahlen die Ehre Gottes, BWV 76 opens the album. This was the second cantata Bach would write in his new post at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig. The opening part has a decidedly dance-like feel which is captured very well in this performance. The opening chorus shows off by concluding with a little fugue. Beautiful writing for each of the four soloists is one of the work’s stunning moments. The second part tends to be more reflective moving away from the celebration of the opening to the opportunity for the listener to discern “What does this mean?”. The Luther text is used for the chorale with the melody by Matthias Greiter. The instrumental writing also stands out with interesting use of viola da gamba and oboe d’amore in the latter half, and exciting trumpet writing in the opening (especially in the bass aria).
The orchestral writing also tends to stand out in the central cantata, BWV 79, Gott Der Herr ist Sohn und Schild. Those with good Baroque ears may hear faint strains of Buxtehude’s style in the opening prelude. The following aria features beautiful writing for oboe in alternation with the alto line. Johann Cruger’s hymn Nun danket alle Gott is fairly straightforward in this setting with an almost festive air created with the horn writing which is fairly advanced. A reflective duet follows before a final chorale melody closes off the piece.
The most famous of Luther’s hymns, Ein Feste Burg, opens the cantata that bears its name here, BWV 80. Here is an opening that is far closer to a motet, thus giving a nod to the historic roots of the movement. Melodic lines encircle the material creating the mighty fortress musically with exhilarating results. Throughout the cantata the melody is explored instrumentally and vocally in what is perhaps one of Bach’s finest works of the genre. It is a celebration both of theological understanding, confidence and musical painting of the highest order. Because of the familiarity of this tune, it is even easier to hear how Bach takes individual threads of the melody as departure points for his setting here as well as some of the unique harmonic choices he makes. The result is a capping performance of three engaging sacred works.
Each of the Montreal Baroque’s releases focused on a specific season or aspect that unites the chosen pieces and in this eighth release, they have pulled together works that really explore the spirit of the Reformation. Ein Feste Burg is the work that is perhaps more well known among the texts and tunes that appear in these cantatas, but each features some excellent writing that is interpreted quite well by the ensemble and singers. While some will want a bigger choral presence in these pieces, or even a larger orchestra, these performances lend us an opportunity to hear clearly some of Bach’s textures with these reduced forces. The music has great forward energy and proper emotional qualities in the arioso moments. Tracking down earlier releases in the series will be of interest to those looking for a general survey of these important sacred Baroque works.
© 2018 Cinemusical