Bach and before

The Bach players
Hyphen Press Music 012
BWV75 + music by Kuhnau, Schelle & Schein

The Bach Players’ latest CD continues their imaginative pairings and leads to Cantata 75 by way of some of Bach’s predecessors as Kantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig.

Johann Hermann Schein, who died young, was born in the same year as Schütz (1586) and is represented by the Geistliches Konzert Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, a short motet with a figured bass part for organ, and Suite no. 20 in E minor from Banchetto Musicale. The five-part string playing here is a delight, and the cool, zingy chords are well tuned. Would a theorbo have been a nice addition in this piece?

From Johann Schelle, Kantor from 1677 to 1701, we have an instrumental canon on Nun komm der Heiden Heiland  and a cantata Aus der Tiefen; and from Johann Kuhnau, Bach’s immediate predecessor, there is a more substantial cantata setting each of the six verse of the chorale Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan.

The Bach Players play and sing one-to-a-part, and their booklets, while listing the musicians, the timings, and the texts in German and English give most of the space to an essay by their excellent keyboard player, Silas Woolston. This one is typical, and by way of introducing the planning of the programme, manages to be both scholarly and informative: a pleasure to read.
The performances are good, and when I began to listen to the Schein motet, I was impressed by the increased clarity and blend of the singers since I heard them last. The accurate chording in the homophonic sections felt like an improvement on some of their more recent CDs and made me think how sensible it is to approach Bach from behind, as it were. Then the virtues of relatively clean singing can be carried through to the Bach, even if the plosive final consonant in ‘bestellt’ was surely not the best of which they are capable.

But that is not altogether the case. I notice that Rachel Elliott’s poise and accuracy in verse 4 of the Kuhnau is splendid, but she sometimes introduces a wobble on the final note of a phrase: I could understand this on the strong, penultimate note but surely not on the weak final note? It makes it sound as if she is running out of breath. This happens in the aria in BWV 75 as well, where this may – understandably – be the case at the end of the florid cantilenas! Nor is the rich-voiced Sally Bruce-Payne immune: in verse 5 of the Kuhnau, she allows what today’s singers are taught is expressive singing to win over the purity of the line. Balance and clarity are restored with a decent weight of organ tone and elegant but simple oboe playing in the final verse, but vibrato is an ornament in this period.

In the Bach, his first cantata after arrival in Leipzig, his hearers were treated to an extended two-part exposition of the where the opening verse of the Chorale Was Gott tut in an extended setting concludes each part, and the same chorale on the trumpet is the cantus firmus  for a string sinfonia that opens Part 2. The trumpeter, Adrian Woodward, is splendid here and in the C major aria with the bass that follows, shading off his top C beautifully (singers take note!). However, in the opening chorus the singing style adopted in the Schein is abandoned from the first alto entry in favour of a more soloistic approach; even the nimble fugato has the singers of the upper lines pushing through their held notes in the 20th century style, though tenor and bass do better. I suspect that people find Bach so demanding that best intentions give way under the pressure of getting the notes, the text and matching the instruments’ sound into place. This is where the exacting preparation and leisurely rehearsal timetables of groups on the continent win over our under-financed system in this country.

I make these comments not in any carping sense, because I admire this group’s music-making; but I would like them to gain that fluency and unanimity of which I hope and believe they are capable, and especially the integration of their singing style with the instrumental character of their music-making.

David Stancliffe