Bach: Erhalt uns, Herr

Mields, Schachtner, Kristjánnson, Berndt SATB, Gaechinger Cantorey, Hans-Christoph Rademann
Carus 83.311
BWV79, 126, 236

These cantatas and the Mass in G, which parodies several numbers of BWV 79, are given a full-blooded performance with the substantial band of the Gaechinger Cantorey which uses strings and voices. They use both harpsichord and a small organ reconstructed for them after one by Gottfried Silbermann recently discovered in Seerhausen, Saxony. Unfortunately, no details are provided of this instrument in spite of their website saying ‘The Gaechinger Cantorey is basing its new approach on this kind of sound and orchestral arrangement, starting off with the sound of a replica Silbermann organ’. This is welcome news, as a number of photos on the website show modern orchestral instruments (a bassoon and a horn are visible), and the large numbers in both choir and band make the sound rather solid.

The liner notes in German and English have an abridged (in English) version of the essay on Bach the Reformer, placing the cantatas and the mass in their historical and musical context, which is welcome, but the impression of the performances is that, although the chorus singers and the band are well matched, the substantial forces make the ‘solo’ singers work hard to be heard instead of achieving that natural balance we might expect. I have yet to read a scholarly refutation from Germany of Andrew Parrott’s The Essential Bach Choir, which has so influenced performance practice elsewhere, and this performance from such a prestigious Academy shows little evidence of what is now accepted in many quarters as good practice.

In particular, I feel that the tromba in the opening movement of BWV 126 is overpowered by the strings and choir, and the Tenor in the aria Sende deine Macht  has to oversing – where is he standing in relation to the oboes? – while the Bass in Stürze zu Boden  is splendid, singing with both organ and harpsichord, and quite excellent cello and fagotto playing. In BWV 79, the playing of the large band in the open chorus is wonderful in its articulation in the fugato sections, and the horn playing as good as it can be. Here the balance in the aria for Alto and oboe obbligato seems better, though the bass is overweight here as it is in the duet – how many contrabassi are playing here? This all gives the orchestral sound a rather ‘modern’ feel, and at times – especially in the final chorale, the combined sound with an appropriate predominance of organ hardly lets us hear the horns.

These questions of balance seem to have sorted themselves out better by the Mass, though, when the Bass begins the Gratias, I am conscious of a less immediate sound – immediacy is sacrificed to some extent in the recording to the grand effect. The S/A Duetto Domine Deus  again has a very smooth orchestral sound, and an over-prominent 16’ tone.

The contrast here with Carus other CD – Ein feste Burg  – is instructive; although both use substantial choirs, that one feels more immediate and is recorded closer. If you like a full-blooded choral sound, the well-rehearsed Gaechinger Cantorey could hardly be bettered. But, as a recording, it is less integrated that we might expect these days – it feels more like a choral society accompanied by a first-rate orchestra who are sitting between them and the audience, with very distinctly different solo voices for the arias. It is an excellent recording – in a slightly old-fashioned style.

David Stancliffe