L’Apocalypse selon Johann Sebastian Bach, Dietrich Buxtehude, Christian Geist

Trondheim Barokk, Vox Nidrosiensis (Siri Thornhill & Ingeborg Dalheim, Ebba Rydh, Hugo Hymas, Håvard Stensvold SSATB), Sigiswald Kuijken
48:54
K617 Chemins du Baroque CDB-003

Sigiswald Kuijken directed these performers, based notionally in Trondheim, for a festival concert in Sarrebourg in 2015. Like other takes on the great corpus of Bach cantatas by groups who are attempting to show us his works in a wider context, this pair is presented in the wider context of the musical expression of the final conflict between the forces of good and evil in the late 17th century. Buxtehude’s cantata Befiehl dem Engel, dass er komm  (BuxWV10) and Christian Geist’s Quis hostis in cœlis  provide the context for Bach’s compositions for Michaelmas in 1724 and 1726.

The CD opens with the vigorous singing of the opening chorus of BWV 19, where the blend and clarity of the vocal ensemble is immediately apparent as there is no instrumental preamble. The trumpets are led by Jean-François Madeuf, so their ringing harmonics are true, and the clean playing of the 2.2.1.1 strings and the four-part oboe band provides an exciting and balanced accompaniment. What is immediately apparent is that in these performances the upper voices do not dominate the four-part singing, as so often happens when four professional singers are pressed into becoming a ‘coro’, with the soprano and tenor singing as if they were leads in a heroic opera.

The soprano has a young and sparkly voice, blending with the others when required, but never overpowering them, though sometimes I was left wishing for a more instrumental tone and less vibrato. A cleaner, more trumpet-like sound would have helped her in 130.i. She sings fluidly with the oboes d’amore and the fagotto in 19.ii, almost a four voice intermedium, but sometimes doesn’t know where to breath in the long phrases. It is the tenor who has the gem of the arias in this cantata (19.iv). His singing is both crystal-clear and lyrical, and the long lines of this extended siciliano, over which the trumpet plays the serene chorale Herzlich lieb hab ich dir, is a model of sustained, apparently effortless phrasing. His singing in this aria has the balance, clarity and sheer musicality that so often eludes the members of a vocal quartet as they come to terms with the fact that they are equal members of an ensemble that includes both instrumentalists, as in the soprano aria, and other voices as in the soprano/tenor accompagnato in 130.iv. The tenor, too, has the charming gavotte of an aria with a traverso in 130.v, Laß, o Fürst der Cherubinen. This young English singer has not only a wonderful voice, but also the skill and imagination to use it in an intelligent and beguilingly modest manner.

To the bass falls the battle stuff, and he is at his best in the heroics of 130.iii, an aria in essentially 12/8, Der alte Drache brennt vor Neid, where the three trumpets and timpani form the accompanying band. This is great playing – but no wonder Bach got the string band to play the brass parts when the cantata was re-presented in the 1732: this must be about as demanding as it comes! The alto on has one recitative to sing on her own in the Bach, but you hear her rich voice well in the choruses and chorales.

The Buxtehude is more straightforward, with two violins and basso continuo with four singers; the Geist is more colourful, and has its origin in a cantata to encourage the young king on his accession in 1672 in his struggle to establish his reign amid the forces ranged against him. Here five voices are joined by five-part strings, two trumpets and continuo. Like the Altbachische archiv, these works are valuable for the context they provide for Bach’s cantatas as well as frequently being fine music in themselves. The notes help the listener understand the context of both these pieces from the often turbulent years of the 17th century.

This is a bright and exciting live performance that the recording captures well, even if some of the vowel sounds might have been smoothed out in a studio recording. I enjoyed it greatly and it is good to hear the splendid Geist, which I’ve never met before.

David Stancliffe