Early Music Media Review

Carolina Baroque: Sacred Bach Cantatas

March 8, 2010 - Hillsborough, NC:

Carolina Baroque*: Sacred Bach Cantatas: four complete cantatas along with selected excerpts. CB-130, DDD ©2009; two CDs. (37:25, 53:39), $15.00. Recorded in concert October 16, 2009, in the Chapel, St. John's Lutheran Church, Salisbury, NC. Carolina Baroque, 412 South Ellis Street, Salisbury, NC 28144-4820.

The desires and goals of collectors, reviewers, presenters, and audiences are sometimes at cross-purposes. My colleagues and I have reviewed many self-published CDs made during performances of Carolina Baroque since 2001. Our only frequent caveat has been about too many programs of excerpts of cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. With the recent issue of CB-128 (reviewed in CVNC) and this double CD set, collectors and reviewers can have little about which to complain.

In the Oxford Companion to J.S. Bach, David Schulenberg writes that the solo arias of Cantata S.156, "Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe" ("I stand with one foot in the Grave"), lightly-scored settings of texts by Picander, "reveal Bach's late style at its most subtle." Based upon this reference, Higbee's major change has been to substitute a recorder for the original oboe part. The gentle opening sinfonia is derived from a lost concerto movement which Bach later arranged as the Largo of Harpsichord Concerto in F minor, S.1056. The movement following is a fascinating setting of a five-line text for tenor juxtaposed against acantus firmus of "Mach's mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt" sung by the soprano. A bass recitative is followed by an aria for contralto. Another bass recitative leads to a four-part setting of "Herr, wie du willt" ("Lord, as you will"). All four singers' diction is excellent, and their vocal lines are evenly supported across their respective ranges.

Susan Bates, playing the church's Casavant Organ, is heard in "Mensch, bewien' dein Sünde gross" ("O man, weep for your great sin") from the Little Organ Book. Her tempo is suitably measured and stately and the instrument's sound is full and resonant.

Cantata S.166, "Wo gehest du hin?" ("Whither goest thou?") (Leipzig, 1724) is the next full selection. The bass aria, a setting of the cantata's title, sung with fervor by Doug Crawley, is followed by an extended tenor aria sung expressively by Richard Crook. Higbee's skilled recorder playing keeps one from missing the score's original oboe part. Presumably John Pruett plays the reconstructed violin solo. Teresa Radomski gives an ardent performance of the chorale-like setting for soprano that follows. The instrumental accompaniment, with cheery flights from the recorder, seems at odds with the contralto's somber warning. The four-part choral ending is set to one of the composer's favorite chorale melodies, Georg Neumark's "Wir nurden lieben Gott läßt walten."

The second disc begins with the oft-recorded and well-known solo bass Cantata S.56, "Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen" ("I will gladly carry the Cross-staff") (Leipzig, 1726). The cross-staff was an early navigational instrument, a predecessor to the sextant and just the first of several sailing metaphors in the anonymous text, a possible reworking of writings by Heinrich Müller by Picander. Bass-baritone Doug Crawley sings with both power and refined dynamics. His use of color is excellent and his care for words is exemplary. Among the many nice instrumental touches are the wave-like arpeggios of Holly Maurer's viola da gamba that accompany most of the second movement. David Schulenberg's article in theOxford Companion indicates this part was originally for cello. Again the lively oboe part has been replaced by Higbee's agile recorder. All four singers join for the concluding chorale.

The next selection is a fragment, the contralto aria and final chorale from Cantata S.33, "Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" ("In you alone, Lord Jesus Christ") (Leipzig, 1724). The aria is striking for its sustained beauty, and Lee Morgan sings it with eloquent simplicity. Muted first violins and pizzicato strings open and underpin the singer throughout. Instead of using the organ as continuo, Susan Bates makes apt use of the lute stop of the Kingston harpsichord. This is just one of many of Bach's jewels dispersed throughout his too-seldom-heard cantatas.

A fine example of Bach's dialogue cantatas, Cantata S.32, "Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen" ("Beloved Jesus, my desire"), ends the second disc. This cantata features a dialogue between the Soul (soprano) and Jesus (bass). Bach's original opens with plaintive oboe accompanying the soprano's aria. Director Higbee has assigned the oboe part to the recorder, and his expressive phrasing, above plucked strings, matches Teresa Radomski's somber lines. Bass-baritone Doug Crawley delivers his recitative and aria, describing Heaven, with firm tone and majesty. John Pruett plays the extensive and challenging solo violin accompaniment with panache and style. Radomski and Crawley are well-matched in the following extensive dialogue recitative and duet. A straightforward chorale setting ends the piece.

It is delightful to get such extensive and modestly priced live recordings of complete Bach cantatas from Higbee and his enterprising Salisbury-based group. Their recordings are perfect soothing company for long car trips or study. This CD can be ordered from the Carolina Baroque website where a complete list of all of their recordings is available along with their concert schedule and interesting links.

*Teresa Radomski, soprano, Lee Morgan, contralto, Richard Cook, tenor, Doug Crawley, bass-baritone, John Pruett & Susan Perkins, baroque violins, Maureen Michels, baroque viola, Holly Maurer, viola da gamba, Susan Bates, harpsichord & organ, James Bates, conductor, & Dale Higbee, Music Director and recorders