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24 May 2006
BACH: Alles mit Gott
A little over a year ago Bach scholar Michael Maul found himself in the exceedingly unusual position of having discovered a hitherto unknown Bach composition, a birthday ode for Duke Wilhelm Ernst of Weimar, entitled “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ ihn.
The discovery of Bach works
is not unknown in our day—the Neumeister chorale preludes saw light of
day in 1984, for instance—but the occurrence is rare and much to be
celebrated, as in this first recording of the ode from the Bach forces of
John Eliot Gardiner.
For Bach, “Alles mit Gott” is something of an unusual piece: a
strophic continuo air for soprano in twelve stanzas with lengthy instrumental
ritornello between the strophes. The text is by Johann Anton Mylius, who
penned the ducal salute as a trope on the duke’s motto, “Omnia
cum deo et nihil sine eo” (All things with God, and nothing without
Him). Both he and Bach imbedded separate patronal gestures in the ode itself:
orthographically Mylius creates an acrostic of the Duke’s name; Bach,
drawn we suspect to things numerological, supplies the continuo introduction
to the air with fifty-two notes, corresponding to the Duke’s
fifty-second birthday (1713), which occasioned the ode itself.
The discovery of any work by Bach is significant, and
“Alles mit Gott” rewards the listener not only with the aura of
novelty, but also with an engaging lyrical lilt in the dialogue between
soprano and bass. Does the lilt wear out after twelve successive stanzas? We
are not given the chance to find out, as Gardiner opts for a three-stanza
abbreviation, likely a smart choice where listeners are not closely attuned
to the details of the text. The length of the poem raises a significant issue
of proportion with regard to the string ritornello, as well. In the
abbreviated version, the nineteen string bars seem long relative to the
thirty-some odd measures for the voice. With twelve stanzas, however, the
need for a substantial variety is a more pressing one, to say nothing of the
singer’s need for vocal rest, and the length of the ritornello would
meet these needs well.
Soprano Elin Manahan Thomas sings the ode with a congenially youthful
sound, light and bright with notably clear articulation. The string band is
wonderful in its blossoming of major downbeats and also in its fluent
ornamentation on repetitions of the ritornello.
The remainder of the recording is devoted to live cantata excerpts from
Gardiner’s millennial Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, celebrating both the
dawn of the new millennium as well as the 250th anniversary of Bach’s
death. In a mammoth undertaking, Gardiner led performances of the entire
corpus of Bach’s surviving church cantatas on the appropriate
liturgical dates in churches throughout Europe and in the US from Christmas,
1999 to Christmas, 2000. The present recording offers a number of movements
from Pilgrimage performances, mostly arias,that highlight the rich interplay
of voice and obbligato instruments. All are accomplished renditions, and one
of the pleasures of the disc is the opportunity to hear so many different
soloists in a unified context—four different sopranos, singing arias
“side-by-side” is here a treat of riches. Of the four, I would
particularly single out Gillian Keith, whose performance of “Süsser
Trost” from Cantata 151 is memorable for her focus of tone and elegance
of execution. Keith is joined in this aria by flautist Rachel Beckett who
brings to Bach’s ever-inventive line a remarkable choreography of
Peter Harvey’s performance of “Es ist vollbracht” from
Cantata 159 with oboist Xenia Löffler is hauntingly beautiful, as well. One
of Bach’s most sensuous arias, “Es ist vollbracht,” weds a
slow-moving oboe line to string haloes and exquisite suspensions that
underscore Bach’s affective depths. Harvey’s ability to keep the
slow motion alive—a formidable challenge of control—and his lean
and yet resonant tone combine to make this one of the best in the