(The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner)
It’s been a while and we’re still in 1714.
Bach had just been promoted to Konzertmeister, and – if we discount the much-revised Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis until the 1720s – Bach wrote seven cantatas including the two for alto that I previously wrote about.
If the two solo cantatas occupy a central space in that year (written and performed in the summer or Autumn), the remaining five cantatas of 1714 wrap around them.
In the first two cantatas of 1714, Bach seems to be presenting not only beautifully crafted works that demonstrate his compositional skills, but also demonstrating that he can also communicate the deepest religious devotion and belief.
In modern parlance? A ‘creed check’.
Himmelskönig, Sei Willkommen (BWV 182) with its delicate scoring is the first cantata that Bach wrote as Konzertmeister. For me, the short opening Sonata – with its recorder and violin concertante, defines the incredible elegance of this work. And it is carried through in the subsequent chorus – of absolute, unshakeable and joyous belief in the glory of God.
What then follows are three arias in succession, each with a different obbligato aria – bass with violin; alto with recorder and tenor with cello. While the first, Starkes lieben (What strong Love) maintains the same mood as the opening movements, with the second aria, Leget each dem Heiland unter (Lay yourselves down before the Saviour) the mood becomes more personal. The recorder obbligato – with its sinuous melody – wraps itself almost seductively around the vocal line. Jesus, Lass Durch Wohl Und Weh (O Jesus, through weal and woe) contains the more personal plea of a supplicant. The penultimate movement is a chorale, with the cantus firmus in the soprano while the rest of the chorus weave in counterpoint ahead of it before the final chorus, So lasset uns gehen in Salem der Freuden, returns to the mood of the opening Sonata and chorus. But watch out for the minor key mood at Leiden (suffering).
Next is impressively mournful Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (BWV 12). It begins with one of my favourite oboe obbligatos in Bach – one that I remember playing as a student – and after the first original work for Weimar, its emotional intensity must have come as a shock.
As the oboe unwinds its melodic line, the strings weave the most intricate web below – the upper strings sighing, the violas like a heartbeat and the basses intoning every half a bar. And the subsequent chorus is one of those marvels unique to Bach. For me, there’s something slightly risqué in Bach’s use of a Chaconne – even one as chromatic and doom-laden as this – as the basis of this chorus. And above it the chorus intones the weeping, lamenting, grieving and trembling of the text, with beautifully crafted suspensions. And the simplicity at Angst und Not as the chorus comes together is overpowering. The short, faster ‘middle section’ doesn’t release any of the tension but rather with its busier contrapuntal lines, adds to it before a return to the opening section
It’s a gem. Of pure, unrelenting misery.
Over suspended chords in the strings, the following recitative again launches into three successive arias. The first, Kreuz Und Krone Sind Verbunden (Cross and crowns are bound together) features an oboe obbligato – slightly reminiscent of the opening sinfonia – and alto soloist. The two violin obbligati of the second aria, and the imitative nature of the bass soloist’s line, openly refer to the text – Ich folge Christo nach (I follow after Christ). But its Sei Getreu, Alle Pein Wird doch nut win Kleines seine (Be faithful, all pain will be but a little while) that provides the real surprise – a trumpet obbligato intoning a chorale above the tenor soloist. The purity of the sound is quite astounding.
The concluding chorale, Was Gott tut, das ich wohlgetan (Whatever God deals is dealt bountifully) is almost perfunctory after the emotionally journey of the preceding movements.
It’s almost as if Bach is saying despite the suffering, life goes on.
Indeed it does.