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My Bach Pilgrimage – 1714 (Part One) – Alto Altissimus

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on May 26, 2014 at 8:15 am

(The Monteverdi Choir, The English Baroque Soloists, John Elliot Gardiner)

Widerstehe doch der Sünde (BWV 54)
Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199)

There is some discussion about what voice these two solo cantatas were written for – but I can think of no finer performances than these by Nathalie Stutzmann and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

It’s somewhat unusual that the first two cantatas that Bach would write following his elevation to Konzertmeister in Weimar would be for solo voice but there’s a newfound fluency and confidence to them – as if for the first time Bach was flexing his muscle of expression. Indeed in the case of BWV 199 there’s a heightened – almost unbridled – sense of dramatic and emotional urgency that personally I don’t think Bach exceeds in later works.

Before I go on, when listening to these two works something really came to life for me. The sheer talent and musicianship of the singers and players that Bach must have employed – either as colleagues or as itinerant musicians – must have been incredible. It is hard to believe that he would have written such sublime music if he didn’t believe not only that they could perform it, but also perform it convincingly.

The original altos that must have performed these works – for I do personally believe that these two cantatas suit the alto or mezzo voice best – must therefore have been incredible performers.

Widerstehe doch der Sünde was originally thought to be incomplete until a complete score was found. It is so perfectly formed I find it hard to see how anyone could have thought it incomplete.

The orchestration is simple – just strings – but Bach’s use of counterpoint, entwining the instrumental lines above a insistent basso continuo – almost like the pastor waving his finger at the congregation – that creates a deceptively lush sonority.

There is something quite powerful – almost risqué – that young Bach writes such sensuous music when the text is all about avoiding the temptation of sin.

The central recitative contains some wonderful word painting at Und übertünchtes Grab and the vigorous continuo line at the end to depict the stabbing sword before the final aria where Bach demonstrates his skill at counterpoint, with the subjects weaving from voice to combined violins and viola to the continuo.

It is the brevity of this cantata – almost a sense of earnestness – that seems to underline the seriousness of the text. And performed as eloquently as it is here by Ms Stutzmann with her resonant mezzo voice it is a cantata I shall return to regularly.

In complete contrast is Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (BWV 199). It wears its heart quite literally on its sleeve from the beginning – My heart swims in blood.

Pain, torment and endless sorrow are deeply ingrained in the music of the first half. Not only does this cantata hint at the depths of Bach’s own religious feelings but also the confidence of a young composer wanting to show his musical mettle.

And in the skilful hands of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson it gores beyond a purely musical experience to a spiritual one. Her ability to convey not only the words but also the pain, torment and sorrow of Bach’s music is second to none.

The opening recitative – scored for the complete string ensemble – immediately sets the anguished tone that permeates the whole work.

The first aria – Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen – contrasts the eloquent oboe obbligato with an almost halting continuo and a vocal line that is so economical in contrast that it creates an uneasy tension. But what surprises most is the unexpected recitative in the middle. It’s almost as if Bach was writing for the stage – a heroine who, in the midst of her torment at some unrequited love or deceit, breaks into words.

But here the drama Bach conveys is one of religious fervour.

The second recitative leads straight into an aria that is deceptively calm. It’s almost pastoral in its simplicity as the singer admits her own remorse and guilt. And again it is all about sonority here with Bach masterfully creating a luscious bed of sound below the vocal line.

After the briefest of recitatives Bach uses a chorale – Ich, dein betrübtes Kind – as the emotional turning point of the cantata. The viola obbligato takes its thematic base from the chorale’s opening line that is intoned by the solo voice.

And this leads into – quite literally – a gigue. Wie freudig ist mein Herz, as the penitent sings of their joy in God led by the returning oboe to the ensemble, is nothing short of an affirmation of faith.

After the emotional gut punch of the opening sections, it must have had them dancing in the aisles. Or at least quietly humming the melody at home.

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  1. […] Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis until the 1720s – Bach wrote seven cantatas including the two for alto that I previously wrote […]

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