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Posts Tagged ‘Cantatas’

My Bach Pilgrimage – Rain, Snow, Turks & Papists

In Bach Pilgrimage, Classical Music, JS Bach on April 27, 2014 at 11:17 am

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

Alles Mit Gott (BWV 1127)
Gleichwie Der Regen Und Schnee Vom Himmel Fällt (BWV 18)

Once again there seems to be some scholarly debate as to the actual date of Bach’s cantatas and if I follow Gardiner’s research amongst other, then Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (BWV 63) falls into the following year.

That means that of the extant – or recorded cantatas – there is one single example for 1713- Gleichwie Der Regen Und Schnee Vom Himmel Fällt.

However, from this year we do have Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd – the so-called Hunting Cantata – which contains possibly one of Bach’s most performed arias, the delightful Schafe können sicher weiden.

But we also have the recently (2005) discovered Alles Mit Gott, (BWV 1127). Rediscovered by John Elliott Gardiner it was written as a Birthday Ode for his employer, Duke Wilhelm of Saxe-Weimar.

Written with twelve verses in all – Gardiner records simply the first, third and twelfth stanzas with the wonderful soprano Elin Manahan – it also harks backwards to an earlier style. The soprano is simply accompanied by continuo and alternates with a ritornello by a string ensembles. It’s a beautifully crafted gem but to be honest I think three verses was quite enough for me.

Could there be a more fitting opening sinofnia to Gleichwie Der Regen Und Schnee Vom Himmel Fällt? Originally it was scored just for strings but Bach added recorders when it was later performed in Leipzig, and this is the orchestra that Gardiner chooses.

A slight cheat I know to include it here but worth it.

You can almost hear the rain and snow falling in this opening sinfonia with the recorders providing the fertile earth sprouting from the resultant wet ground.

Indeed the following movement is typical of Bach’s dramatic invention in his early cantatas. After a short recitative for bass, their follows what almost amounts to a dramatic scena for tenor, bass and chorus is beautifully crafted. The soloists implore for God to save their souls from evil and between each verse the chorus interject with a rhythmically alert chorus. The plea by the chorus to be saved from des Türken and des Papsts (the Turks and the Papists) is possibly unique in Bach’s cantata output for crossing the ‘political line’.

While not in the league of his soloist/chorus movements in his later Passions, this cantata is worth listening to for this movement alone.

The following soprano aria is again reminiscent of earlier arias. It is – compared to the previous movement incredible short but there is some simple word painting at Fort mit allein, fort nur fort.

The cantata closes with a simple chorale. Perhaps any more drama would have been too much for the congregation, already whipped up into a religious fervor by the earlier movement.

In the following year, 1714, Bach would be promoted to Konzertmeister and one of his duties would be to write a cantata every month for the ducal church.

His final years in Weimar – and before his appointment in Leizig – would see Bach compose some of his most thrilling cantatas.

My Bach Pilgrimage – Best Foot Forward

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on March 30, 2014 at 10:12 am

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

Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (BWV 131)
Gottes Zeit is die allerbester Zeit (BWV 106)
Der Herr denket an uns (BWV 196)

Sunday seems to be the best day for my Bach Pilgrimage and so my aural journey starts chronologically with the first three cantatas he wrote in 1707.

Written in Mühlhausen, Bach was just twenty-two.

As I said before, his pilgrimage won’t be an an aria-by-aria, chorale-by chorale, chorus-by-chorus account. But rather observations with the occasional highlight.

Indeed, listening to these three cantatas it feels that Bach reached his musical majority in terms of style very quickly. But having done so, his musical language didn’t stagnate but rather became ever more distilled and in terms of his religious music, spiritual.

It’s not clear why Bach wrote BWV 131, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (Out of the Depths, Lord, I called to You) but from the opening chorus there is that Bach-ness to it that clearly says that this could be by no one else. I wonder what those listening to it must have thought. Of course they may have been acquainted with the choral works of the likes of Buxtehude, but the instrumental colour created by the oboe obbligato, the unexpected modulations, the expressive counterpoint have made them sit up and listen more intently.

This cantata is continuous – through-composed – although there is a real sense of modernity in the use of concertante voices in the slow-fast opening chorus and in the second arioso, not only with it’s continuing oboe obbligato but the chorale verse in the chorus. And the opening of the middle chorus – Ich harre des Herrn – reminds me of nothing more than the Gabrieli brothers of Venice but also – weirdly – of the opening of Bach’s own b minor mass.

But impressive as the choruses are, it’s the tenor aria with its lilting cello obbligato and once again its choral cantus firmus that is this cantata’s gem.

Gottes Zeit is die allerbester Zeit (BWV 106) is perhaps the best known of this early triptych and rightly the most impressive. Perhaps written for the death of his uncle, this Actus Tragicus has a real sense of theatre – as well as being theatrical – that doesn’t re-emerge until his Passions. From the start, there is a simplicity that is genius. The rich yet economical scoring of soli viola di gambas and recorders, the gently pulsing melodic line again reminds me of a later cantata – the incredibly beautiful Trauerode – in terms of the melancholic – yet at the same time profoundly joyous – mood immediately created.

In Bach’s cantatas the strength of his own religious feeling, the certainty of a life after death is ever-present and no more so than here. The chorus that follows might seem almost too jaunty for a funeral but Bach is simply confirming his own faith – death is in God’s hands and should be welcomed. The three soloists play out the drama and it seems Bach couldn’t resist one theatrical flourish – in the chorus Es ist der alte Bund with the first appearance of that famous diminished seventh drop in the melodic line that would become a hallmark in Bach and beyond. Not only is there something almost sensuous about the soprano solo but the way the movement simply fades away with her final flourish must have raised more than a few eyebrows. And indeed the same could be same of the final chorus with its off-beat emphasis and final florid fugue.

From the end of life to the beginning with Der Herr denket an uns, BWV 196 (and here performed by The Purcell Quartet with soloists including the ever refined Ms Emma Kirky and Michael Chance). Perhaps written for a wedding within Bach’s own famly it follows a similar structure to BWV 106 with an opening sinfonia although the subsequently fugal chorus is of a more joyous nature although listen out for the deliberate ‘musical aside’ at und signet uns. But if there is one movement that stands out it is the duet for tenor and bass – Der Herr Segne Euch Je Mehr Und Mehr – with its concertante ripieni for the strings before Bach ends with a fittingly joyous and bustling chorus.

Shuffling Amidst Genius

In Classical Music, JS Bach on June 9, 2011 at 12:54 pm

Listening to JS Bach Cantatas (Soloists, Monteverdi Players & Chorus, John Elliott Gardiner)

JS Bach is simply one of the ‘greats’. Even his most intimate works – for example the works for solo keyboard – have a quiet grandeur and emotional impact that is not only unmatched by the majority of his Baroque colleagues but even by the generations of composers that followed. There is a clarity of form and an innate sense of musicality that often just leaves me speechless.

His cantatas must stand near the pinnacle  if not at the summit, of his musical œuvre. Bar the Passions they encapsulate all the things that make JS Bach a great and magnificent composer and a genius.

I have all twenty-odd CDs recorded by John Elliott Gardiner and his Monteverdi Soloists on their pilgrimage. It’s impressive, to say the least, that when Deutsche Gramophon cancelled their commitment to record all Bach’s cantatas, Gardiner took it upon himself to launch a label to finish this mission. Thus Soli Deo Gloria was born, a clear tribute to the phrase that Bach himself wrote at the end of each and every cantata that he wrote. And what an amazing achievement it is to complete the task with such aplomb and near perfect performances.

But I have to admit that it’s more than a challenge to contemplate listening to more than two or three complete cantatas in immediate succession.

So thank goodness for technology and in particular the shuffle function on my iPod. Naturally listening to complete cantatas is still the best way to appreciate the skill and the overall emotional impact that Bach achieved in each individual work and I love that SDG’s Facebook page gives a much needed helping hand in indicating which cantatas play on particular days. However selecting shuffle does afford the opportunity to marvel at the breadth of Bach’s ingenuity and skill as well as getting a sense – even if only fleeting – of the depth and sincerity of his religious belief.

It should be said that without the texts in front of me – and only a very rudimentary grasp of German, the focus here is very much on the music. Apologies. I love Bach’s cantatas so perhaps at a later date I’ll return to write about specific works as a whole – texts, symbolism and all.

So hitting shuffle – and in admission skipping over chorales and simple recitatives throughout – the first piece is – quite surprisingly – the opening chorus from Cantata No. 78, Jesu, Der Du Meine Seele. This is based on a chaconne and reminds me immediately how Bach took contemporary dance forms and integrated them into even his most devotional works. Taken at a stately tempo, Gardiner and his chorus let the delicate interplay of the various orchestral parts in the instrumental episodes have equal importance. From the start there’s an overriding sense of momentum as Bach constantly develops and modifies the descending motif and, at one point inverting it – a simple yet beautiful effect. As the rhythmic development intensifies he ratchets up the tension in the instruments, floating the vocal lines above them, imploring God’s attention. I wonder what effect the juxtaposition of dance-inspired rhythm and the chorale-style vocal lines would have had on the most devout Lutherans in the congregation?

Next is Siehe, ich Stehe von der Tür und Klopfe an from Cantata No. 61. What a beautiful arioso, clocking in at just over one minute from beginning to end compared to the previous chorus. A simple pizzicato accompaniment and the vocal flourish for the bass soloist on Klopfe clearly signify the knocking – simple yet effective musical painting of the text. Brilliant.

What follows is the first aria with obbligato instrument. In this case violin for Ich traue  seiner Gnaden and tenor soloist. It’s worth saying here that consistently throughout the whole series of cantatas the standard of soloists – instrumental and vocal – is of the highest standard. Here the delicate violin writing gently wraps itself round the – at times – equally florid vocal writing and great emphasis around trust (traue) and grace (Gnaden).

Murre nicht, Lieber Christ (BWV 144) for alto soloist with it’s pulsing string accompaniment, highlighting the murmuring of the text, shows a different approach. Here Bach adds depth to the instrumental writing by doubling up the lead violins with the warm, sonorous tones of an oboe d’amore. The middle section with it’s running bass and ‘sighing’ motifs from the upper strings has an interesting rhythmic gear change just before the returning of the first section. Interesting to note that throughout the cycle  it is incredibly rare to hear any of the soloists ornament their da capo sections. How very different from church music written for their Catholic counterparts!

The bass arioso from BWV 71, Tag und nacht ist dein opens with obbligato flutes and oboes. Bach again sets the scene vividly yet with great economy. The first, almost pastoral  section – literally day and night are yours – immediately brings to mind for me that cantata about ‘sheep safely grazing’. It contrasts with the florid writing for the soloist and change of tempo in the middle section, with particularly fine handling of triplets in the vocal line just before the return to the opening section.

Next yet another wonderful aria, Ach! Ich sehe from Ach, ich sehe, itzt, da ich zur Hochzeit gehe which opens with this bass aria. Here Bach uses a trumpet in a very unmartial manner to again add a very distinctive colour to the strings and their gentle lilting perpetual motion. The walking bass gives a real sense of ‘walking’ the the Hochzeit quite literally.

Aha,  A chorale! O Große Gott von treu breaks with the norm with it’s recorder obbligato throughout. Nice.

Du machst, O Tod, Mir nun nicht Ferne bange (BWV 114) with its jaunty oboe solo did throw me with its countertenor soloist. Ably sung but did Bach employ castrati? It’s one I will have to look up! Jury is out on that one.

To end, Verzage nichts, O Haüflein Klein. My first duet and a fitting place to draw a line. For soprano and tenor, it’s dance-like spirit is made even more distinctive by the  appogiatura’d bassoon obbligato which adds a slightly rustic feel. Again Bach uses the simplest of forces to great effect.

Of course I could just keep going. In total there are over one thousand individual tracks in my Bach cantata/Gardiner folder on my iPod but I will stop here for now.

Just from listening to these nine unrelated selections from his cantatas I’m simply in awe of Bach’s brilliance. His is an unending ability and talent to create completely different sound worlds each time using the simplest of means and, at the same time, painting the clearest of pictures and conveying the whole spectrum of devotion and emotion.

And it’s also clear from these performances that Gardiner and his players enjoyed every single moment of their amazing pilgrimage. If only I had been able to be in the audience just once.

A genius performed by brilliant, talented and totally committed singers and players.

Soli Deo Gloria? Too bloody right.

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