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Posts Tagged ‘The Monteverdi Choir’

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1715 – Deceptively Simple.

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on March 6, 2016 at 3:59 pm

Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe (BWV 185)
Nur jedem das Seine (BWV 163)
Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (BWV 132)

Bach composed three more cantatas in 1715 and they continue in the same modest vein as O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad written in June of that year.

Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe (Compassionate heart of eternal love), first performed in July 1715 (and revised in 1723) opens directly with a lilting duet for soprano and tenor with obbligato trumpet that pre-empts the closing chorale melody. There is something in Bach’s handling of the melodic line, the use of trills – particularly around ewigen Liebe – that if not erotic, comes pretty damn close. Following an recitative/arioso, the aria for alto with oboe obbligato is a beautifully crafted and stately movement and begins to demonstrate Bach’s increasing skill in elongating his melodic line. Another recitative leads into a rather earnest – almost finger-wagging – aria for bass and unison strings and in many ways with a few amendments wouldn’t be out of place on the operatic stage. A chorale ends a cantata, which despite its almost perfunctory nature, contains some beautiful music.

Not until December did Bach compose Nur jedem das Seine (Only to each his own), which although it seems even simpler – almost chamber in style – to the preceding cantata, contains some surprising experimentation by Bach.

The opening aria for tenor, motivic in structure is again almost perfunctory in its nature but the following bass aria – Laß mein Herze gerne geben (Let my heart be the coin) seems sonically richer despite even smaller forces because Bach only employs the lower strings with some energetic writing for the cellos. But it is the recitative that follows that might have had people sitting up in the pews – a recitative for soprano and alto. Or rather an arioso, with a rather ethereal quality which fits the words – Ich woltte dir, o Gott, das Herze gerne geben (I would gladly, O God, give you my heart). Bach might have been a Lutheran by faith, but as early as 1715 he was a dramatist at heart. No onle sitting in the church would have been in any doubt about the sincerity of the text at this point, which leads in to a duet proper where the strings intone a chorale melody below the florid, joyful vocal lines.

The final cantata of the year, Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn! (BWV 132) was first performed just before Christmas and despite its small forces, has a breadth and joyousness that would have had feet tapping and heads nodding in time to the music.

The opening aria for soprano and oboe obbligato is almost concertante – If not secular – in style with singer and instrumentalist trading florid melodic lines which captures at its heart the message Messias kömmt an! (The Messiah is coming). The recitative for tenor that follows contains some imitative and arioso writing for both soloist and continuo. More finger wagging follows in Wer Bist Du? (Who are you?) for bass with lively continuo writing. A more contemplative mood pervades the recitative Ich will, mein Gott, dir frei heraus bekennen (I would freely confess to you, my God) that emotionally follows neatly from the previous aria. The final aria before the closing chorale is notable once again for a florid instrumental obbligato, this time for violin, which weaves itself around the alto’s vocal line.

Despite the apparent simplicity of these final cantatas of 1715, It’s worth remembering one things. In these years at Weimar, Bach had at his disposal some accomplished instrumentalists and it seems that he recognised that they could be usefully and effectively deployed both in church and chamber.

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1715 – Cantata Psychology

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, JS Bach on August 2, 2015 at 5:09 pm

Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31)
O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad (BWV 165)

There is some debate about Bach’s first cantata for 1715 – Alles, was von Gott reborn (BWV 80a). Some of the music is lost and Bach later expanded it into Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott in 1730. Therefore I shall return to it when – and hopefully not if – I reach that decade.

Therefore the first extant cantata of the year is Der Himmel lacht! Die Erde jubilieret (BWV 31) for April 1716 and Easter. Despite the innocently sounding Sonata title for the first movement, it is anything but a quiet affair. Opening with timpani and trumpets but scored for an orchestra including oboes and strings and including some delightful interplay with the trumpets, its moto perpetuo rhythmic drive must have had them literally tapping their feet, if not wishing they could dance down the aisle of the church. The first chorus, Der Himmel lacht! continues the joyousness of the opening movement and yet Bach conveys a sense of frantic, almost raucous, joy as the chorus sing of rejoicing and laughter. But this is suddenly and dramatically cut short at Der sich das Grab zur Ruh erlesen (He who chose the grave for rest) before an earnest canonic section brings the movement to a close.

Following a recitative for the tenor, the first aria s in contrast to the opening movements, is written for bass and continuo only but remains a intensely rhythmically driven both in the vocal line and the continuo. The tenor returns for the second recitative and the second aria accompanied by strings only. The final aria, preceded by a recitative for the soprano, features an oboe obbligato. There is an almost pastoral feeling to Letzte Sunde, brich herein (Last hour, break forth) which is only tempered by the interjection of the strings with the chorale melody Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist.

Here is an example of what I will be calling Bach’s “Cantata psychology”. The aria, on the surface, urges the congregation to prepare for Jesus’ “gleam of joy”, and as they sat there listening to the first time to this beautifully crafted aria, they would have been surprised to hear the melody of a hymn they would have known well from singing in the church as well as at home – If the hour of my death is at hand. Bach, himself an incredibly religious man by all accounts, would have realized the power of music to remind the congregation of their own – and his – mortality. And Bach reinforced this message in the closing chorale by using the same melody.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Bach had a clear intention in mind when writing this cantata. It was to celebrate Easter and the glory of God, but to remind the congregation – and himself –that no matter how great their rejoicing should be, ultimately they should remember their mortality.

O heilges Geist- und Wasserbad, (BWV 165) – first performed in June 1715 – is much more modest both in terms of the forces Bach employed by also scale. The first movement for soprano – no introductory instrumental piece – with its weaving counterpoint in the strings and the melismatc vocal line convey the flowing water of the text. An aria for alto, post a simple recitative for bass, is scored for continuo only. The compound time signature reinforces the sense of quiet confidence of the text, of a belief in Jesus’ love for the celebrant. The succeeding recitative, scored for strings and arioso in nature leads into an aria for tenor with unison strings. I can’t help but think that the moto perpetuo of this movement – so different from the opening movement of the preceding cantata – refers to the Heilschläglein of the text before bringing the cantata to an end with a simple chorale.

Despite being very different in structure and nature, in these two cantatas we continue to see Bach flexing his musical and thelogical muscle, increasingly finding ways to bring his congregation closer to God – through both grandeur and contemplation – through his music.

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1714 (Part Three) – Three Part Invention

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, JS Bach on April 29, 2015 at 6:46 pm

After all this time we remain, I am afraid, both 1714 and in Weimar but with three cantatas that underline Bach’s enduring inventiveness.

And we start with a joyous cantata, that in many ways presages his later – and some would say – grander works.

Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten! (BWV 172) (Resound, you songs; ring out, you strings!) was written in May as part of his original contact when joining Weimar. It opens with a jubilant chorus complete with trumpets and timpani in celebration of the seligste Zeiten – blessed times – and is, in miniature, the kind of opening chorus that most people associate with Bach’s cantatas. Think, if you will permit, a shorthand version of the opening chorus of the Christmas Oratorio. Following a short recitative, the subsequent bass aria, Heilige Dreieinigkeit (Most Holy Trinity) continues this celebratory tone with its unusual scoring for trumpets and continuo only. Without another recitative, the mood becomes more contemplative in O Seelenparadies for tenor and unison strings. The simplicity of this aria is further heightened by the sense of moto perpetuo in the strings by which Bach creates the sense of God’s Spirit literally wafting through – Gottes Gesit durchwehet – with some further word painting in the second section at Auf, auf, bereite dich (Rise up, get ready). Before the final chorale, Bach writes a duet but it is effectively a quartet for soprano, alto with oboe d’amore obbligato and elaborate continuo line. The vocal and solo instrumental lines intertwine in what can only be described as an almost sensual rapture as the soprano beseeches the Holy Spirit to “waft” through her heart, with the said Spirit responding with “Ich enquicke dich, mein Kind” (I will refresh you, my child).

Reading up on this cantata, it seems that it was particularly loved by Bach – he revised it for Leipzig, making careful and suitable alterations on at least four different occasions. With its change of mood so effectively negotiated, and the contrast of the jubilant opening movement and the sensuousness of the duet, this cantata is a real gem.

With Advent being the start of the liturgical year, the opening chorus of Nun Komm, Der Heiden Heiland (BWV 61) couldn’t be anything but “mighty”. And that is exactly what Bach gives us – a grand chorus in the style of a French overture. I can’t – at the moment – think of another example in his cantatas, and considering that he only employs strings and no wind, trumpets or timpani, the effect is overwhelmingly sonorous and grand. The fugue at Des Sich wundert alle Welt quite literally gives the sense of the whole world marveling.

There follows a recitative and aria for tenor. The recitative ends with some delicate arioso writing which is reflected in the aria’s gentle, dance-like gait. But it is the subsequent recitative for bass that would have had the congregation sitting up in their seats. While only ten bars in length, this is the crux of the cantata – Jesus himself knocking on the door of the penitent. And Bach underlines the significance of this with the use of pizzicato strings to underline the word klopfe. Simply but incredibly emotive. The final aria, for soprano and continuo only is again deceiving in its simplicity. Bach unwinds a beautifully expansive vocal line. And the cantata ends as grandly as it began, with an exuberant chorus

In complete contrast is the more intimate Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (BWV 152) originally performed on December 30 1714 and therefore Bach’s last cantata of the year. However, with its use of recorder and oboe, it some ways it feels in some ways richer and opens with a two-part sinfonia, the second part being a fugue. The oboe provides the obbligato for the first aria for bass, and its easy to hear in the scales of both the instrument and soloist the path of faith (Glaubensbahn).

In the next recitative, Bach again employs arioso, before a more contemplative aria for soprano with recorder and viola d’amore obbligato. Despite its brevity, the interplay between the vocal line and two instruments makes this aria remarkable. A perfunctory recitative leads into a closing duet for soprano and bass – Jesus and the Soul – with the ritornello in the orchestra contrasting with the imitative writing in the vocal lines.

By the end of his first year in Weimar, it must have been evident to the people of the town that in Bach they had a exceedingly creative and inventive Konzertmeister.

My Bach Pilgrimage – 1714 (Part Two) – Bach Presents His Creds

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on October 20, 2014 at 5:03 pm

(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 ‘cred 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.

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.

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 – What A Difference …

In Bach Pilgrimage, Baroque, Classical Music, JS Bach on April 13, 2014 at 11:01 am

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

Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (BWV 150)
Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4)
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)
Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele (BWV 143)

A year or so makes. After the emotional intensity of the cantatas written in Mulhausen we have a cantatas written in 1708 that seem to take a huge leap forward.

I have to admit that these cantatas as a whole didn’t grab me as much as those from 1707. Personally they didn’t have the emotional impact or scale – despite larger forces – of the cantatas of the previous year but there is a sense of experimentation.

It’s worth noting that these were the first orchestral works Bach wrote. The concerti that we all love came later and that there remains some debate as to the actual date of some of these early cantatas. Both Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich (BWV 150) and Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4) have variously been listed as being written between 1703 and 1707, but after some research I have placed them in 1708.

Following a short sinfonia, the chromaticism of the opening bipartite chorus of Nach Dir, Herr, Verlanget Mich captures the mood of the text beautifully, especially the focus on ‘zuschanden’. And listen for the rising scale from bass to soprano in the second chorus, Leite Mich In Deiner Wahrheit.

Indeed it is the choruses in this cantata that truly stand out. And as John Elliott Gardiner points out in his brilliant book, Music In The Castle of Heaven, dance was seminal to Bach’s music and here the final chorus is a finely crafted ciacona.

Written for Easter, again Christ lag in Todesbanden opens with a short sinfonia before launching into the first chorus – a choral in the sopranos, the alto, tenor and bass lines weave around almost Italianate string writing in well-crafted counterpoint, concluding with an impressive Hallelujah ending.

A chorus definitely to get the congregation’s attention. Indeed the entire cantata is for chorus – no soloists required – but Bach deploys the forces smartly.

The second chorus, Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt (Death no one could subdue) scales the orchestra right back to continuo and a seductively woven vocal line above, contrasted with the vigorous string writing for the tenor chorus, Jesus Christus, Gottes sohn that follows and made even more famous by the over-orchestrated and ponderous arrangement by Stokowski.

But it is the chorus in the middle of the cantata that is most notable. Unaccompanied, Es war ein wunderlicher Krieg is in effect a motet – a furious one – with the chorale in the alto.

The final two cantatas of this period – Gott ist mein König (BWV 71) and Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele (BWV 143) – use an orchestra that I would imagine that most audiences most associated with Bach – woodwind, brass – in this case horns – and timpani.

BWV 143, Lobe Den Herrn, Meine Seele opens with a suitably exultant chorus, but its brevity demonstrates that perhaps Bach still wasn’t completely confident in terms of the large-scale choral opening movements of his later cantatas. Of the arias, it’s the tenor arias Tausendfaches Unglück, Schrecken (A Thousand misfortunes) and Jesu, Retter Deiner Herde (Jesus, Deliverer of your flock)where you hear for the first time the inventiveness that Bach would achieve in later works, especially his Passions. In the former, a delicate obbligato, in the second a distinctive bassoon continuo and the strings delivering the chorale.

As with the opening chorus, the final Hallelujah is more interesting for the hope it hold for future choruses than in itself.

Gott ist mein König (BWV 71) is the only cantata that Bach published in his lifetime and written for the annual council elections and therefore a cantata of somewhat impressive scale.

The opening chorus alternates between the necessary pomp and sections that are more reminiscent of an earlier motet style. And indeed this cantata is built on this tension of styles. The third movement is another unaccompanied movement, a fugue entitled ‘quartetto’, sandwiched between a tenor aria featuring an organ obbligato and the chorale delivered by a soprano soloist and an arioso for the bass, Tag Und Nacht Ist Dein, with its scoring for recorders and oboes. But it is the penultimate movement, the chorus Du Wollest Dem Feinde, again featuring recorders and oboes, above a rippling continuo and declamatory chorus that is the most memorable moment in this cantata, and points directly to his later works.

And naturally the cantata ends with a suitably expansive chorus – Das Neue Regiment – heralding the new council. Again alternating grander moments for full orchestra and chorus with motet-style sections, but the last word goes not to the chorus or trumpets but to the recorders.

Almost a musical wink, tt seems that Bach wasn’t quite the curmudgeon the world would like us to believe.

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.

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