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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Secular cantatas

[I] "Secular Cantatas Vol. 3"
Joanne Lunn, sopranoa; Hiroya Aoki, altob; Makoto Sakurada, tenorc; Roderick Williams, bassd
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki
rec: July 2012, Nagoya, MS&AD Shirakawa Hall
BIS - 2041 (© 2013) (77'26")
Liner-notes: E/F/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Durchlauchtster Leopold (BWV 173a)ad; Quodlibet (BWV 524)abcd; Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36c)acd; Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202)a

[II] "Secular Cantatas Vol. 4"
Joanne Lunn, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Wolfram Lattke, tenor; Roderick Williams, bass
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki
rec: July 2013, Nagoya, MS&AD Shirakawa Hall
BIS - 2001 (© 2014) (73'06")
Liner-notes: E/F/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten (BWV 207); Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft 'Der zufriedengestellte Aeolus' (BWV 205)


In pre-romantic times music was an integral part of everyday life. It was unthinkable that major events of church and state or in the lives of private citizens from the upper echelons of society passed by without any music. This explains that we find occasional compositions in the oeuvre of many composers from the baroque era. Henry Purcell composed a considerable number of birthday odes for members of the English monarchy. In Hamburg Telemann wrote the music for the annual festive banquets of the captains of the civic guards, the so-called Kapitänsmusiken. Composers also often received commissions from rich citizens to add musical lustre to their wedding (anniversary) or to the celebrations of birthdays and namedays. Some of such compositions were of a sacred nature, but many took the form of a serenata, of a character close to opera, but mostly not meant for a scenic performance, and certainly not as dramatic as a real opera. And obviously the dedicatee had to figure in the text.

Johann Sebastian Bach's oeuvre includes a fair number of secular cantatas, many of which fall into the category of the serenata. He must have written many more than those which have been preserved. Many are completely lost, in other cases only the text has come down to us.

Some of these cantatas date from the time he spent at the service of members of the nobility. The cantata Durchlauchtster Leopold (BWV 173a) was written for one of the birthdays of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, who was Bach's employer from 1717 to 1723. The cantata may have been performed on 10 December 1722. The librettist is not known; he allocated the text to two singers, a soprano and a bass, who may represent two allegorical figures. Klaus Hoffmann, in his liner-notes to the present recording, suggests Providence and Renown respectively. The cantata with this text is probably one of Bach's lesser-known secular cantatas; it may be better known in the later sacred version with the title Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut (BWV 173), for Whit Monday. It includes several notable features. The first is the absence of recitatives; the fifth section is called a recitative, but its character is more that of an arioso. The preceding duet has a remarkable character: it has the indication al tempo di minuetto. The text comprises three sections and Bach has scored everyone of them differently: the first is for the bass, the second for soprano and the third for both. "The key sequence ascends through the circle of fifths from G (section 1), via D (section 2), to A (section 3)" (Alfred Dürr).

The other three large-scale cantatas date from Bach's time in Leipzig and are connected to academic circles; two of them were specifically written for professors at Leipzig University. The person who is to be honoured by the cantata Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36c), which dates from 1725, is not known. It is written for the birthday of a teacher; the reference to the "silver embellishment of age", a "man of outstanding merit" and of "highest honour" suggest an elderly person. This cantata must have ranked among those which Bach was most happy about as he used the same music for three other occasions. The best-known version is the sacred cantata with the same title; it was performed on the first day of Christmas in 1731. The arias belong certainly to Bach's most beautiful and most memorable. The first and third are intimate and almost tender: 'Die Liebe führt mit sanften Schritten' (tenor) and 'Auch mit gedämpften, schwachen Stimmen' (soprano). In between is a powerful and vivid aria for the bass, 'Der Tag, der dich vor dem gebar' ('Willkommen, werter Schatz', BWV 36). The secular version recorded here ends with a chorus into which three recitatives for the three solo voices are integrated.

Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft (BWV 205), also known as Der zufriedengestellte Aeolus, dates from the same year. It was first performed in August of that year in Leipzig. It was written to mark the nameday of August Friedrich Müller (1684-1761), who was a popular member of the academic community in Leipzig, and who was to become a professor in law in 1731. It was probably performed in the open air, in front of Müller's house, and that could explain the large scoring of three trumpets, timpani, two horns, two transverse flutes, two oboes, strings and bc. The cantata, or dramma per musica as it is called, includes arias with obbligato parts for an oboe d'amore and for viola d'amore and viola da gamba. Bach seems never to have used this music for sacred compositions - at least, not in cantatas which have come down to us. However, Bach adapted this cantata to a new (secular) text in 1734 at the occasion of the coronation of August III as King of Poland; the text has been preserved, but the music is lost. The text of Der zufriedengestellte Aeolus is from the pen of Christian Friedrich Henrici, also known as Picander, who would provide Bach with the text for his St Matthew Passion. The four characters, allocated to the four respective soloists, are Pallas, Pomona, Zephyrus and Aeolus, and based on Virgil's Aeneid. Bach uses the opulent scoring to spectacular effect in the opening and closing chorus. Aeolus' aria 'Zurücke, zurücke' is also a striking example of Bach's effective instrumentation: the soloist is accompanied by brass and timpani, without any participation of the strings.

The next year saw the performance of Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten (BWV 207), probably on 11 December, the day Gottlieb Kortte gave his inaugural address as a professor extraordinarius of law, at the age of just 28. He was quite popular and the instigators of the cantata performance may have been some of his students. The text was written by Heinrich Gottlieb Schellhafer who would later become a professor of law himself. The cantata is about four allegorical characters each representing a specific academic virtue: Das Glück (Happiness; soprano), Die Dankbarkeit (Gratitude; alto), Der Fleiß (Diligence; tenor) and Die Ehre (Honour; bass). There are strong similarities between this cantata and BWV 205. The instrumental scoring is almost the same; however, there are neither horns here nor viola d'amore and viola da gamba. Both cantatas end with a song of praise in honour of the dedicatee: "Vivat August, August vivat" (BWV 205) and "Kortte lebe, Kortte blühe" (Long live Kortte, may Kortte flourish) (BWV 207). The opening chorus of this cantata is a reworking of the third movement from the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1; the second trio is arranged as a ritornello which follows the duet of soprano and bass, 'Den soll mein Lorbeer'. The original full score includes an instrumental movement, called Marche. It is played here as the prelude to the final chorus. However, the Bach scholar Alfred Dürr suggests this could have been written as a kind of introduction to the cantata Auf, schmetternde Töne der muntern Trompeten (BWV 207a), a parody of this cantata.

Whereas these secular cantatas are not that often performed, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202) is one of Bach's most popular works. That is partly due to the scoring for solo soprano; few singers can resist the temptation to perform it in concert and to record it on disc. However, nothing is known about the origin of this piece. It was clearly written for a wedding, but for whose wedding? The author of the text has also remained anonymous. The cantata is known through a copy from 1730 but scholars are not unanimous in regard to the date of composition. One option is Bach's time in Cöthen but it may also have been written during Bach's early years in Leipzig. The text refers to the end of winter and the beginning of spring which gives some idea about the time of the year it was first performed. The instrumental scoring is modest: oboe, strings and bc.

These two discs are part of the large-scale Bach project by the Bach Collegium Japan. Having finished the recording of the sacred cantatas Masaaki Suzuki has turned to the secular cantatas. The main asset of his sacred cantata recordings was his choice of vocal soloists. Only on rare occasions there was reason for disappointment. Suzuki has always been keen on attracting young upcoming talents. In the last volumes of his sacred cantatas he turned to someone like Hana Blaziková, one of the brightest young stars on the early music scene. In the fourth volume we meet Wolfram Lattke, a fine German tenor who received his musical training as a boy in the Thomanerchor of Leipzig and has become known especially as a member of the vocal ensemble amarcord. Roderick Williams is certainly not an upcoming singer, but I had never heard him in Bach. He certainly would not be my first choice in this repertoire, but he makes a good impression, especially in the role of Aeolus in BWV 205. He is probably the most 'operatic' in this team of singers; Makoto Sakurada is a close second. In comparison Joanne Lunn and Robin Blaze are a bit more solemn in their approach. It is an interesting issue how close these pieces are to opera and what this does mean for the interpretation. We should not forget that in all likelihood these cantatas were not sung by professional opera singers but by students and maybe pupils of the Thomasschule. That should prevent a modern interpretation from being too operatic. That said, sometimes I found the singing a bit too static. That goes in particular for Wolfram Lattke, who has a nice voice and an excellent diction. But his singing is a bit bland and lacks variety in colour. His recitative 'Wen treibt ein edler Trieb' (BWV 207)) is too strict in rhythm and too slow and not speech-like enough.

The dramme per musica and the cantatas BWV 173a) and 36c come off pretty well as far as the vocal contributions are concerned. The three arias from the latter which I have already mentioned belong to the highlights of Vol. 3. The choruses also belong to the better parts of these performances, and here the orchestra gives a good account of itself. I would like to mention in particular the contributions of the trumpets and horns. In the booklet to Vol. 4 Suzuki writes: "Following our recent practice, the brass instruments adopted for this recording are constructed entirely according to original baroque practice, which means that they lack the so-called tone holes (or venting holes) with which the intonation may be adjusted on a modern-day 'baroque trumpet'. In consequence, it is physically impossible for their 11th (Fa) and 13th (La) overtones to be completely in tune. It is, however, our firm belief that the sound, undisturbed by the use of any holes, remains rounded and vivid, and that the player is able to achieve a more legato and singing character." This is a major advantage in comparison with many rival performances. In my review of various recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos - among them Suzuki's - I expressed my disappointment that none of the three recordings turned to Jean-François Madeuf who is the leading expert in playing natural trumpets without intonation aids. It is good news that a leading Bach interpreter like Suzuki finally decided to adopt this practice. It greatly contributes to the choruses from the cantatas BWV 205 and 207 making such a lasting impression.

However, the orchestra is the weak part of these recordings. In the more intimate parts, when the strings play alone or with the addition of a single obbligato instrument, such as the oboe, I find the performances too restraint, sometimes even bland and boring. There should have been more dynamic accents and a stronger differentiation between good and bad notes. The orchestral playing is the main reason that Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten is largely disappointing. I have heard various performances which are much more engaging and compelling than what we get here. Joanne Lunn doesn't do anything to make it better. All in all this is a rather lacklustre affair. The performance is alright, but that is not enough, certainly not considering the stiff competition.

I haven't mentioned yet the Quodlibet (BWV 524), certainly one of the oddest pieces in Bach's oeuvre. It has been preserved incomplete: the beginning and the end are missing. It is not a cantata but often included in recordings of Bach's secular cantatas as it is unique it is character. It is the least interesting part of Vol. 3. It is not that the performance is bad, although one could ask whether the performers haven't probably done too much. The point is that it is rather uninteresting. Honestly I can't imagine anyone wanting to hear it a second time. It should be recorded for completeness' sake, but that is it.

Those who admire Bach Collegium Japan's cantata performances will probably not been disappointed by these two volumes with secular cantatas. Others will have reason to be more sceptical. There is certainly much to enjoy here, but there are also some serious weakness, especially in the instrumental department, and particularly from the strings.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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Bach Collegium Japan

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