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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Secular Cantatas, Vol. 7"

Mojca Erdmann, sopranoa; Dominik Wörner, bassb
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki

rec: Sept 2015, Tokyo, Hajuku Hall
BIS - 2191 (© 2016) (63'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Amore traditore (BWV 203)bc; Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet (BWV 212)ab; Non sa che sia dolore (BWV 209)a

Nobuaki Fukukawa, horn; Kiyomi Suga, transverse flute; Natsumi Wakamatsu, Shiho Hiromi, Ayaka Yamauchi, Azumi Takada, Yuko Araki, violin; Hiroshi Narita, Akira Harada, Yuko Takeshima, viola; Shuhei Takezawa, Toru Yamamoto, cello; Seiji Nishizawa, violone; Masato Suzuki, harpsichord; Masaaki Suzuki, harpsichord (solob), organ

The secular cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach probably don''t constitute the best-known or the most-loved part of his oeuvre. It's true, it includes some cantatas which are frequently performed, such as the wedding cantata BWV 202, Cantata BWV 209, the so-called 'Coffee Cantata' and the 'Peasant's Cantata'. However, most of the secular cantatas are not that well-known. As Bach often reworked them later to sacred cantatas, the latter versions are often better known and more frequently performed than the originals. Obviously, the latter is one of their interesting aspects as they give us much information about the genesis of these pieces and Bach's work as a composer in general. But the secular cantatas also allow us to see Bach in the social context of his time, as most of them were written for special occasions and for personalities from his environment

Masaaki Suzuki, having finished the recording of the sacred cantatas, has continued his exploration of Bach's vocal oeuvre with the secular cantatas. The present disc is volume 7 and includes two of the most popular cantatas. The programme opens with Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet, whose title in the Upper-Saxon dialect means "we have a new governor". It was performed on 30 August 1742 in honour of Carl Heinrich von Dieskau, who upon the death of his mother had inherited a number of properties, and on that day was paid homage by his subordinates at the village of Klein-Zschocher, south-west of Leipzig. Dieskau was regional governor and as such head of the tax authority. The libretto is from the pen of Christian Friedrich Henrici, also known as Picander. As he was a tax collector by profession, Dieskau was his immediate superior. He may well have taken the initiative to write the text and may have asked Bach - for whom he had written many texts, including that of the St Matthew Passion - to set it to music. Alfred Dürr, in his book on Bach's cantatas, refers to some elements in the texts which have been interpreted as a sign of social criticism. The fact that Henrici was part of the system makes it rather unlikely that such textual elements are meant that way. This cantata, as Klaus Hofmann in his liner-notes rightly points out, has to be taken as a rather humorous depiction of country life. The subtitle 'cantate burlesque' points in that direction, as does the use of dance rhythms in many of the arias. The text is not in dialect, as the title could suggest, although some words are part of it. The recitatives and arias are rather short. It is not without irony that when the soprano sings that "you will hear a new little song from me" she then turns to the longest aria of this cantata, and one of only three with a dacapo.

It is not that easy to perform this cantata well. If the performers to too much, the cantata turns into a side-splitter, but if they do too little, it loses its charm and wit. The latter is the case here, I'm afraid. Suzuki and his musicians remain on the safe side. This cantata is undoubtedly intended to be humorous, but little of that somes off. That goes both for the vocal and the instrumental parts. Dominik Wörner makes a good effort to bring the piece to life, but his singing is a bit too sophisticated. Mojca Erdmann doesn't make any real attempt to portray Mieke. Her singing is also marred by an incessant vibrato, as she consistently moves around the pitch. The playing is rather dry and not very engaging. In the closing duet Masaaki Suzuki uses the regal register of the organ to imitate the bagpipes mentioned in the text, but it seems rather unlikely that the performers at the time had an organ at their disposal.

Non sa che sia dolore is a cantata of a very different character. It is one of the best-known secular cantatas and often recorded and performed, largely thanks to the scoring: both the soprano and the flautist can shine here. Its structure is rather simple and in line with a tradition which had emerged in Italy: a sinfonia is followed by two pairs of recitative and aria. However, there have always be strong doubts about the cantata's authenticity. We don't know when it was written and for which occasion, and the fact that this is one of only two works in Bach's oeuvre on an Italian text has also raised questions about whether he is the composer. The text is written in rather poor Italian, and must be from the pen of someone whose native language was not Italian. It is about a scholar returning to his homeland in order to serve it. The first recitative opens with the words "He does not know what sorrow is who leaves his friend, yet does not die". "This seems greatly exaggerated, even for the pathos-laden baroque era, and our suspicion is aroused that in the original it was a much crueller fate that led the singer to the borders of death - perhaps (to name a favourite theme of the time) the irretrievable loss of the beloved", Alfred Dürr writes. It has been discovered that the author of the libretto is in fact a compiler: the text as set by Bach is taken from the poem Partita dolorosa by Giovanni Battista Guarini (1598) and from opera librettos by Pietro Metastasio. These were adapted for the occasion for which the cantata was intended.

There have also been stylistic doubts about the cantata. The sinfonia for flute and strings is not unlike the Overture in b minor (BWV 1067) for the same scoring. "What is surprising, however, is the relative modernity of the arias, which prove to be strongly influences by the stylistic world of Italian opera and can tata writing. But perhaps the music's Italianità can be understood as a wholly inten tional correlation with the Italian text", Klaus Hofmann states.

Probably because of its serious character the performance is much better than that of the Peasant's Cantata. The playing is excellent, and Kiyomi Suga delivers an outstanding performance of the flute part. Mojca Erdmann seems to feel more at home here, and there is nothing wrong with her interpretation. That makes it all the more regrettable that it is spoiled by her vibrato. Considering the overall level of performances by the soloists in this series of secular cantatas, I am surprised and disappointed by Suzuki's choice of Ms Erdmann for this volume. I also need to note - as I have done on other occasions - the inconsistency in the treatment of the appoggiaturas. I don't understand the difference between the soprano and the strings at the closing of the first (accompanied) recitative.

The second work on an Italian text is Amore traditore, which has the form of a traditional Italian chamber cantata: two arias, separated by a secco recitative. As in the case of the previous cantata there is no autograph, and one again there is considerable doubt about its authenticity. Alfred Dürr tends to the view that it is indeed a work by Bach. He refers to an article by the Bach scholar Andreas Glöckner, who has come to the conclusion that this cantata dates from Bach's period in Cöthen (1717-1723), where Italian cantatas were part of the repertoire of court music. Notable in this work is the difference between the two arias as far as the role of the harpsichord is concerned. In the first aria it plays the basso continuo, which is dominated by a six-bar ritornello. In the second it has a concertante role, with strong reminiscences of the toccata. Dürr believes that both arias are not "unBachian in character", whereas Hofmann is more sceptical: he suggests we could have to do here with a later arrangement, by another hand or by Bach himself, of a piece for a different voice type and with a basso continuo part.

Dominik Wörner included this cantata in his recording of Bach's bass cantatas, with the ensemble Il Gardellino. In the second aria the cello, which supported the harpsichord in the first, also participates. I was not happy with the result, and therefore the performance here, with only the harpsichord in both arias, leads to a much more convincing performance. Overall I find this piece the best part of this disc. Wörner sings it nicely, and Masaaki Suzuki plays the keyboard part brilliantly.

On balance, however, this is not the most satisfying volume in Bach Collegium Japan's project of Bach's secular cantatas.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Mojca Erdmann
Dominik Wörner
Bach Collegium Japan

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