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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Secular Cantatas

[I] "Secular Cantatas, Vol. 8"
Hana Blaziková, soprano; Hiroya Aoki, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Roderick Williams, bass
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki
rec: Feb 2016, Saitama, Saitama Arts Theater (Concert Hall)
BIS - 2231 (© 2017) (70'23")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen (BWV 215); Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde (BWV 206)

[II] "Secular Cantatas, Vol. 9"
Joanne Lunn, soprano; Robin Blaze, alto; Katsuhiko Nakashimaa, Nicholas Phan, tenor; Christian Immler, baritonea; Dominik Wörner, bass
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki
rec: Sept 2016, Kobe, Shoin Women's University (chapel)
BIS - 2311 (© 2017) (80'53")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Auf, schmetternde Töne der muntern Trompeten (BWV 207a); Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde (BWV 201)a


The position of Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig can be compared to that of his colleague Georg Philipp Telemann, who for most of his life was director musices in Hamburg. Both were not only responsible for the liturgical music in the main churches, they were also expected to compose the music for special occasions. In the case of Telemann this meant, for instance, the music for the annual festive banquet for the Captains of the city guard (the so-called Kapitänsmusiken). In Leipzig Bach wrote the music for the inauguration of a new city council (Ratswechsel). The University took an important place in the city, and Bach composed the music for several of its professors. Three of the cantatas in the two recordings reviewed here, are politically motivated: they are written for Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland.

The earliest of them is Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen (BWV 215), which was performed on 5 October 1734. Bach was forced to compose this work on very short notice. He had prepared the cantata Schleicht, spielende Wellen (BWV 206) to be performed on 7 October, the birthday of Augustus (*). But only on 2 October it was announced that Augustus was to visit Leipzig in person on the 5th. As this was the day he had been elected King of Poland, the subject of the music had to be changed. A different libretto had to be produced (written by Johann Christoph Clauder, a teacher at the University), and Bach was given only a few days to compose the music, write out the parts and rehearse the work with his singers and players. No wonder that he turned to existing music for some parts of the cantata. For the opening chorus he reused the chorus of the lost cantata Es lebe der König, der Vater im Lande (BWV Anh 11), written for the name day of August the Strong (Augustus III's father) two years earlier. (Bach adapted it later to the Osanna in his Mass in b minor). The tenor and bass arias also seem to be reworkings of earlier arias, which again have not survived. A couple of months after the performance of this cantata Bach reused the soprano aria in the fifth cantata of his Christmas Oratorio (Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen).

In his liner-notes Klaus Hofmann points out how the librettist "rewrote" history, as it were, as the text says that Sarmatia (=Poland) chose Augustus "above all others for your royal throne". The facts were different. "The text does not, however, mention that the election did not proceed in a totally orthodox manner: Augustus did not put his name forward until after the Poles had already decided in favour of Prince Stanislaw Leszczynski, and then he was elected King by a minority, under pressure from the Habsburgs and with support from Russia. Leszczynski, however, insisted on his right to the throne; military complications ensued. Leszczynski and his troops entrenched themselves in Danzig (Gdansk) and managed to resist a siege for some six months until, in the spring of 1734, he was forced to yield to superior forces and surrendered." Leszczynski had the support of the French, as he was the father-in-law of Louis XV. Hence the reference to the "might of the French" which "threatens our fatherland with sword and fire" in the last recitative.

Not only the festive character, also the fact that it was performed in open air explains the opulent scoring for two four-part choirs and an orchestra of three trumpets, timpani, two transverse flutes, two oboes, strings and bc. The tenor aria includes many virtuosic coloraturas, which seem not to be inspired by the text. But Hofmann explains elsewhere that Bach didn't care too much about that, when he adapted existing music to a new text: "Bach just trusted in the power of his music". Remarkable is also the belligerent bass aria: "Rage, reckless swarm, in your own entrails". Here the obbligato instrument is not, as one probably would expect, a trumpet, but an oboe.

On 3 August 1735 Leipzig celebrated Augustus' name day with another cantata from Bach's pen: Auf, schmetternde Töne der muntern Trompeten (BWV 207a). The a indicates that this is an adaptation of another cantata. The first version, Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten was written at the occasion of Gottlieb Kortte, taking up his law professorship in 1726. An unknown librettist adapted the text to the different occasion, but he stayed as close to the original as possible. The music for the choruses and the arias remained the same; only the secco recitatives were written anew. In this cantata we have to do with a double adaptation, as it were, because for the first version Bach already turned to existing music. The opening chorus is an adaptation of the third movement from the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1: Bach added vocal parts and replaced the horns by trumpets and timpani. The third trio from the menuet of the same concerto is included at the end of the duet for soprano and bass.

The performance of the Bach Collegium Japan closes with a Marche, scored for three trumpets, timpani, strings with woodwind playing colla parte and bc. It seems that this was not originally intended to be part of the cantata and was added shortly before the performance. However, as it is not known where exactly it was played, it makes sense to place it at the end, after the closing chorus.

On 7 October 1736 Bach performed the cantata he had originally written for 1734: Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde (BWV 206). The unknown librettist introduces four allegorical characters: the rivers Vistula, Elbe, Danube and Pleiße, which represent Poland, Saxony, Austria and Leipzig respectively. All of them have a claim on the ruler about which they must come to an agreement. The first three present themselves with a recitative and an aria, the Pleiße acts as a mediator. "The results of the encounter are portrayed in a recitative from the four main characters, who reach a peaceful accord and, with collective greetings, commend the King to divine providence" (booklet).

The scoring is for four voices - solo and tutti - and an orchestra of three trumpets, timpani, three transverse flutes, two oboes and oboi d'amore respectively, plus strings and bc. In the opening chorus the contrast in the text is depicted by a dynamic contrast in the music, both in the orchestral introduction and in the opening of the choral part: "Glide, playful waves, and murmur softly! No: rush swiftly, so the shore and the cliff resound increasingly!" Obviously the waves of the rivers are illustrated in this cantata at several moments, for instance in the tenor aria, which includes an obbligato part for violin. A most remarkable piece is the soprano aria, representing the Pleiße. The text says: "Listen! The choir of gentle flutes cheers the heart, delights the ear." The music just does that: the soprano is supported by three transverse flutes and bc. Hofmann writes: "Such a musically delicate flute aria would never have been heard before in Leipzig."

Whereas these three cantatas were written for specific occasions, in the case of Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde (BWV 201) the reason why Bach composed it is not known. Klaus Hofmann surmises that he wrote it on his own initiative, "especially because the message he conveys in the work can be understood as championing his own cause - a defence of his artistry and his musical attitudes against the trends of the time, against philistinism, superficiality of artistic judgement and an unquestioning preference for easy fare." The score and parts date from 1729, shortly after Bach had taken over the direction of the Collegium Musicum. It seems likely that this cantata was part of performances by this ensemble. The libretto was written by Picander, who turned to the famous story of the musical competition among the gods Pan and Phoebus (Apollo), as described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. The cantata is written for an opulent ensemble of six voices (soli and tutti), three trumpets, timpani, two transverse flutes, two oboes, strings and bc. Most of Bach's secular cantatas are called dramma per musica, just like some operas by Italian composers. But in most cases his cantatas have little in common with opera as there is no real dramatic story; the three cantatas discussed before could better be called serenata. In contrast, we have a story here, and the six singers all represent a particular person. Everyone of them has an aria, and especially in the arias of Pan, Phoebus and Midas Bach illustrates their character and their role in the story, not only in the vocal parts, but also in the instrumental accompaniment, for instance in the imitation of the braying of donkeys in Midas' aria.

I am far more impressed with the performances here than with those in Volume 7, which I reviewed recently. The soloists are much better, and the humor of the contest between Phoebus and Pan comes off much better than that in the Peasants' Cantata. The various characters are excellently portrayed, and the orchestra also delivers a more vivid interpretation. Fortunately the singers show enough restraint in order not to turn this piece into a caricature. The three occasional cantatas have the right amount of splendour which one may expect from such pieces. The players of the natural trumpets - real ones, without unhistorical fingerholes - strongly contribute to that. Nicholas Phan seems new to the Bach Collegium Japan's recording project, and here he confirms his qualities which I noticed in other recordings, for instance Bach's St John Passion under Jeannette Sorrell. I heard here Katsuhiko Nakashima for the first time in a substantial solo, and I like his voice. The same goes for the alto Hiroya Aoki, a pupil of, among others, Robin Blaze, which shows. He sings his aria in Schleicht, spielende Wellen very nicely. Roderick Williams has quite a powerful voice, which serves the aria 'Rase nur' from Preise dein Glücke particularly well. Charles Daniels is impressive in the virtuosic coloratura in 'Freilich trotzt Augustus' Name'. Hana Blaziková aptly personifies the voice of reason in the role of arbitrator in BWV 206.

Of those volumes in this series I have heard these two discs have to be reckoned among the best.

(*) This is the date in the 'Old Style'; in the 'New Style' it was 17 October, the date which is used in most modern sources.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Hiroya Aoki
Hana Blaziková
Christian Immler
Nicholas Phan
Dominik Wörner
Bach Collegium Japan

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