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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Secular Cantatas, Vol. 10"

Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Robin Blaze, altoa; Makoto Sakurada, tenora; Dominik Wörner, bassa
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki

rec: July 2017, Saitama, Saitama Arts Theater (Concert Hall)
BIS - 2351 (© 2018) (66'11")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
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Angenehmes Wiederau, freue dich in deinen Auen (BWV 30a)a; Ich bin in mir vergnügt (BWV 204)

It is generally known that a considerable part of Johann Sebastian Bach's oeuvre has been lost. Among the main victims is his corpus of secular cantatas. Many of them have not survived, in other cases only the text has is known. Thanks to the then common practice of recycling, a number of cantatas can be reconstructed from later adaptations to a sacred text. Except some quite popular cantatas, Bach's secular vocal oeuvre is not that often performed. That also goes for the two cantatas included on the last volume of the Bach Collegium Japan's project with the complete secular cantatas. However, to many Bach lovers Angenehmes Wiederau may sound very familiar, as Bach reused most of its music for his cantata Freue dich, erlöste Schar (BWV 30), intended for St John's Day, probably performed in June 1738.

The original secular version was performed the previous year. Alfred Dürr ranks it among the "music of homage for nobles and burghers". In this case the subject of the homage was Johann Christian von Hennicke, who became 'hereditary lord, liege and judge' of the manorial estate of Wiederau, southwest of Leipzig, in September 1737. One of the well-wishers, mentioned at the title-page of the cantata, was the poet Christian Friedrich Henrici, in daily life a tax official. The manorial estate was part of his administrative district. He is also the author of the libretto that Bach set to music. It has the character of a dramma per musica, and includes four allegorical characters: Time (die Zeit, soprano), Good Fortune (das Glück, alto), the Elster (the river bordering the palace park in Wiederau, tenor) and Fate (das Schicksal, bass). In its content, this cantata is very much alike the Kapitänsmusiken which Georg Philipp Telemann composed in Hamburg. In such pieces the various characters wish the city well, and here the characters in the cantata do the same to Wiederau. The singers are joined by a large ensemble of two trumpets and timpani, two flutes, two oboes, strings and basso continuo. The cantata is written in modern galant idiom which was to become dominant in the 1740s and which also manifests itself in, for instance, Bach's Musicalisches Opfer. Most arias are based on dances, such as passepied and gavotte. Notable is the fact that some episodes in the recitatives are set for all four singers.

Apparently nothing is known about the circumstances of the performance. It would be interesting to know, for instance, whether this cantata was performed in the open air. The use of trumpets and timpani would have been very appropriate for such a performance. The most interesting question, though, seems the number of participants in the tutti sections: the choruses which open and close the cantata. Here the four soloists are each joined by three additional singers. I tend to think that a performance with four (solo) voices and four ripienists, making a total of eight, is more in line with the performance practice at the time. Although the choir of the Bach Collegium Japan is an admirable ensemble and the choruses are sung very well, the intelligibility of the text would have been better with a smaller number of singers. The soloists are doing a fine job, with Dominik Wörner as the star. Carolyn Sampson uses a bit too much vibrato, Robin Blaze is a little too one-dimensional in the colouring of his voice and Makoto Sakurada's performance is too straightforward. All in all, though, this is a fine performance which succeeds in conveying the qualities of this cantata, which should be better known.

The disc and the project end with a solo cantata for soprano: Von der Vergnügsamkeit. It is a mystery why it was written. The text does not give a clue as for what occasion it may have been intended. The text also raises questions. Most of it is from the pen of Christian Friedrich Hunold, who had written several opera librettos for Reinhard Keiser in Hamburg as well as the text for the first Passion oratorio in history, Der blutige und sterbende Jesus, also set to music by Keiser. Bach had used librettos by Hunold for some cantatas in Köthen. However, only the sections 2 to 6 are based on Hunold's texts, whereas the remaining parts are from an unknown pen. Klaus Hofmann, in his liner-notes, states that "Bach cannot have been especially happy with this text as a whole. It is not just that the theme of 'contentment' is worn thin by the length of the text; in addition, the strophic poetry that dominates the additions to Hunold's original libretto proved hard to combine with the modern recitative and aria forms."

'Contentment', the cantata's subject, is also not easy to fathom. "The meaning of the German word has changed since the eighteenth century. Whereas today it tends to bring to mind happy leisure activity, in Bach's time it signified a humility, a relaxed satisfaction with what life had to offer." What we have here is a so-called 'moral cantata', a genre which was popular at the time and a typical product of the Enlightenment. The main purpose of such cantatas was the (moral) education of man. Telemann composed two sets of such cantatas. As there was no watershed between the secular and the sacred at the time, it does not surprise that such cantatas have spiritual connotations. The second aria is an example: "That which the wide world treasures, let my soul leave it alone. Heaven always attends those who can be rich in poverty." The next aria is even more explicit: "May my soul be content, however God arranges everything". The closing aria mentions "heavenly contentment" and "divine contentment". It is notable that comparable thoughts appear in some sacred cantatas. Nimm, was dein ist, und gehe hin (BWV 144) includes the aria 'Genügsamkeit ist ein Schatz in diesem Leben': "Contentment is a treasure in this life, which can provide pleasure in the greatest sorrow, for it allows itself to be pleased in all of God's doings". Ich bin in mir vergnügt (BWV 84) even opens with this thought: "I am content with my good fortune, on me by God himself bestowed. Should I possess no sumptuous treasures, I'll thank him just for simple favours, yet merit not the worth of these."

Von der Vergnügsamkeit is a long cantata; it takes here a little less than 30 minutes. It is divided into eight sections: four pairs of recitative and aria. However, the last recitative turns into an arioso. It is probably no coincidence that this concerns the additional text by the unknown author. The instrumental scoring of the various sections is different. The recitatives are of the unaccompanied type, except the second. The first aria is for two oboes, the second for violin, and the third for transverse flute, all of them with basso continuo. Only the last aria is for the full instrumental ensemble: flute, strings and basso continuo, with two oboes playing colla parte with the violins. Carolyn Sampson is certainly not my favourite soprano. One of the things I don't like is that she tends to use quite a lot of vibrato. She is certainly not free of that here either, especially at the top of her register and in forte passages. However, it is by far not as bad as in other recordings. Her German pronunciation is excellent, and her articulation and phrasing show that she is well aware of the idiosyncracies of German baroque music. Being in forgiving mood, I would say that this performance is acceptable. However, my first choice is Dorothee Mields.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Carolyn Sampson
Dominik Wörner
Bach Collegium Japan


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