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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Secular Cantatas BWV 210 & 211"

Carolyn Sampson, sopranoa; Makoto Sakurada, tenorb; Stephan Schreckenberger, bassc
Bach Collegium Japan
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki

rec: July 25 - 28, 2003, Tokyo, Saitama Arts Theatre Concert Hall
BIS - CD-1411 (© 2004) (62'05")

O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit (Wedding Cantata) (BWV 210)a; Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Coffee Cantata) (BWV 211)abc

The secular cantatas don't belong to the most popular works of Johann Sebastian Bach. There are exceptions, though: one of them is the so-called Coffee Cantata. The other work on this disc is far lesser known and seldom performed.

Most secular cantatas were commissioned by personalities in public life for performance at special occasions, like weddings, birthday celebrations and social and political events. As a consequence these works were usually performed just once, and then put aside. This is the reason so many of this kind of works, which were written by many composers in Bach's time, have been lost. That is also the case with Bach's secular cantatas. More then 20 have been preserved, mainly due to the fact that Bach treated his compositions with utmost care. It is an established fact that about 30 cantatas have been lost, and it is assumed Bach wrote many more.

A second way in which Bach made sure his music was preserved is his use of the parody technique: he regularly re-used material from his secular cantatas in other cantatas, either secular or - more often - sacred. Arias and choruses were given a new text and - if necessary - the music was adapted to it. The best-known example of a composition which contains material from secular cantatas is the Christmas Oratorio. This practice was quite common in Bach's time. It should be kept in mind that in those days no fundamental difference was made between sacred and secular music. In fact, secular cantatas could contain sacred elements, like the wedding cantata O holder Tag, where the opening recitative ends with the lines: "We are by God to this commanded: amidst the joyful to rejoice." And the closing aria puts the wedding in the perspective of eternity: "Make full now your dwelling, bring joy to your heart, until you the Lamb's own high feast doth refresh". The 'Lamb', of course, refers to Jesus Christ.

It is not known for sure, who the addressee of this cantata was. It is assumed the bridegroom was university educated, and was a great lover of music, as these lines from the aria 'Grosser Gönner, dein Vergnügen' suggest: "And among thy wisdom's treasures can thee nougth inspire such pleasure as sweet music's charming art." The fact that there is a beautiful hand-written copy of this cantata, which contains only the parts of the soprano and the basso continuo, and which was apparently meant as a gift for the couple, has given rise to the assumption they did belong to the circle of Bach's friends.

The Coffee Cantata is completely different. It wasn't written for a specific occasion, but rather to be performed during one of the concerts which Bach and the Collegium Musicum gave in Zimmermann's coffee house from 1729 onwards. This cantata is neither about shepherds and shepherdesses, gods and goddesses and all kinds of mythological characters, like most secular works from that time, nor about kings or aristocrats, but about middle class people and one of their habits: the drinking of coffee. The lively interaction between the protagonists points into the direction of a performance in which the singers weren't just singing, but also acting their parts.

The text was written by Picander, who also wrote the text of the St Matthew Passion. As it was published in a collection of poems, at least two of Bach's colleagues also set the text to music, but in those cases the cantata ends with the aria 'Heute noch, lieber Vater'. This way it is in fact a quite moralistic piece. In Bach's version a recitative is added, which describes how the daughter plays a trick on her father and comes out the winner, and the closing trio, 'Die Katze lässt das Mausen nicht'. It isn't known whether Picander has written these additions on Bach's request or whether Bach himself has written them. Anyway, these additions change the character of the original quite a bit.

From a purely musical point of view this is a very good recording. Carolyn Sampson has a beautiful, warm and yet clear voice, which is well suited to this kind of music. Her German pronunciation is quite good too. The other singers perform at the same level, and so does the instrumental ensemble, playing here with one instrument per part. The solo parts for transverse flute, oboe d'amore and violin are well played.

But in both cantatas something essential is missing. In the wedding cantata it is the joy. The first aria begins with the line: "Play on, o ye lively anthems", but there isn't much liveliness and joyfulness in the performance, which rather drags on. There is a lack of contrast between the arias in this interpretation, which is also marred by a too rhythmically strict performance of the recitatives.

The Coffee Cantata should have been recorded in an intimate atmosphere, not unlike the coffee house where the first performance took place. The concert hall in which this recording was made doesn't seem the most appropriate venue to perform this particular cantata. The pauses between the tracks are too long, which results in a lack of interaction between the protagonists.

But the main problem is that whereas this cantata is meant to be humorous, the performance here is dead serious. Carolyn Sampson doesn't appear like a cunning girl trying to play a trick on her father - she sings her part with a rather straight face. And Stephan Schreckenberger doesn't succeed to portray the elderly father - his voice lacks strength and depth. After listening to this performance I turned to Emma Kirkby and David Thomas, who give a really humorous performance and play their characters most convincingly, with a lively interaction between them. Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music does surpass the Bach Collegium Japan in realising the swinging rhythms in some of the arias.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

Relevant links:

Bach Collegium Japan

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