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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Bach Drama" (Cantatas BWV 201, 205 & 213)

Céline Scheen, sopranoabc; Clint van der Linde, altoabc; Makoto Sakuradaac, Fabio Trümpyab, tenor; Christian Immlerac, Alejandro Meerapfelab, bass
Choeur de Chambre de Namur; Les Agrémens
Dir: Leonardo García-Alarcón

rec: Sept 6-7, 2011, Namur, Espace Culturel d'Harscampac; Sept 10, 2011 (live), Ambronay, Abbayeb
Éditions Ambronay - AMY031 ac / b (© 2012) (1.21'35" / 42'54")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list
Score BWV 201
Score BWV 205
Score BWV 213

Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde (Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan) (BWV 201)a; Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (Herkules auf dem Scheidewege) (BWV 213)b; Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft (Der zufriedengestellte Äolus) (BWV 205)c

In contrast to the sacred cantatas Bach's secular cantatas don't belong to his most popular works. There are far less recordings and they are seldom performed in concert. Only a handful of these pieces are part of the standard repertoire, such as the Kaffeekantate (BWV 211) and the wedding cantata Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (BWV 202). There is no reason to ignore them, though; they are certainly not inferior to the sacred cantatas. The very fact that Bach frequently adapted material from these cantatas to sacred texts bears witness to that.

Bach has written a considerable number of secular cantatas, mostly for occasions as weddings and birthdays. Some have the character of a serenata, a genre which was quite popular across Europe. A large part of his output in this department has been lost, and sometimes we can only get an idea of what such cantatas may have been like through the later reworkings with a sacred text. In some cases both the secular original and the sacred adaptation have been preserved. That is the case, for instance, with Herkules auf dem Scheidewege (BWV 213), which Bach almost completely reused in his Christmas Oratorio. This makes it not that easy to listen to the original version as a composition in its own right. On the other hand, it is undeniable that the existence of a sacred parody has raised the interest in the original.

This production brings together three different cantatas from various periods in Bach's career. Der zufriedengestellte Aeolus (BWV 205) which begins with the text "Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft", is the earliest of them, dating from 1725. It was first performed in August of that year in Leipzig. It belongs to the genre of the serenata, and 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 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. It is perfectly possible, of course, that he may have used it in a cantata which has been lost. 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.

Der Streit zwischen Phoebus und Pan (BWV 201) begins with the text "Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde" and was composed in 1729. It was again performed in Leipzig, probably during one of the concerts of the Collegium Musicum in Zimmermann's coffee house. There seems to have been no special occasion for its composition. Scholars tend to think that the subject - a singing contest between Phoebus and Pan - was used by Bach to express his view on music. It is also observed that the opposing characters are accompanied by different bodies of instruments: Pan with strings playing in unison, Phoebus with instruments like the transverse flute and the oboe d'amore. Pan is associated with the lower social strata which explains that his music was used again in the Bauernkantate (BWV 212). No sacred parody of this cantata is known.

Herkules auf dem Scheidewege (BWV 213) is the latest of these three cantatas and dates from 1733. It was also performed in Zimmermann's coffee house in August of that year, to celebrate the birthday of Friedrich Christian, son of the Elector of Saxony. It also falls into the category of the serenata, as the 11-year old prince is compared to Hercules who chooses the right path. Bach wasn't the only composer to use this subject for a composition. The best-known piece from the 18th century is Handel's The Choice of Hercules. Only one year later Bach reused the opening chorus (Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen) and all the arias for his Christmas Oratorio. The librettist of the secular cantata, Picander, may also have been involved in the writing of the text of the parody.

The cantatas 201 and 205 are performed here as true operas. The dramatic character of the Cantata BWV 201 is underlined by the fact that there are almost no pauses between the arias and the following recitatives, which lends the performance a strong forward drive. The depiction of the text in the opening chorus is brilliant, and it is perfectly sung and played here. The roles are well cast, and especially the contrast between the two main players in the drama, Phoebus and Pan, is spot on. Christian Immler sings Phoebus' aria 'Mit Verlangen' in a very artful way whereas Alejandro Meerapfel does well in Pan's aria 'Zu Tanze, zu Sprunge'. His voice is not the most refined, and that is exactly what is needed here. His less than perfect German pronunciation ("denen" instead of "deinen") is more problematic. Céline Scheen makes the most of Momus' aria 'Patron, das macht der Wind', in which she makes a fool of Pan. Tmolus takes the side of Phoebus; Fabio Trümpy sings his aria 'Phoebus, deine Melodei' in the same tasteful way as Immler sang Phoebus' aria. Midas chooses Pan as the winner and in his aria the strings depict the braying of a donkey, referring to the donkey's ears which are going to grow on him. The aria is perfectly sung by Makoto Sakurada. Clint van der Linde sings the role of Mercurius who voices the moral of the story. He sings well, but has slight problems with the top notes. After an accompanied recitative from Momus the chorus 'Labt das Herz, ihr holden Saiten' ends the piece.

The Cantata BWV 205 opens with a chorus of the winds which is quite different from the depiction of the winds in the previous cantata. Here they are more ominous: the storms of the fall threaten to cause havoc. Christian Immler perfectly personifies the boasting Aeolus, first in an accompanied recitative, then in the aria 'Wie will ich lustig lachen'. Zephyrus tries to bring him to his senses and asks him to hold back. The parts of viola d'amore and viola da gamba, played by Patrick Cohën-Akenine and François Joubert-Caillet respectively, greatly contribute to the effect of his aria. Makoto Sakurada nicely blends his voice to the sweet sound of their instruments. Pomona and Pallas support his case. Clint van der Linde again has some trouble with the top notes in 'Können nicht die roten Wangen', whereas Céline Scheen shines in Pallas' aria 'Angenehmer Zephyrus'. Aeolus gives in, and the change of tone in his aria 'Zurücke, zurücke' is well realised by Christian Immler. After a recitative for three voices and a duet, Pallas invites for the birthday party for August Friedrich Müller. The choir sings "Vivat! August, August vivat!" and brings the cantata to a sparkling close.

The third cantata in this recording, BWV 213, is included on the DVD. It is a live performance from the Ambronay Festival. It would have made more sense if it had been a staged performance, but that is not the case. Because of that there is little to see, and I would have preferred a CD, and a studio recording. Here the religious connotations are much stronger, especially because of the use of the organ in several arias which is rather odd. Clint van der Linde is a little shaky in his recitative, but sings very well in the aria with echo 'Treues Echo dieser Orten'. Céline Scheen is marvellous in 'Schlafe, mein Liebster', but the tempo seems a bit too slow. The tenor aria 'Auf meinen Flügeln' doesn't come off as well as one would hope, as Fabio Trümpy seems to have a little trouble with the fast tempo. His recitatives are marred by a slight vibrato. They are not that convincing because the tempi are too moderate, and metrically they are too strict.

All in all this production is not an unqualified success. There are some clear weaknesses which could mostly have been avoided, especially if Cantata BWV 213 had been recorded in the studio. A language coach could have avoided the less than perfect pronunciation. Even so, Bach lovers will certainly like to have this production. The secular cantatas are not that often performed and recorded, and these performances certainly give many reasons for enjoyment.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Choeur de Chambre de Namur
Les Agrémens

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