26 Oct 2005

BACH: Cantatas, vol. 18

Here we have another part of John Eliot Gardiner’s remarkable Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, undertaken to perform—and record live—all of Bach’s surviving church cantatas at many different churches in a single year.

This volume contains 6 cantatas, 3 each for the third and fourth Sundays after Easter. Despite the unimaginable number of difficulties in coordinating the series (differing pitch of various organs, very limited rehearsal time, changes in personnel, travel arrangements for some 40 musicians and a crew of other people) that such a project entails, this disc ranks in quality with the finest in modern Baroque performances.

From the titles of the cantatas for Jubilate Sunday, the first group of three, we might gather that the works provide a lugubrious mood: Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (Weeping, Wailing, Fretting, Fearing), BWV 12; Ihr werdet weinen und heulen (Ye shall weep and lament), BWV 103; and Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen (We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God), BWV 146. (As the reader may note, Richard Stokes’s English translations, provided in the accompanying booklet, can be quite inelegant, even though they were not devised to match the German text syllable for syllable so that they could be sung without altering the music.)

The mournful feeling is reflected in the first two numbers of BWV 12: a sinfonia with a slow, plaintive, and beautifully played oboe solo (are there ever slow, non-plaintive oboe solos?), followed by a choral movement that Bach later adapted for the Crucifixus of the Mass in B minor to portray the crucifixion and death of Jesus on the cross. Gardiner terms each of the first four words “a heart-rending sob” that may be thought of in connection with the “four hammer blows nailing Christ’s flesh to the wood of the cross.” The image takes on credibility when one realizes that the corresponding syllables in the Mass are Cru-ci-fi-xus, He was crucified.

The words of the alto recitative that follows, Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal from Acts 14:22, would later find their way into the title and opening chorus of BWV 146. The mood brightens considerably in successive arias for bass and tenor, both with a trumpet obbligato playing the melody of the Jesu, meine Freude (Jesus, my delight), and the closing chorale is positively joyful: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (What God does is well done).

The Cantata BWV 103 follows a somewhat similar trajectory: weeping, lamentation, and transgression are the subjects of the first three movements, although Bach plays a little trick on listeners. The opening orchestral introduction sounds quite jolly, but when the solo voices enter, we realize that “the festive instrumental theme represents not the disciples’ joy at Christ’s resurrection but the skeptics’ riotous laughter at their discomfort” (Gardiner). Then an alto recitative begins to turn things around, trusting “that my sadness shall be turned into joy”; a rapturous tenor aria declares that Jesus will reappear; and the happy and uplifting chorale at the end of the work is a verse from Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh’ allzeit (What my God wants, that will always happen), stating that brief pain shall turn to joy.

Finally, in the third cantata for Jubilate, BWV 146, we hear an opening sinfonia that sounds suspiciously like the first movement of the D minor Harpsichord Concerto (BWV 1052a) with an organ playing the solo part. Well, that is exactly what it is, and the opening chorus that follows, Weinen, Klagen, equals the second movement of the concerto with added choral parts. The now-familiar turn to happier matters occurs more gradually through the middle movements, and the cantata ends with a verse from the chorale Werde munter, mein Gemüte (Become enlivened, my spirit).

Disc 2 of this set includes three works composed for Cantate Sunday, the fourth Sunday after Easter, including Wo gehest du hin? (Whither goest thou), BWV 166; Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe (It is expedient[!] for you that I go away), BWV 108; and Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut (Give laud and praise to the highest good), BWV 117. I will let the listener enjoy the disc without comment, except to point out a single cut: the dramatic and sensitive performance of the closing chorale of BWV 166, Wer weiß, wie nahe mir mein Ende (Who knows how near my end is). It is Gardiner and his group at their very best.

Michael Ochs