more inclusive image of Bach not only reflects historical reality, but also
reminds us of the fragility of the sacred-secular boundary in Bach’s
day, a boundary that he traversed with ease, if he recognized it at all.
Günther Stiller has made the case that for an eighteenth-century Orthodox
Lutheran the divisions of sacred and secular are ill-fitting, for the
Orthodox believer would have sought to consecrate those things that we too
quickly see as mundane. In this light, then, a recording of celebratory
secular cantatas offers not so much a different side of Bach as much
as a variation on a unified theme: music for any occasion, crafted with
consummate skill and inspiration worthily reflects the divine. And it is in
this way, too, that we can begin to understand the easy flow of musical
materials across the divisions of sacred and secular. In one of the cantatas
here, “Tönet, ihr Pauken,” BWV 214, several movements later
appear in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, where their presence
raises not even the remotest scintilla of stylistic impropriety.
Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocal Gent have a long-standing
tradition of Bach performance, and the two cantatas performed here,
“Tönet, ihr Pauken” and “Vereinigte Zwietracht der
wechselnden Saiten,” BWV 207, are rendered with a style-consciousness
and technical mastery that must surely define “state of the art.”
Both cantatas are festive, commemorative works: “Vereinigte
Zwietracht” salutes the appointment of a young professor, Gottlieb
Kortte, at the University of Leipzig (1726); “Tönet, ihr Pauken”
is a birthday offering for the Electress of Saxony, Maria Josepha (1733).
Both cantatas either borrow from other Bach works or are the source of future
borrowings—“Vereinigte Zwietracht,” for instance, gives a
rollicking choral version of the third movement of the first Brandenburg
Concerto, and there is much delight in meeting an old, familiar friend in
this less familiar garb! Both cantatas are allegorical: Diligence, Honor,
Gratitude and Happiness voice the praises of the Professor, whereas in the
Electoral salute it is Peace, War, and Fame who sing, embodied in the
mythological goddesses Irene, Bellona, and Fama. And finally, both cantatas
reveal how short the distance is from secular to sacred.
Herreweghe’s performances are rooted in dance-like elegance and
contoured shapeliness of line and motive. The celebrative nature of the works
is clear both in the festive trumpetings, admirably executed by Guy Ferber,
and in the energetic flurry of melismata that so frequently abounds here.
Characteristically, Herreweghe responds with an exuberance that never
threatens to get out of hand. Shapelieness, contour, and elegance all reign
without rival. Even the opening timpani motive of “Tönet, ihr
Pauken” is a model of verbally-based inflection!
Much of the duty falls to the solo ensemble of Carolyn Sampson, soprano,
Ingeborg Danz, alto, Mark Padmore, tenor, and Peter Kooy, bass, all of whom
seem well attuned to Herreweghe’s stylistic model, particularly as they
dance through their florid passage work. Padmore and Sampson both have
wonderfully free high registers; the lower voices of Danz and Kooy claim a
richer resonance, though never at the cost of agility or focus. The choral
forces of Collegium Vocale Gent are wonderfully flexible and articulative. If
any issue seems to arise at all, it is that they are, in fact,
choral forces. The case for Bach’s choir being one of solo
voices—at least in church music—is well rehearsed by now, with a
number of devout adherents. Herreweghe’s use of a choir reminds that
the debate remains open-ended, and becomes also a compelling example of how
effective choral forces can be.