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Tönet, ihr Pauken!
22 Apr 2006

Tönet, ihr Pauken!

Bach’s famed career as an organist, his prolific output of church cantatas, and his personal piety, all conspire to keep the image of the churchly Bach front and center in the modern mind, despite the enduring familiarity and popularity of Brandenburg concertos, sonatas, and suites.

Tönet, ihr Pauken!
J. S. Bach Cantates profanes BWV 207 and 214

Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Ingeborg Danz, alto, Mark Padmore, tenor, Peter Kooy, bass; Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe, Director

Harmonia Mundi France HMC 901860 [CD]

$16.99  Click to buy

A 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.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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