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Some of us love to keep the tree and the lights for a few more days, others are (eagerly or not) looking ahead, facing reality (and finally starting that blog). The same two sentiments can be found in Bach’s music for this time of year. The cantata for January 6 (Epiphany) from 1724 is very Christmas-y, the one from 1725 absolutely not. Both are well worth a listen.
Let’s start with the one that is still in full Christmas swing, from 1724: cantata 65 Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, with a happy text incorporating the story of the Three Kings visiting the baby Jesus, and featuring 2 horns, 2 recorders, and 2 oboes da caccia in the orchestra. As a child I loved this cantata. It was mainly because of the special instrumentation, the horns prominent in the tenor aria, the oboes in the bass aria. But I also clearly remember it was so cool that the bass aria talks about the New Year!
I grew up with the Harnoncourt recording, and though that interpretation of the tenor aria (sung by Kurt Equiluz) is still one of the best, my “favorite overall” recording of this cantata today is that of Bach Collegium Japan. Tenor James Gilchrist and bass Peter Kooy do a fabulous and compelling job at their arias, and the horns sound beautiful.
Listen to cantata 65 by Bach Collegium Japan on Spotify
Listen to cantata 65 by Harnoncourt on YouTube
Click here for the full German text with English translation of cantata 65
The next year, in 1725, Bach wrote cantata 123 Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen. A gem of a cantata, with little strands of the chorale woven into the opening chorus, extremely beautiful. Both music and text are much more poignant than the Epiphany cantata of the year before. There are even references to the cross. And then there’s the bass aria. When you listen to this cantata for the first time, and you hear the flute start this aria, you will never guess it is going to be a bass aria! It is a very unusual combination of voice and instrument for Bach, and that usually means: pay attention! And yes, there it is in the text, the core of Bach’s 18th century Lutheran faith: even if society casts you out, you don’t belong, you are lonely, then you will still be saved by Jesus.
My favorite recording of this cantata is the one by Montréal Baroque, on which Dutch bass Harry van der Kamp and flutist Grégoire Jeay make something truly special out of that bass aria. I love the liveliness of this interpretation overall, including an opening chorus that immediately grabs my attention and moves me, and fabulous performances by countertenor Matthew White and tenor Charles Daniels in their arias as well.
The only downside for me of the Montréal Baroque recording is that the chorus pieces are all sung one-on-a-part, by the four soloists only. Not only do I have a personal (maybe not historically accurate, but so be it!) preference for 3-5 voices on a part, I also find that soprano Monika Mauch is outbalanced by the men in the opening chorus. I can hardly hear her, which is too bad because I’m sure she’s an equally great singer as the other three.
Listen to cantata 123 by Montreal Baroque on Spotify
Listen to cantata 123 by Montreal Baroque on YouTube
Listen to cantata 123 by Harnoncourt on YouTube
Click here for the full German text with English translation