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The title page of cantata 2 Ach Gott tom Himmel sieh darein, written by Bach’s lead copyist, J.A. Kuhnau. Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz

Regular readers of this blog know that I have a soft spot for the Herreweghe choir sopranos*. But the alto section of Collegium Vocale Gent is often equally impressive, and they deserve a special mention for their fabulous sound in the cantus firmus of this cantata’s opening chorus. Listen to Herreweghe’s recording of cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein on YouTube.

Find the text of this cantata here (read along so you can see the brilliant text-illustration in the music), and the score (where you can see which instruments double which vocal parts) here.

Bach wrote this cantata for the 2nd Sunday after Trinity, which fell on June 18 in 1724.  As I explained last week, this is the second in a series of four cantatas at the start of Bach’s 1724/1725 Leipzig cycle, and according to the master’s orderly design for these first four chorale cantatas, the cantus firmus of the hymn tune (always the same as the cantata title) is now in the alto part.

This Herreweghe recording is from before the time that soloists joined the choir sections of Collegium Vocale, which means that alto soloist Ingeborg Danz does not sing in this excellent group of one mezzo (Mieke Wouters), two contraltos (Yvonne Fuchs and Cécile Pilorger), and one countertenor (Alex Potter). Also the blend with the instruments doubling this alto part (two oboes and one trombone) is so marvelous it gives me goose bumps. Then again, there aren’t many things in music that move me more than a Bach opening chorus with trombones.

Whenever Bach uses the archaic form of chorale motet as opening chorus, especially when he combines it with the use of the Renaissance/Early Baroque trombone quartet (1 cornetto and 3 trombones), he wants to stress the timeless importance, the authoritative character of a message. In this case the at that point already two centuries old message is the chorale, one of Luther’s own.  For readers who understand German: Eduard van Hengel’s website (in Dutch) has a very insightful overview of the original German text of Psalm 12, the text of Luther’s chorale, and how Bach’s librettist changed that into the text for the cantata.  You can find it at the bottom of this page.

Bach alto and tenor arias are at their prettiest, I find, when they are written as a trio sonata, and there is a wonderful example of that in the alto aria Tilg, o Gott in this cantata. It is a plea for help in fighting the “Rottengeister,” or the sectarians amidst the Lutherans. Alto soloist Ingeborg Danz does a terrific job interpreting the text. When the alto starts singing the word Rottengeistern, we see that it was that word we had already heard many times in the triplets of the violin part. As Eduard van Hengel says, it is the “popular easy talk of the sectarians, and that is also the reason why the other two parts don’t have this motive” [to further illustrate the schism].

In his effort to educate his fellow Lutherans (the Leipzig congregations) with his music, Bach wants to make it clear that he’s still preaching by means of the well-known chorale, and uses longer notes for the direct quotation (in music and text) of the chorale in this aria: der uns will meistern.

The best interpretation of the tenor aria Durchs Feuer wird das Silber rein actually appears on another recording, that of Bach Collegium Japan with tenor Gerd Türk. You can listen to that aria here. Here we have arrived at the solution/salvation part of the cantata, and so this music is more pleasant, easier to listen to. But Bach is still preaching: there are some crossing (!) lines in the music, and in the middle section, which tells the listeners to be patient (sei geduldig) and Bach stresses the words Kreuz und Not.

So one wonders: was Bach’s decision to focus on chorales for this 1724/1725 cantata cycle inspired by his need to make things easier for the boy sopranos, or by a wish to explain the theology to the congregations in a way that was more obvious to them than the more complicated, sometimes perhaps too hidden, messages he had so far delivered by way of his music? Or had the City Council or the church elders told him to to this?

*Read more about that in this post.

Wieneke Gorter, June 25, 2017