In 1723, Bach wrote an exceptional cantata for this Sunday, the 11th after Trinity. I liked that cantata 179 so much that I gave my blog post last year the title “Bach on a roll” and I’ve been listening to it again this week. In 1724, Bach wrote cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut for this same Sunday. Both these cantatas truly move me. I feel as if Bach was especially humbled by this particular Sunday.
The only recording that does Cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut justice and gives me the good kind of stomach ache is the one by Bach Collegium Japan, because of Peter Kooij’s and Robin Blaze’s terrific singing, beautiful oboe and flute playing, and the fact that Yukari Nonoshita and Robin Blaze make the duet into a lovely piece of music instead of struggling through it the way it is on some other recordings. Listen to this recording by Bach Collegium Japan through a playlist on YouTube I created.
That Bach might have might have felt a special touch or inspiration on this 11th Sunday after Trinity makes sense when you look at the Gospel reading for the day. It is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Pharisee and the Tax Collector), a story Jesus tells as an illustration on how to pray: the Pharisee is full of himself, telling God how good he is, while the Publican in his own prayer merely asks for mercy, and tells God how bad he is. This concept of how to be a good Christian before God, to be true, not fake, was very important to Bach.
In cantata 113 the chorale melody turns up much more often than in most of the other 1724/1725 chorale cantatas. It is even present in some of the arias that don’t have the chorale text. For the first time since starting this series of chorale cantatas, Bach doesn’t use the chorale melody as a cantus firmus in the opening chorus. Instead, he writes a simple four-part harmonized setting of the chorale melody. But, then there’s the unusual twist: Bach changes the usual 4/4 beat in which a chorale is normally sung to a 3/4, which allows him to write long suspensions in the vocal lines, thus intensifying the pleading character of the music (and the good stomach ache I get when I listen to it).
In the aria that follows, Bach makes up for the missing cantus firmus from the opening chorus. Any late-comers to that church service on Sunday August 20, 1724 would not have missed what chorale this cantata was based on: the alto sings the text as well as the melody of the chorale’s second stanza in long notes, against strings playing in unison. Singing a chorale melody like this is not easy, and most recordings were unsatisfying to me because of this aria (as well as the duet). But Robin Blaze knows how to do it: sing with a brilliant sound, clearly placing each note, but also sustaining the sound throughout every note, and keeping it moving, while not forgetting word accents. It is a special art, and he masters it. I can listen to that five times in a row and not tire of it.
The bass aria could -as far as the music is concerned- easily have been inserted into the Christmas Oratorio, with the pretty oboe accompaniment. Note the word illustrations on “Zittern” (trembling) and “zerbräche” (would break), expertly sung by Peter Kooij. If this is all not pretty enough, Bach presents his talented flute player again, and gives him a beautiful but unbelievably challenging part, more virtuoso than ever before, in the tenor aria “Jesus nimmt die Sünder an.” And then there is the duet.
I don’t write this blog for religious reasons, nor do I generally support Bach’s dogmas, but on this Sunday in 2017 I will try to be a good Christian. When I moved to the USA in 1999 I never thought it would come to this, that people in this country would want to move the clock back 50 years or more. On the morning after the 2016 presidential election I promised my kids that we would go into the streets when I would feel that equality, justice, and tolerance would be in danger. So while it stresses me out for several reasons, I strongly feel that we do have to go to the peaceful counter-protest, to help make the crowd as large as possible, and that my children need to be there too. Inspired by pictures of the rally in San Francisco on Saturday, we wrote our messages of love, tolerance, inclusion, and equality on balloons — easier to carry than signs and obviously not symbols of hate.
Wieneke Gorter, August 27, 2017