17th Sunday after Trinity, Agnès Mellon, BWV 114, BWV 148, flute, Gérard Lesne, Gustav Leonhardt, John Eliot Gardiner, John Elwes, Marc Hantaï, Peter Kooy, Trinity 17
Six weeks ago, I noticed that Bach’s cantatas for the 11th Sunday after Trinity all give me a good kind of stomach ache. This week, it seems that all instrumental solos for the 17th Sunday after Trinity make me cry. It happened last year when I was listening to the violin solo in cantata 148, and it happened to me again this year with the hauntingly beautiful flute solo in the tenor aria of cantata 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost, from 1724.
It is an exceptional aria, ten minutes long, and extremely demanding for the tenor as well as the flutist. Bach must have been proud of it, because later, in January 1725, he turned this composition into a much faster paced, condensed piece of drama for tenor and oboe d’amore in Cantata 124 Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht.
The first recording I listened to set the standard for the rest: a fabulous flutist, most probably Marc Hantaï, and tenor John Elwes on a live audio recording from 1988 by La Chapelle Royale under the direction of Gustav Leonhardt. I absolutely adore Frans Brüggen’s flute playing on the Leonhardt recording from 1980, but don’t enjoy Kurt Equiluz’ singing as much. Mark Padmore’s singing on the Gardiner recording is to die for, but flutist Rachel Beckett’s decisions on where to breathe are not as sensitive as Marc Hantaï’s, and with Hantaï’s interpretation already in my head, I found it distracting. The same goes for Wilbert Hazelzet’s playing on the Koopman recording, with tenor Christoph Prégardien.
This La Chapelle Royale/Gustav Leonhardt recording is also a nice monument from the past for me, since it has all the soloists I was in love with at the time: soprano Agnès Mellon, countertenor Gérard Lesne, and bass Peter Kooy. When you watch the YouTube recording on a screen, you can read along in the score. And that is interesting in this case, especially in the opening chorus and the soprano aria.
Find the German text with English translation of this cantata here.
Starting at the beginning, reading along with the opening chorus, you can see that the joyful figure that is at first only in the continuo (orchestra bass) part, spreads through all the other parts, a message from Bach that the consolation in the text of the chorale is more important than the punishment. The punishment is still present though, in the repeated staccato notes in some of the instrumental parts, and, at 2 minute 24 seconds, visually only, in the score: there are the three whip lashes diagonally from top to bottom over the page in the instrumental parts, illustrating the word “Straf” (punishment) the chorus sings there. Or see this image, courtesy of Eduard van Hengel:
When reading along with the soprano aria, at 15 minutes 5 seconds, you can see or hear how in the continuo part, Bach illustrates the flick of the wrist of the farmer who sows the seeds. If you have time, I encourage you to also listen to Gardiner’s remarkable take on this soprano aria. In his notes accompanying his live recording, he explains that the text “The grain of wheat will bear no fruit unless it fall into earth” can be seen as a warning to the farmer to get his timing right when sowing his winter cereals. Gardiner, a sheep farmer in his spare time and always eager to point out connections to the seasons in Bach’s music, is obviously really excited to bring out this text: he has the entire soprano section sing it, with much more fervor and much better enunciation than Agnès Mellon on the Chapelle Royale/Leonhardt recording. He also explains in his notes that they took Bach’s indication “continuo unisono” to mean that the organ should double the cello part. Since they always use church organs for their recordings, it sounds impressive. I truly appreciate hearing this movement performed this way.
Then go back to the Chapelle Royale/Leonhardt recording, and listen to Gérard Lesne, my first countertenor love*, spookily illustrating the approach of death, with similar chromatic lines as in last week’s arias.
©Wieneke Gorter, October 6, 2017, links updated October 2, 2020
*Read all about my love for Gérard Lesne in this post