Memorable for at least 47 days. Leave it to Alex Potter.

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Between Estomihi Sunday (or the last Sunday before Lent) and Good Friday, there were 47 days in 1729. During that entire time the Leipzig congregations would hear no music in the churches, except for chorales. So Bach’s last music had to be as memorable as possible, had to give them hope, and ideally also prepare them for the St. Matthew Passion they would get to hear on Good Friday.

Bach successfully checked all these boxes with Cantata 159 Sehet! wir gehn hinauf gen Jerusalem. And leave it to alto Alex Potter to bring all this out in a performance. Opera-like drama, heart-breaking emotion, the promise of hope and redemption, it is all there in his singing, and in that voice with the beautiful variety of colors.

Listen to / watch the performance by the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube. Soprano: Miriam Feuersinger; Alto: Alex Potter; Tenor: Thomas Hobbs; Bass: Stephan MacLeod. Read some comments by Alex Potter on this cantata here on the AllofBach website. Find the German texts with English translations here.

The Herreweghe recording deserves a mention here too. Dorothee Mields’ singing in the duet with Matthew White is very moving, and Peter Kooij’s interpretation of the bass aria “Es ist vollbracht” on this recording is unrivaled. Find that recording here on YouTube, but better yet, support the artists and purchase the entire album Jesu, deine Passion here on Amazon or here on iTunes. It contains all four cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday, and they are all excellent. Read more about Cantatas 127, 22, and 23 in my blogpost from 2018 here.

Wieneke Gorter, February 22, 2020.

Pelting rain, growing crops, it is the low instruments that do it

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Finally I get to write about Cantata 18 Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt (“the same way rain and snow falls from heaven”), which Bach wrote for this Sunday (Sexagesima, or the 2nd Sunday before Lent) in Weimar in 1713 or 1714. I don’t remember this cantata from my childhood, but have been impressed with it since I purchased the American Bach Soloists’ CD in 2010.

Find the German text with English translations here, and the NBA score here (Neue Bach Ausgabe score, based on the original Weimar score, the same one used by the American Bach Soloists, without recorders in the orchestra).

There is so much happening in this cantata that I could write two or three blog posts about it. To start, I’d like to share three recordings that stand out to me.

My first love of this Cantata 18, the American Bach Soloists’ recording from 1994, can be found here on Spotify. Or purchase the CD or MP3 on Amazon USA, or on Amazon DE, or on iTunes. Soloists are: Julianne Baird, soprano; Benjamin Butterfield, tenor; James Weaver, bass. Violas: Anthony Marin, Lisa Grodin, Sally Butt, George Thomson; Violoncello: Warren Stewart; Bassoon: Andrew Schwartz; Archlute: Michael Eagan; Organ: John Butt.

Director Jeffrey Thomas chooses a slower tempo for the opening sinfonia than most others, which I like. It makes the music more dramatic, and it allows the instrumentalists to paint a truly cold, wintry rain, completely appropriate for this time of year in Germany. The sound of the four violas together is wonderful throughout, and I love Julianne Baird’s singing of Luther’s “litany” in the third movement.

The next two recordings use a later* version of the score, with the addition of recorders in the orchestra.

I highly recommend the recording by Ricercar Consort from 2004, available here on YouTube. With: Katharine Fuge (Soprano); Jan Kobow (Tenor); Stephan MacLeod (Bass); François Fernandez (Viola); Luis Otavio Santos (Viola); Philippe Pierlot (Viola da gamba); Kaori Uemura (Viola da gamba); Ageet Zweistra (Violoncello); Kees Boeke (Recorder); Gaëlle Lecoq (Recorder); Josep Borras I Rocca (Bassoon); Michele Zeoll (Double-bass); Francis Jacob (Organ).

What I like about this recording: the orchestration with two violas and two viola da gambas instead of four violas. The bass instruments do an absolutely fabulous and unrivaled job of bringing out Bach’s illustration of the text “und macht sie fruchtbar und wachsend” (and make it fruitful and fertile) in the second movement. You can truly hear plants growing and blossoming there. And bass Stephan MacLeod, whose singing I usually appreciate much more in Renaissance music than in Bach, is superb in that second movement. His voice is a beautiful “Voice of God” in the text from Isaiah 55: 10-12.

Final recommendation, for now: the live video recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation from 2009, available here on YouTube. With: Núria Rial, soprano; Makoto Sakurada; tenor; Dominik Wörner, bass; Recorders: Armelle Plantier, Gaëlle Volet; Bassoon: Nikolaus Broda; Violas: Susanna Hefti, Renate Steinmann, Martina Bischof, Joanna Bilger; Violoncello: Maya Amrein; Violone: Iris Finkbeiner; Organ: Norbert Zeilberger

What I enjoy most about this recording is Nuria Rial’s singing of the soprano aria (the fourth movement). The aria is incredibly difficult, but, as always, she makes it seem effortless, and her “Fort mit allen, fort, nur fort!” is the best of all recordings I have listened to. I also enjoy the choir sopranos’ singing of the “litany” in the third movement, and the mere fact that you can watch everyone make music, since this is a live video recording.

If you would like to read about another cantata for this Sunday, find my post about Cantata 126 here. Bach wrote that cantata also for Sexagesima Sunday, in 1725.

Wieneke Gorter, February 16, 2020.

*from 1724 in Leipzig, when Bach performed this cantata again.

Bach looking back (Belated 2nd Sunday after Epiphany)

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Wedding at Cana by Duccio di Buoninsegna, tempera on wood, between 1308 and 1311. Museo dell’ Opera dell’ Duomo, Siena, Italy. The “scene” from this story that Bach and his librettists prefer to focus on in all his cantatas for this Sunday, is also illustrated here: Jesus telling his anxious mother “Mine hour is not yet come.”

Two weeks ago I ran out of time writing this post, but I had discovered so much about Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen (1726), that I would still very much like to share that cantata here. So I hope you don’t mind going back in time a little bit, to the Second Sunday after Epiphany, which fell on January 19 this year (2020), and on January 20 in 1726.

Before I prepare a new post, I always like to revisit previous posts I wrote about this same Sunday, and listen to those cantatas again. And it always thrills me when during this process I discover that Bach must have done this too: going back, either in his memory or in the physical stack of manuscripts, to the music he previously wrote for this same Sunday. Sometimes I only get a feeling that he did this, but other times, there’s an obvious quote either in the text or in the music.

This time I was excited to find Bach quoting music from Cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? in Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen. Bach had written Cantata 155 already in Weimar in 1716, but performed it again in Leipzig in 1724, also on the Second Sunday after Epiphany.

I invite you to listen to/watch the wonderful alto-tenor duet with bassoon from Cantata 155 Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange? here, in a performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with alto Margot Oitzinger and tenor Julius Pfeifer. Note this theme in the voices:

After that duet is over, I would suggest turning off that recording for now. *

Now listen to/watch the entire recording of Cantata 13 Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen, also by the J.S. Bach Foundation here, with soprano Susanne Seitter, alto Jan Börner, tenor Jakob Pilgram, and bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich.

Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here. Please note that the English translation of the bass aria’s first line is incorrect: the translation of the German word “Sorgen” should be “worries” or “worrying”, not “care.” The correct translation is something like this:

Groaning and pitiful weeping
are no help to the sickness of worrying

Pay attention to the recorder parts in the opening movement. The music has a slower tempo, and a more drawn out rhythm, but the theme is the same as in that duet from Cantata 155 you just heard:

There is more in this opening chorus of Cantata 13 that gives us a peek into Bach’s referencing process. Bach often uses recorders to introduce sorrow. Early in his career he had done this in the opening movements of Cantata 106 Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (written in 1707) and Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde (1716). Even during his first year in Leipzig, in 1723, he used this “tool” in the opening chorus of Cantata 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei (which would later form the basis for the Qui tollis from the Mass in B minor). And while from the mid 1720s most Baroque composers, including Bach himself, favored the more fashionable French transverse flutes over recorders, Bach still uses recorders to illustrate impending sorrow or death’s slumber in his Easter Oratorio (1725) and his St. Matthew Passion (1727). Click on the links to hear/watch recordings of all these examples on YouTube. Names of performers in all these are listed at the very end of this post.**

If, after listening to / watching Cantata 13 in its entirety, you are wondering why Bach’s illustration of a miracle (Jesus turning water into wine at the Wedding at Cana) is so incredibly sorrowful, read my blog post about Cantata 3 here.

Wieneke Gorter, January 31, 2020.

* read my blog post about Cantata 155, which now includes a link to the J.S. Bach Foundation recording, here.

** Performers in the YouTube recordings of cantata/oratorio movements with recorders are:

Opening movement of Cantata 106: Netherlands Bach Society; Jos van Veldhoven, conductor; Heiko ter Schegget and Benny Aghassi, recorders; Dorothee Mields, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Tobias Berndt, bass.

Opening movement of Cantata 161: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor; Bart Coen and Koen Dieltiens, recorders; Matthew White, alto; Herman Stinders, organ.

Opening movement of Cantata 46: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Live recording from the Festival of Saintes, France, July 15, 2013. Recorder players not specified.

Tenor aria “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” from Easter Oratorio, BWV 249: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Mark Padmore, tenor.

Tenor recitative with choir “O Schmerz, hier zittert das gequälte Herz” from St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244: Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, conductor. Colin Balzer, tenor.

Four cantatas to choose from

For this Sunday, the third after Epiphany, Bach wrote four cantatas, and I’ve written about all four of them already in previous years. I’ve updated the links to the recordings in all the posts. You can find them here:

Cantatas 72 and 73, favorite recordings by Bach Collegium Japan and Herreweghe: https://weeklycantata.com/2016/01/24/72-and-73-or-the-other-way-around/

Cantata 156, favorite recording by American Bach Soloists: https://weeklycantata.com/2017/01/22/third-sunday-after-epiphany/

Cantata 111, despite many newer ones, my favorite recording still Harnoncourt: https://weeklycantata.com/2018/01/21/third-sunday-after-epiphany-1725/

Wieneke Gorter, January 25, 2020

First Sunday after Epiphany, first three years in Leipzig

Jesus among the Doctors, by Quinten Matsijs (1456/1466-1530), oil on canvas, created 1509-1511. National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon, Portugal.

For this Sunday, the first after Epiphany, Bach wrote a new cantata every year during his first three years in Leipzig. All three cantatas are beautiful, and all three are more or less based on the story of Mary and Joseph dealing with the angst of not being able to find their 12-year-old son.

Whether you’d like to learn about all the different ways Bach illustrates this story in his writing, or just listen to the beautiful music, or see how Veronese or Dürer painted this subject, you can find it all in two previous posts on this blog. In 2016 I wrote about Cantata 154 from 1724 and Cantata 32 from 1726. In 2018 I wrote about Cantata 124 from 1725. I’ve updated all the links for recordings in all those posts, so it should all work, and these are all great cantatas. Happy listening!

Wieneke Gorter, January 11, 2020.

There are Bach cantatas I do not like

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Cantata 122 for the Sunday after Christmas Das neugeborne Kindelein. Part of the title page of the manuscript. The handwriting is by J.A. Kuhnau, one of Bach’s most important copyists.

Since I most recently wrote about Bach’s cantatas for Christmas Day (Cantata 110), and the Third Day of Christmas (Cantata 151) from 1725, I had thought it would be nice to write about the two cantatas Bach performed directly after that: Cantata 28 for the Sunday after Christmas 1725, and Cantata 16 for New Year’s Day 1726.

But I don’t like them. I was listening to them yesterday and today together with my adolescent daughter, who’s pretty well versed in Baroque composers, and she said: “the first one doesn’t even sound like Bach!” I agree with her. Or at least it doesn’t sound that inspired to me. I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you, but sometimes I don’t like what Bach wrote.

So, for this Sunday after Christmas in 2019, I’m again playing Cantata 122 Das neugeborne Kindelein, which I’ve already discussed twice on this blog, most elaborately in 2017. You can find that post here.

Wieneke Gorter, December 28, 2019.

Sweet soprano consolation for Third Christmas Day 1725, or “the one with the dirty baby”

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The Nativity of Christ, by Federico Barocci, ca. 1590. Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Sometime in the first decade of this century, after I had already moved to the USA, my mother acquired Gardiner’s Christmas Cantatas CD from 2000 (Volume 15 of the Cantata Pilgrimage CD series). I remember that every time a Bach lover came to visit they were urged to listen to the soprano aria from this CD. Among my mother, her sisters, and my grandma, this CD became known as “the one with the dirty baby.” (or as they said in Dutch “die met het vieze kindje”). At some point my mother allegedly said to them that this particular recording should be played at her funeral. Listen a bit to that Gardiner recording of Cantata 151 Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt with Gillian Keith, soprano, and Rachel Beckett, flute, here on YouTube. Just listen for a little bit, because a much better recording of this cantata is coming up in this post! When the time came (much sooner than anyone in the early 2000s could have thought) to plan my mother’s funeral, we were blessed with a live performance, not a recording, I personally didn’t remember the “dirty baby” story that vividly, and we opted for another aria instead (read more about that here).

I don’t remember ever hearing anything more from the CD with the dirty baby than this one aria, and I never ever realized it was from a cantata for the Third Day of Christmas. (Read here why I didn’t know any other cantatas for the Third Day of Christmas than the third cantata from the Christmas Oratorio.)

Swedish soprano Maria Keohane

Fast forward to last week, when I was researching new live video recordings for Cantata 110 for Christmas Day, and discovered that the Christmas concert by the Netherlands Bach Society from 2015 also featured this Cantata 151, and that Maria Keohane does an absolutely beautiful job singing that opening movement. I also enjoy all the other soloists. Watch this live recording here on YouTube. Soloists are Frank Theuns, flute; Maria Keohane, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; and Matthias Winckhler, bass. Interestingly, Maria Keohane has recorded this cantata on video with two other ensembles: Concerto Copenhagen and Ricercar Consort. Those other performances are good too, but I very much prefer the performance and the camera work on this one with the Netherlands Bach Society.

Find the text of Cantata 151 Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kömmt here, and the score here.

Wieneke Gorter, December 26, 2019.

The message continues

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Adoration of the Christ Child by Josse Lieferinxe, ca. 1500. Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

While in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio the Second Christmas Day is all about the shepherds visiting the baby Jesus, in some other cantatas for this Day Bach further explores why Jesus came on earth. That is also the case in Cantata 40 Darzu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes. While it is full of references to snake-like evil in the text, that cantata still means Christmas holiday to me. Read about it in my blog post from 2016, now with updated YouTube links.

Please check back here tomorrow for a beautiful live recording of a cantata not previously discussed on this blog for Third Christmas Day.

Wieneke Gorter, December 24, 2019.

Bach and the Christmas Day message

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The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard, by Gerard David, ca. 1510-15. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Moren information about this painting can be found here.

On this blog I have shared only two of Bach’s compositions for Christmas Day so far: Cantata 91 from 1724 here, and of course the first cantata from the Christmas Oratorio (our family’s “wake-up call” on Christmas morning) from 1734 here. But Bach wrote at least three more cantatas for this day, as well as his Magnificat.

Today I’d love to share Cantata 110 Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (May our mouth be full of laughter) from 1725. Find The Netherlands Bach Society’s live recording of this cantata here on YouTube.

Find the text with English translations here, and the score here.

This live video registration has an abundance of Christmas presents for me: the festive setting of the Grote Kerk in Naarden; soprano Maria Keohane in a Scandinavian Christmas dress and truly enjoying herself; tenor Charles Daniels, always a delight; a promising new young bass, Matthias Winckhler, who can actually sing every note of the enormously challenging bass aria in this cantata; and the best gift of all: Alex Potter singing the alto aria, which to me is the most moving part of this cantata, and also the core message Bach wanted to communicate to his fellow believers on this Christmas Day in 1725.

Alex Potter. Photo by Annelies van der Vegt.

For the joyous opening of this cantata, Bach re-uses his Orchestral Suite no. 4 in D major (BWV 1069) to grandly illustrate the “arrival” of Jesus. In the center of the cantata, after the festivities of the opening chorus, but before the very pretty Christmas-y “Glory to God in the highest” soprano-tenor duet, and an impressive bass aria with trumpet, the music goes into a minor key, and also turns inward, in the alto aria. The text of that alto aria is as follows:

Ach Herr, was ist ein Menschenkind,
Ah, Lord, what is a child of man
Dass du sein Heil so schmerzlich suchest?
that you should seek his salvation with so much pain?
Ein Wurm, den du verfluchest,
A worm whom you curse
Wenn Höll und Satan um ihn sind;
when hell and Satan are around him;
Doch auch dein Sohn, den Seel und Geist
but also your son, whom soul and spirit
Aus Liebe seinen Erben heißt.
Through love call their inheritance.

Of course this text refers to the believers in general, that on the one hand they are worms, and on the other hand will be saved by Jesus. but I feel the choice of the word “Menschenkind” is not a coincidence. It definitely also refers to the the fact that Jesus can’t just stay in the godly realm, but in order to be a true savior, he has to come to earth, become man, and go through all the rotten reality that might imply. This theme appears more or less prominently in all Bach’s cantatas for Christmas Day, and in this cantata 110 it is already announced in the tenor aria:

Er wird Mensch, und dies allein,
He has become man, and this only
Dass wir Himmels Kinder sein.
so that we may become children of heaven.

Nine years later, in the first cantata of his Christmas Oratorio, Bach also stresses this “coming to earth” and “becoming man” of Jesus on this first Christmas Day, in what is also the most moving and inward-looking part of that particular cantata: the soprano-bass duet. The text Bach gives to the bass in that duet is as follows. Note the last line.

Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn,
Who will rightly extol the love
Die unser Heiland vor uns hegt?
that our Saviour cherishes for us?
Ja, wer vermag es einzusehen,
Indeed, who is able to realise
Wie ihn der Menschen Leid bewegt?
how he is moved by human suffering?
Des Höchsten Sohn kömmt in die Welt,
The highest’s son came into the world
Weil ihm ihr Heil so wohl gefällt,
because its salvation pleases him so well
So will er selbst als Mensch geboren werden.
that he himself is willing to be born as a man.

Merry Christmas!

Wieneke Gorter, December 24, 2019

Two Weimar cantatas for the fourth Sunday of Advent

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For the fourth Sunday of Advent, Bach wrote two cantatas in Weimar: Cantata 132 Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn in 1715, and Cantata 147a Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben in 1716.

Bach rewrote Cantata 147, the same way he did that with cantatas 70 and 186, into a cantata for another time of the year in Leipzig, in this case the feast of the Visitation on July 2, 1723. Read more about that here in my post from 2016. I have now updated that post with a link to the wonderful live performance of Cantata 147 by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with with Hana Blažiková, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Jakob Pilgram, tenor; and Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass.

Cantata 132 was not transformed into a cantata for another time in the church year in Leipzig, so today’s performances of this cantata still reflect the Advent cantata from Weimar. Watch a beautiful live performance of this cantata by the Netherlands Bach Society here on YouTube. Soloists are Julia Doyle, soprano; Tim Mead, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; and Dominik Wörner, bass.

Find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.

As I already pointed out in my Advent Calendar earlier this week, the text of the joyful opening aria refers to the story of John the Baptist, who was believed to have come to prepare the way for Jesus, and includes the Isaiah quote as it appears in the scripture: “Messias kömmt an!” (The Messiah is coming). Bach gives this text to the soprano three times, and to give it extra emphasis, each time omits all instrumental accompaniment on those three words.

The rest of the cantata stays close to the story of John the Baptist. The bass aria refers to the Pharisees interrogating John, but then Bach’s text writer (Salomo Franck, who was also the Weimar court librarian) projects the question “Wer bist du?” (Who are you?) onto the believer: ask your conscience: are you a true person or a false person?

As a child, I was enormously impressed by this bass aria, even more than by the wonderful soprano aria at the beginning of the piece. I loved how Max van Egmond sings the “Wer bist du?” text on the Leonhardt recording from 1983. You can find that recording, and read more about those childhood memories, in this blog post from 2016. I had no idea at the time that in those very cool opening notes Bach is quoting this organ piece by Buxtehude. I only learned that this week, by watching the “extra videos” the Netherlands Bach Society provides along with their live recordings on All of Bach.

If you are not following this blog yet, please consider signing up (on the left of this text if you are on a desktop computer, at the bottom of this post when you are reading on a smartphone). This way you won’t miss any posts about the many cantatas Bach wrote for all three Christmas Days (yes there were three in his time), New Year’s Day, and the Sundays after those feast days.

Wieneke Gorter, December 21, 2019.