While I have been silent on this blog since Palm Sunday this year, of course Bach’s life in Leipzig was far from quiet. In fact, Easter was a time of non-stop work on cantata compositions for him, perhaps even more intense than the Christmas season.*
Today is the second Sunday after Easter, for which Bach wrote Cantata 104 in 1724, and Cantata 85 in 1725, all on the theme of Jesus as “The Good Shepherd.” I have updated the posts I wrote about those cantatas in 2016 and 2017, making sure all the links work, and adding a link to the live performance of Cantata 85 by the J.S. Bach Foundation. If you have some extra time, you can listen to the beautiful sub-group of cantatas Bach wrote after Easter in 1725: BWV 6, 42, and 85. Just follow in the links in my post about Cantata 85.
If you can afford to financially support the artists (especially important now, while they have no income from performances!) please consider purchasing their recordings. I have included links for that too in every post.
Wieneke Gorter, April 26, 2020.
*Before Christmas in Leipzig, he would have the four-week break of Advent, while before Easter he would have been busy rehearsing, rewriting, and performing whichever Passion he performed that year.
We keep following Bach in 1724. For the second Sunday after Easter of that year, he composed cantata 104 Du Hirte Israel, höre. Of all the recordings I listened to, I prefer the one of Ton Koopman with his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir, here on YouTube.
Please consider purchasing this recording here on Amazon, or here on iTunes.
Find the text of this cantata 104 here, and the score here.
My main reason for choosing this recording is tenor Paul Agnew’s fabulous singing. Type his name in the “search” box on this blog and you’ll find more fan mail from me 🙂
But also: this recording has the best balance among the voice parts in the choir in the opening chorus, and Klaus Mertens presents a bass aria I can actually listen to without getting irritated.
This is a very pretty cantata, entirely based on the “good shepherd” theme for this Sunday, using pastoral motifs in the music, oboes in the orchestra, and displaying an innocent character overall, much more so than the more complicated cantata 85 Bach would write for this same Sunday a year later, which I wrote about last year in this post.
There are three beautiful cantatas for this second Sunday after Easter, or “Misericordias Domini” Sunday: BWV 104, 85, and 112. Illustrating the “good shepherd” scripture for this Sunday (John 10, verse 12-16), Bach incorporated pastoral themes or orchestration in each of these cantatas.*
I’ve decided to focus on cantata 85 Ich bin ein guter Hirt, written for April 15, 1725. Of all three cantatas, this is the one I remember the best from my childhood, because of the tenor aria “Seht, was die Liebe tut.” Also: Last week, I already mentioned the similarities between cantata 6 (for Easter Monday 1725), and cantata 42 (for the first Sunday after Easter 1725). This cantata 85 is the culmination of that “sub group” within the cantatas from 1725.
Which recording to listen to?
While I have good memories of hearing Kurth Equiluz sing the tenor aria on the Harnoncourt recording from 1977, I am enamored by Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of this cantata, and I think this is the best “overall” recording, featuring fabulous soloists Carolyn Sampson, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk, and Peter Kooij. It is also one of the most noteworthy because of the use of a violoncello da spalla, played by Dmitry Badiarov.
Listen to Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of cantata 85 Ich bin ein guter Hirt on Spotify. Or better yet, if you can afford to financially support the artists (especially important now, while they have no income from performances!) please consider purchasing the digital versions of Bach Collegium Japan’s recording of cantata 85 on Amazon or on iTunes.
If you prefer to watch a live recording, there is a wonderful recording available on YouTube by the J.S. Bach Foundation. Soloists are Gerlinde Sämann, soprano; Terry Wey, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Markus Volpert, bass; and Martin Zeller, violoncello piccolo.
Back to the Bach Collegium Japan recording: After lovely and convincing singing by bass Peter Kooij in the opening arioso (Jesus saying “I am a good shepherd”), we get a sublime performance by countertenor Robin Blaze of the alto aria “Jesus ist ein guter Hirt,” which also features the unusual violoncello piccolo da spalla. Someone could probably write an entire PhD thesis on the difference between the violoncello piccolo “da spalla” (held on the shoulder, like a violin), and the violoncello piccolo “da gamba” (held between the legs, like a cello), and whether Bach meant the one or the other when he wrote a part for “violoncello piccolo.” Most recordings (Harnoncourt, Gardiner, Coin, Koopman, and J.S. Bach Foundation) feature the one held between the legs, but Bach Collegium Japan’s recording features the “da spalla” variety, played by the same person who built it in 2004, Dmitry Badiarov.
Following this, we hear a radiant soprano solo chorale with oboe accompaniment (which makes me think back to the soprano solo chorale from cantata 6, in that case with the violoncello piccolo “da gamba”), beautifully sung by soprano Carolyn Sampson and expertly played by oboists Masamitsu San’nomiya and Atsuko Ozaki.
And when you didn’t think it could get any better, here comes a tenor recitative which in text and string accompaniment strongly refers to Jesus’ recitative from the St. Matthew Passion “Ich werde den Hirten schlagen, und die Schafe der Herde werden sich zerstreuen.” (Christ, having arrived at the Mount of Olives, reminds his disciples of the prophecy that the shepherd will be slain and the sheep will scatter).
With this only recitative in cantata 85, Bach has gotten everyone’s attention, so now we’re ready for the jewel in the crown of this cantata: the tenor aria “Seht, was die Liebe tut.” It is one of the most lyrical and lovely among all Bach’s tenor arias.
Seht, was die Liebe tut. See, what love does. Mein Jesus hält in guter Hut My Jesus in his own safekeeping Die Seinen feste eingeschlossen keeps those who are his own firmly enclosed Und hat am Kreuzesstamm vergossen and on the beam of the cross he hasshed Für sie sein teures Blut. for them his own precious blood.
Again there is a strong association with the St. Matthew Passion both in text and music. In his book Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven Gardiner makes a very convincing case for his theory that Bach had wanted to perform the St. Matthew Passion on Good Friday 1725, only one year after the St. John Pasion. This didn’t happen because either the council disapproved, or Bach wasn’t ready composing the piece. If Bach had indeed been working on the St. Matthew Passion before Easter 1725, it is no wonder we’re getting glimpses of that monumental work in his cantatas after Easter 1725.
Wieneke Gorter, April 9, 2016, updated April 26, 2020
*I wrote about Cantata 104 for the Second Sunday after Easter in 1724 in this blog post.