Bach, Bach and opera, Bach Collegium Japan, cantatas, Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, Kurt Equiluz, Paul Agnew, Paul Esswood, Peter Kooy, Robin Blaze, Ruud van der Meer
Cantata 81 Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen? from 1724 closely follows the reading for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany: the story of Jesus calming the storm on the sea of Galilee.
In combining masterful text illustration with his theology, Bach presents a powerful drama rivaling a Handel opera. And I was lucky to find two conductors especially not shy of the opera-element in this cantata: Harnoncourt and Gardiner. The recording from 1978 directed by Harnoncourt has a great sense of drama as well as good singing in all the movements. For me it is the most “overall” satisfying recording of this cantata. It was not an easy decision though this week, and the fact that I grew up with the Harnoncourt recording might of course have influenced my choice. Soloists: Paul Esswood, counter-tenor; Kurt Equiluz, tenor; Ruud van der Meer, bass.
Listen to Harnoncourt’s recording of cantata 81 on Spotify
Listen to Harnoncourt’s recording of cantata 81 on YouTube
Read the full German text with English translation of cantata 81
Find the score of cantata 81 here
If you have time to listen some more: The absolute best rendition of the spectacular tenor aria in my opinion appears on the Gardiner recording, with very convincing “waves” in the orchestra (at an even higher tempo than Harnoncourt) and truly marvelous singing by Paul Agnew. Listen to this aria on Spotify.
What to keep in mind when listening:
The reading for this 4th Sunday after Epiphany, from Matthew 8:
23. Und er trat in das Schiff, und seine Jünger folgeten ihm.
 And when he entered into a ship, his disciples followed him.
24. Und siehe, da erhub sich ein groß Ungestüm im Meer, also daß auch das Schifflein mit Wellen bedeckt ward; und er schlief.
 And, behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea, insomuch that the ship was covered with the waves: but he was asleep.
25. Und die Jünger traten zu ihm und weckten ihn auf und sprachen: HERR, hilf uns, wir verderben!
 And his disciples came to him, and awoke him, saying, Lord, save us: we perish.
26. Da sagte er zu ihnen: Ihr Kleingläubigen, warum seid ihr so furchtsam? Und stund auf und bedräuete den Wind und das Meer; da ward es ganz stille.
 And he saith unto them, Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then he arose, and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.
27. Die Menschen aber verwunderten sich und sprachen: Was ist das für ein Mann, daß ihm Wind und Meer gehorsam ist?
 But the men marvelled, saying, What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him!
In Western Europe at Bach’s time, there was probably no insight yet that the “sea” in this bible story was actually a large sweet-water lake. Bach’s Lutheran bible talked of a sea, not a lake, and most paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries depict seagulls, cliffs, or port cities in the distance. Of course a storm can also develop on a large lake, but we have to assume that Bach and his librettist had a full-blown storm at sea in mind when writing this. Bach probably never witnessed one, but Gardiner says that one of the theologian books in Bach’s library featured a vivid commentary on this part of the gospel. That book’s author, Heinrich Müller, lived in Rostock, on the Baltic sea. And who knows what interpretations of a “tempesta di mare” by other composers Bach had heard at the opera in Hamburg or seen on copied music which traveling colleagues and students might have brought with them.
Already in the opening aria Bach combines opera with theology. The recorders illustrate the “sleeping” Jesus, but also the loneliness of a life without Jesus/without faith (Bach uses recorders for this purpose more often, for example in the O Schmerz tenor-aria from the St. Matthew Passion (when for a moment Jesus feels he has lost faith), as well as in the Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer tenor-aria from the Easter Oratorio). There is also some hint in the orchestra of the calm before the storm, underlining the anxiety of the question “Was soll ich hoffen?”
The big storm at sea manifests in the tenor aria, equal to a “rage” aria by Handel, with the orchestra and the singer imitating the rolling waves and wind.
Then enters Jesus in the bass arioso, asking his disciples, but also the believers in general, why they didn’t have faith. Dürr remarks that the music is like an “Invention” and is practically a bass duet, with the other “singer” being the continuo. This is also a pivotal point in the cantata, moving from the part without Jesus/faith (nos 1-3) to the part with Jesus/faith.
Another “storm aria” follows, sung by the bass, but this time the storm is somewhat quieting down, and the oboe lines paint a quieter mood. All this to illustrate that Jesus is calming the storm. The alto recitative states/confirms that Jesus has calmed the storm, and is with us, and the chorale (second verse of the beautiful Jesu meine Freude) is the final affirmation:
Unter deinen Schirmen
Beneath your protection
Bin ich für den Stürmen
I am free from storms
Aller Feinde frei.
and all enemies.
Laß den Satan wittern,
Let Satan sniff around,
Laß den Feind erbittern,
let the enemy be exasperated
Mir steht Jesus bei.
Jesus stands by me.
Ob es itzt gleich kracht und blitzt,
Though there is thunder and lightning,
Ob gleich Sünd und Hölle schrecken,
though sin and hell terrify,
Jesus will mich decken.
Jesus will protect me.
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Wieneke Gorter, January 31, 2016, links updated February 2, 2020