This 17th Sunday after Trinity has been connected to more discoveries than any other so far for me, and I keep making new ones:
In 2016, I wrote a post about Cantata148 Bringet dem Herrn Ehre seines Namens, then learned a lot of new information during the months that followed, which led me to completely revise the post in February 2017. It talks about Dresden concertmaster Johann Georg Pisendel and his influence on the violin solos Bach wrote in Leipzig. Read it here.
In 2017, I realized that at least two arias Bach wrote for this Sunday make me cry, not because of the singers, but because of the instrumental solos that accompany those arias. Read it here, in a post that introduces Cantata 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrost. At that time, the best recording I could find was a live radio registration of a performance led by Gustav Leonhardt in 1988. All this because of the tenor aria.* I knew who the tenor was (John Elwes), but could only make an educated guess about the extraordinary flute player, probably Marc Hantaï. That recording also had my first countertenor love, Gérard Lesne, singing the alto aria.
At the last gathering of the Berkeley Bach Cantata Group I attended before the Shelter In Place started (and all rehearsals and performances stopped) here in the SF Bay Area, I got to discuss Bach’s “Pisendel style” violin solos a bit with the first violinist of that group. In an email-exchange that followed, he pointed out a countertenor he liked, but who I had never heard of before: David Erler.
Then this week, while checking if any new recordings of cantatas 148 or 114 had come out since I wrote those blog posts, I discovered to my great delight that in September 2018 the J.S. Bach Foundation recorded Cantata 114 Ach, lieben Christen, seid getrostwith … Marc Hantaï playing flute in the tenor aria! (I now for sure know it was him in that 1988 Leonhardt recording) and … David Erler singing the alto aria (and doing an excellent job). While it doesn’t rival the energy of the soprano solo on the Gardiner recording (for this, please read my blog post from 2017 about this cantata), nor Peter Kooij’s solo on the Leonhardt recording, it is a fabulous and very moving performance, and you can see Marc Hantaï play. Find this live video recording by the J.S. Bach foundation here on YouTube. Soloists are: David Erler, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; and Wolf-Matthias Friedrich, bass.
Find the German texts with English translations of Cantata 114 here, and the score here.
In 2018, I realized that Bach reworked the incredibly moving tenor aria with flute from Cantata 114 into a faster tenor aria with oboe for Cantata 124, and that nobody else seemed to have noticed this yet. Read that here.
Yesterday, Wednesday March 25, 2020, the J.S. Bach Foundation published their live video recording of Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Please God, look down from Heaven) on their YouTube channel. I thought it might be nice to provide a listening guide to go with this performance.
I love this cantata because it has trombones in the orchestra, doubling the choir parts, and because the altos have the cantus firmus (=they sing the chorale melody in long notes) in the opening chorus, which sounds incredibly good, and is unique within Bach’s writing.
Find the video recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Soloists are Alex Potter, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; and Markus Volpert, bass.
Find the German texts with English translations here, and the full score here.
This cantata was the second in Bach’s 1724 series of Chorale Cantatas. He most probably intended for the first four cantatas in that series to form a set, or at least to present some kind of order, if you look at the composition form of the opening movement, and which voice has the cantus firmus of the chorale tune in that chorus:
Cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: French Overture, with cantus firmus in the soprano (find my blog post about this cantata here)
Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein: Chorale motet, cantus firmus in alto (the cantata discussed here)
Cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam: Italian concerto, cantus firmus in tenor. (find my blog post about this cantata here)
Cantata 135 : Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder: Chorale fantasia, cantus firmus in bass. (find my blog post about this cantata here)
We know that Bach liked to use order and symmetry when he wanted to impress other people with a composition. But perhaps he was also thinking of his legacy. When he started composing cantatas at the Weimar court in 1714, albeit on a monthly instead of weekly basis, his first four cantatas formed a similar portfolio of composition styles in the opening choral movements:
Back to this Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (Please God, look down from Heaven), and what to listen for.
The chorale, based on Psalm 12, is by Luther. For an idea what Luther’s original song would have sounded like, you can watch this video. For readers who understand German: Eduard van Hengel’s website (in Dutch) has a very insightful overview of the original German text of Psalm 12, the text of Luther’s chorale, and how Bach’s librettist changed that into the text for the cantata. You can find it here.
When Bach uses a chorale by Luther in a cantata, he often demonstrates his reverence for the father of his faith by using the archaic form of chorale motet as opening chorus combined with the equally archaic trombone quartet (1 cornetto and 3 trombones) to double the choir parts.**
Giving the cantus firmus to the altos is however not something Bach does very often. If only he had! In this case it is especially wonderfully orchestrated, with doubling by one trombone, two oboes, and all second violins. Both on this video recording by the J.S. Bach Foundation as well on the Herreweghe audio recording I recommended back in 2017, Alex Potter’s voice significantly enhances this winning blend of alto voices and instruments, and on this J.S. Bach Foundation video recording he also sings the beautiful alto aria. It definitely made my day yesterday.
Bach alto and tenor arias are at their prettiest, I find, when they are written as a trio sonata, and the alto ariaTilg, o Gott in this cantata is a beautiful example of that. Wonderful singing and playing by alto Alex Potter and violinist Renate Steinmann. The aria is a plea for help in fighting the “Rottengeister,” or the sectarians amidst the Lutherans. When the alto starts singing the word “Rottengeistern,” we realize we had heard this word already many times in the triplets of the violin part. As Eduard van Hengel says, it is the “popular easy talk of the sectarians, and that is also the reason why the other two parts don’t have this motive” [to further illustrate the schism].
Definitely keep the text & translations handy for this one, because this movement contains a wealth of text illustrations in the music. On the word Armen (the poor) sounds a sorrowful diminished seventh, the word seufzend (sighing) has a rest/sigh in the middle of the word, and more such things happening on the words Ach (sighing) and Klagen (complaining). In contrast to this, a few lines later, the chord on the word Gott (God) sounds open and liberating, after which God himself gets to speak, and the music turns to an arioso (similarly to how Bach does that in his much earlier Cantata 18 when God speaks). At the word heller Sonnenschein (bright sunshine) the light gets turned on in the music too: the harmony changes to C Major.
Here we have arrived at the solution/salvation part of the cantata, and so this music is more pleasant, easier to listen to. But Bach is still preaching: there are some crossing (!) lines in the music, and in the middle section, which tells the listeners to be patient (sei geduldig) and Bach stresses the words Kreuz und Not.
With many thanks to Eduard van Hengel and Rudolf Lutz for their explanations of this cantata,
Wieneke Gorter, March 26, 2020.
*more information about this painting and the other objects in Christian V’s Hall in Rosenborg Castle can be found here.
**The best examples of this are cantatas 2, 25, 38, and 121.
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.