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.
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.
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.
What are your five favorite cantatas? This question was asked this week on Facebook by the Residentie Bach Ensembles, the choirs and orchestra of the monthly cantata services in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague, the Netherlands. A hard question to answer, and I would probably have a different Top Five every month. However, Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott, today’s cantata from 1725, will probably always be in it. The soprano aria from this cantata is forever linked in my heart and mind with the funeral service for my mother in this same Kloosterkerk in The Hague (read a bit more about that in this post), but having carefully listened to about 120 cantatas over the past two years I am struck by how special this cantata is within Bach’s oeuvre.
I’m not alone in my appreciation of Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott. Eduard van Hengel calls it an “exceptionally inspired cantata,” 19th century Bach biographer Spitta called it “perhaps the most important” cantata, and it received “the most beautiful” qualification by Arnold Schering as well as Ton Koopman.
My favorite recording of this cantata, by … surprise, surprise … Herreweghe, can be found here on YouTube. Please support the artists and purchase the entire “Jesu, deine Passion” album by Herreweghe here on Amazon. It includes all four cantatas Bach wrote for this last Sunday before Lent*, and they are all excellent. Soloists are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Jan Kobow, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
Find the text of Cantata 127 here, and the score here.
There are several reasons why this last Sunday before Lent, or Quinquagesima Sunday or Estomihi Sunday, was such an important day for Bach, and maybe especially in 1725:
This was the day, in 1723, on which he had auditioned for his job in Leipzig, with Cantatas 22 and 23, his first performance ever for the Leipzig congregation and city council. In 1724 he would repeat the same cantatas on this same Sunday.
After this Sunday, his audience (=the Leipzig congregations of the St. Thomas and St. Nicholas churches) would not hear any of Bach’s music until March 25, on the feast of the Annunciation of Mary. No figural music (only chorale singing) was allowed in the Lutheran churches in Leipzig during Lent (the approximately 40 days before Easter), with the exception of the Annunciation. In 1724 this period was 33 days, but in 1725 it was 41 days (from February 11 to March 25). So Bach might have wished to leave his audience with something special, something they would remember for 41 days.
If it is true that Andreas Stübel had been Bach’s librettist for his entire chorale cantata cycle, Bach would have now known that this was the last regular chorale cantata of the cycle for now: Stübel died on January 31, 1725. So perhaps Bach wanted to “go out with a bang” for that reason. It is striking to me that he chooses a bass recitative/arioso with trumpet talking about the Day of Judgement, a similar combination of voice, instrument, and subject matter he uses at the end of the Trinity period in 1723, and again (though less dramatically) at the end of the Trinity period in 1724. Is this Bach’s way of saying: this is the end of an important series?
Compared to all opening choruses that had come before, this opening chorus is the most complex and intricate. It is the same as chorale fantasias in previous chorale cantatas in the sense that the six lines of text of the chorale Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott appear in six sections, with the chorale melody (the cantus firmus) in the soprano and trumpet part. However the orchestra greatly enhances the meaning of Bach’s message by referring to this chorale plus two others. The instrumental groups (recorders, oboes, strings, and continuo) represent four musical themes referring to these chorales. Eduard van Hengel illustrates this extremely well with two diagrams on his website, which I am copying here with his permission:
(a) The recorders play a dotted rhythm which in both the St. John and St. Matthew Passions illustrates punishment and suffering. (b) The oboes introduce the “Leitmotiv” that will sound 78 times throughout the entire movement, and stands for the Herr Jesu Christ, wahr Mensch und Gott chorale. Jesus was a true (“wahr”) man and God. Probably Bach’s most important message here. (c) The strings quote the chorale Christe, du Lamm Gottes, or Luther’s Agnus Dei. It would show up again in the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, which Bach might already have been working on around this time, see my post about Cantata 125 last week. (d) In the continuo we hear six times the first seven notes of Ach Herr mich armen Sünder, nowadays better known as O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, one of the main building stones of the St. Matthew Passion. In the seventh section of the opening chorus, when the sopranos are already done singing the chorale melody, Bach repeats this particular theme in the vocal bass line in the choir, as if to make sure that even those who might have missed the quotation earlier would now hear it loud and clear.
Van Hengel adds this extra diagram to show in which measures of the opening chorus the different themes appear:
At this point Bach might still have been planning to prepare his audiences for a first St. Matthew Passion, not abandoning that plan until much closer to March 30, Good Friday, 1725. Not only are the references in this opening chorus a striking example of that, but also in the extraordinary bass recitative/aria do we see the theme of the SindBlitze, sind Donner chorus from the St. Matthew Passion appear on the text “Ich breche mit starker und helfender Hand.”
Regular followers of this blog will notice that Bach had been making a study for this bass recitative/aria in the previous three cantatas: combining lines of the chorale text with “free” text in the bass solo of Cantatas 92 and 125, and then using SindBlitze, sind Donner material and trumpet accompaniment in the bass solo in Cantata 126.
Wieneke Gorter, February 10, 2018, updated February 22, 2020.
* Herreweghe’s album “Jesu, deine Passion” features cantatas 22, 23, 127, and 159. Cantata 23 has exceptionally beautiful choruses and Cantata 22 represents the first introduction of Bach’s version of the “Vox Christi”(voice of Christ) to the Leipzig congregations, considered by some as an intentional preparation for the listeners of what would be to come in the Passions. Cantata 159 on this album is fantastic too, with an unrivaled interpretation by Peter Kooij of the fourth movement, the bass aria “Es ist vollbracht.”