Since January 2020, when I heard that Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent were recording BWV 45, 118, and 198 with my favorite soloists, I have been eager to listen to that new album, “Meins Lebens Licht.” The release date, March 19, is now almost here, and there are some excellent previews available that I would love to share today.
There is a wonderful “making of” video of this CD recording. Find it here. In this video, soprano Dorothee Mields and bass Peter Kooij talk about how much working with Herreweghe means to them, you see a glimpse of how Herreweghe works with his choir and orchestra, and … you get to hear the exhilirating opening chorus of Cantata 45 in its entirety, part of the beautiful motet “O, Jesu Christ, Meins Lebens Licht,” and several excerpts of the choral movements of Cantata 198. Some of my all-time favorite music, performed by some of the most sensitive interpreters of this repertoire today: it’s a bit of heaven for me.
On the record label’s website, you can hear a bit of each track. Find that here. If you like all of this, please consider supporting the artists by pre-ordering this album. That way you can also start listening right away on March 19. Pre-order here on iTunes, or here on Amazon.
On January 31, 2021, Philippe Herreweghe and his Collegium Vocale Gent performed three cantatas at the beautiful concert hall “De Singel” in Antwerp, Belgium. In my humble opinion, this was a very moving and inspired performance, and my hat is off to everyone on stage, that they were able to find this energy and inspiration in Bach’s music, in the texts, and in making music together, because they were performing without an audience. Please find the live video recording here on YouTube. Soloists are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Alex Potter, alto; Guy Cutting, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
I provide a bit of a review and a bit of a listening guide here, with links to my blog posts from previous years about these three cantatas. I did not grow up with any of these cantatas, they weren’t part of the repertoire my mother played on the turntable at home. I learned about them in the process of doing research and writing for this blog (and through other people, in the case of Cantata 127).
Cantata 127 Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’ Mensch und Gott
This cantata, written for today, the last Sunday before Lent, is a great choice for the start of a concert, because it immediately grabs you and draws you in. I already hold a special place in my heart for this music because of the soprano aria (beautifully sung here by Dorothee Mields) being performed at my mother’s funeral service in The Hague in 2010. But even without that, the work is in my all-time top 10. And I am not alone: 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.
The cantata is part of Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of chorale cantatas, and compared to all previous compositions in that cycle, this opening chorus is the most complex and intricate. Click on the link at the end of this paragraph to read why. I love hearing Collegium Vocale sing this. Dorothee Mields and Peter Kooij are fabulous in their arias, and I enjoy hearing and watching tenor Guy Cutting sing. He’s a new star in the Herreweghe firmament. The soprano aria is of course stunning, but what about that bass aria? Whether a foreshadowing of the St. Matthew Passion or a dramatic end to the series of chorale cantatas, Bach had clearly made “studies” for it in his previous three cantatas of that year. Read all about it in my blog post from 2018.
Cantata 138 Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz
I am so happy with the video recording from January 31, because it eliminates a dilemma for me. When I first wrote about this cantata (written for the 15th Sunday after Trinity in 1723), I wasn’t able to choose between Herreweghe’s recordings from 1992 and 2013, but I feel the video recording from this year is the clear winner! I love the inspired singing by all four soloists, but find Alex Potter’s singing in this cantata especially stunning. In his recitative (starting at 26:23), the combination of his understanding of the text and what he can do with his voice moves me deeply. So much that when the choir basses then follow with their beautiful entrance, I am close to tears. If you feel I’m getting too sentimental here, don’t worry. My blog post from 2016 is about completely different things: a European children’s animation, a possible, “movie script scenario,” explanation of the relatively simple text in this cantata, and Bach’s recycling of the bass aria.
Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde
What a wonderful surprise that Herreweghe included this cantata (written for the 16th Sunday after Trinity but also for the Purification of Mary/Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which was February 2) in this program. It is such a beautiful and moving composition. In my blog post from this past fall I could only describe how in 2019, when programming the All Souls program for the Netherlands Bach Society, Alex Potter had the brilliant idea to combine the recorders from the Weimar version of this cantata with the sung chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End from the Leipzig version. What a delight to see that Herreweghe had adopted this exact idea for this performance in Antwerp, and that we can thus hear and see Alex Potter and Dorothee Mields perform this opening movement together. I love all the singing and playing in this cantata very much, but for me, the tenor aria can’t rival the magic of Shunske Sato accompanying Thomas Hobbs in those All Souls concerts by the Netherlands Bach Society in 2019 (as described here).
It has been hard to read the newspapers this week and not be touched or even completely floored by human suffering. That’s why Cantata 91 Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (from 1724) is like a warm bath to me. The two horns in the orchestra already make my day, but there is also a strong presence of angels in the text and music of this cantata.
Watch a wonderful live registration of this cantata on YouTube by the J.S. Bach Foundation, with Monika Mauch, soprano; Margot Oitzinger, alto; Bernhard Berchtold, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
Find the text and translations here, and the score here.
In the opening chorus (with the ascending scale of fast notes), Bach illustrates the “host of angels” singing, or, as Eduard van Hengel says, even “flapping their wings.”
Last year I already talked about how in most of his cantatas for Christmas Day, Bach focuses on Jesus’ journey from the godly realm, the heavenly glory, to being a struggling man on earth. It is very moving then to hear this following text in the bass solo. And it is a true Christmas present to me that it is Peter Kooij who is singing this on the J.S. Bach Foundation video, because he is one of the best to interpret texts like these. Note how Bach illustrates the “Jammertal” (vale of sorrow) at the end.
O Christenheit! Wohlan, so mache die bereit, Bei dir den Schöpfer zu empfangen. Der grosse Gottessohn Kömmt als ein Gast zu dir gegangen. Ach, lass dein Herz durch diese Liebe rühren; Er kömmt zu dir, um dich for seinen Thron Durch dieses Jammertal zu führen.
O Christendom! Come now, prepare yourself to welcome the creator amongst you. The mighty Son of God has descended and comes to you as a guest. Ah, let your heart be moved by this love; He comes to you, in order to lead you through this vale of sorrow to his throne.
In the beautiful soprano-alto duet (arguably the best part of this cantata), Bach brilliantly illustrates the contrast between the human suffering and the heavenly angels. He sets the suffering parts of the text to chromatic lines, similar to those just introduced on that word “Jammertal” in the bass solo. To the heavenly angels he gives happy, dotted rhythms.
While I grew up waking up to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on Christmas Day (read more about this tradition here), these days I much prefer listening to all the other, earlier cantatas Bach wrote for the period between from December 25 to January 6. However, there are two new video projects of the Christmas Oratorio just out or about to be launched this year that I don’t wish to ignore, so for those of you eager to watch and listen to any of that, here’s my one-paragraph overview:
Bach never intended this oratorio to be performed on one day. The Christmas Oratorio consists of six cantatas that were each meant to be performed on a different Sunday or holiday: First Christmas Day, Second Christmas Day, Third Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Sunday after New Year, and Epiphany. The J.S. Bach Foundation in Switzerland recently released all six cantatas for free on their YouTube channel. You can find the list of videos, one for each cantata, here. If you enjoy watching these videos, please consider donating to the organization so they can continue to pay their musicians and produce these wonderful registrations. Voces8’s excellent “Live from London Christmas” paid programming features all six cantatas performed by The Gabrieli Consort & Players under the direction of Paul McCreesh. Appropriately, each cantata will go live on the day for which it was intended. You can purchase this series here.
When I wrote this post three days ago, I had been feeling pretty sad. I missed connections, I was once again shocked by how people in this world can behave towards one another, and baffled as always by the lack of empathy shown by the leader of my adopted country and his enablers. So I wrote:
“A word, or token of consolation amidst all the suffering. Don’t we all need that this year, this month, this week? I do. Maybe Bach did too during this week in October 1724.”
This is still true of course, but over the past two days my spirits were lifted in such a way that it felt strange to just post my somewhat somber message from Thursday. So now I’m typing again on a Sunday when I really wanted to be done writing before the weekend 🙂
Over the past two days I was inspired by creativity in my family, in my neighborhood, and in photos I saw posted by friends in other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area and the United States. It has to do with how many of us found new ways of celebrating Halloween. From contraptions for sliding candy down a rain gutter, outdoor movie screenings, extensive decorations in front yards and on front windows (so people just going for a walk would have something to look at), individually wrapped goody bags clipped to a laundry line, to treasure hunts for small groups, it was all there. And because of the email and text conversations with the neighbors beforehand, our family needing to work as a team for part of the day to execute our own plans, and my husband and I sitting by the fire pit in our front yard in the evening (to make sure our goody bags wouldn’t get swiped and to see some costumes), I think I felt a deeper connection to my community here than I have at some other times on this holiday.*
Back to Bach: my favorite cantata for this 21st Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 38 Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir (Out of the depths I cry to Thee). In my post from 2017 I recommended Herreweghe’s recording, and I still prefer that one for Peter Kooij’s singing of the bass part in the penultimate movement. But for all the other movements, I’m quite taken by the interpretation of the J.S. Bach Foundation. Find it here on YouTube. Soloists are: Guro Hjemli, soprano; Ruth Sandhoff, alto; and Johannes Kaleschke, tenor.
Please find the German text with English translations here, and the score here.
It is the tenor aria that brings the consolation, in text as well as in music. On this recording this exquisite piece of chamber music is beautifully performed by Johannes Kaleschke, tenor, and Meike Güldenhaupt and Gilles Vanssons, oboes.
To read more about this cantata in the context of Bach’s reverence for Martin Luther (just as this year, in 1724 Reformation Day, October 31, almost coincided with the 21st Sunday after Trinity), and understand why there are four trombones standing amidst the choir, find my blog post from 2017 here. In that post, I compare the opening chorus of this cantata with the one from Cantata 2, which is for a different Sunday, but also celebrates a chorale by Luther. Since 2017, the J.S. Bach Foundation has released a very compelling video registration of that cantata as well. Find my listening guide for that specific recording here.
Wieneke Gorter, November 1, 2020.
*Last year I wasn’t even in California on Halloween, but attending concerts in the Netherlands. Read about that here and here.
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.
The reading for this Sunday, the 11th after Trinity, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (or Tax Collector) from the Gospel of Luke. In the parable, these two men come into the temple to pray around the same time, but talk to God in very different ways. While the Pharisee puts on a fake show about how good he is, the tax collector is very humble, “wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven” and asks for forgiveness.
“There’s something with this Sunday,” I wrote three years ago, and I still feel that way when I listen to the cantatas Bach wrote for this Sunday in 1723 and 1724.
In 1723, his first year in Leipzig, Bach performed two cantatas on this Sunday: Cantata 179 Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht kein Heuchelei sei(See that your fear of God is not hypocrisy) before the sermon, and his solo cantata for soprano Cantata 199 Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut (from his early years in Weimar) afterwards. Cantata 199 is only loosely related to the Gospel story, and was probably never written with this story in mind. Because of its multi-layered history and the many different recordings, I will discuss that composition some other time.
Cantata 179 focuses on the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, and just like cantatas 46 and 102 I discussed last week, it must have been one of Bach’s own favorites, because he re-used three movements in later works. Read all about it in my post from 2016, which I have updated with better images and new video links.
In 1724, Bach wrote cantata 113 Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, which, surprise, surprise, focuses on the Publican asking for mercy. The only recording that does this cantata justice and gives me the good kind of stomachache is the one by Bach Collegium Japan. Peter Kooij’s and Robin Blaze’s singing is outstanding, and Yukari Nonoshita and Robin Blaze make the duet into a lovely piece of music, which is–judging from a lot of other recordings–not an easy thing to do. I updated my blog post from 2017 with all the correct links to stream or purchase this recording. Please find it here.
We don’t have any letters in which Bach writes about his own compositions, so we officially don’t know which ones were his own favorites. But when we see which cantatas he gave a “second life” in another work, and which cantatas were performed by his sons, we can make an educated guess.
Two of these cantatas, Cantata 46 Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei (from 1723) and Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! (from 1726), were written for this Sunday, the 10th after Trinity.
Bach gave the opening chorus from Cantata 46Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgendein Schmerz sei a second life in the Qui Tollis in his Mass in B minor. Find a YouTube video of just that opening chorus, from Herreweghe’s performance at the 2013 Saintes Festival in France, here. Find my post from 2016 about this cantata, with links to translations, score, and my favorite recording here.
Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben! received even more second lives (see table below), and was performed at least twice in Hamburg by Bach’s second surviving son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. My favorite performance of this cantata was the one by Herreweghe I attended in January 2018 at the Bruges Bach Festival, with Dorothee Mields, Alex Potter, Thomas Hobbs, and Peter Kooij. Alas there is no recording of this. Of all recordings currently available, my favorite is here on YouTube, by oboist Marcel Ponseele’s Ensemble Il Gardellino, with Damien Guillon, countertenor; Marcus Ullman, tenor; and Lieven Termont, bass. Especially the Aria Weh der Seele, die den Schaden by countertenor Damien Guillon and oboist Marcel Ponseele (both pictured at the top of this post) is to die for, and this combination of singer and oboist is simply unrivaled by any other recordings.
Find the texts & translations of Cantata 102 here, and the score here.
Movement from Cantata 102
Movement in later work
Opening chorus of the Missa Brevis in g minor, BWV 235
Soprano aria “Qui tollis peccata mundi” of the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233
Alto aria “Quoniam to solus sanctus” of the Missa Brevis in F Major, BWV 233
A little more about the early “revival” of this cantata by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. In 1768, C.Ph.E. Bach succeeded Telemann as music director of the five largest churches in Hamburg, and remained in that position until his death in 1788. As such, he performed a handful of his father’s cantatas, albeit with adaptations. In 1776 or 1777 as well as in 1781, he performed Cantata 102 Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben!
These early “promotions” of this cantata must have inspired more performances or at least discussions about them, and eventually this composition along with some other cantatas likely reached the circle around Mendelssohn. In 1830, shortly after Mendelssohn’s Berlin revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, Adolf Bernhard Marx published three Bach cantatas BWV nrs 101, 102, and 103. It was the firsts time since 1709 that a Bach cantata appeared in print.
In my humble opinion, the best cantata Bach wrote for this 9th Sunday after Trinity is Cantata 105 Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht. This cantata has one of the best opening choruses Bach ever wrote, and I find the soprano aria and the bass arioso very moving. And as far as interpretations and recordings of this cantata go, for me, Herreweghe’s always rises above all others. In my post from 2016 I discuss his 1992 and 2012 recordings of this cantata. Please find that post here. It has all the links for recordings, texts & translations, and score, it tells you what to listen for in the music, and also explains why this Cantata 105 was Bach’s first real Leipzig cantata.
In January 2018, I had the good fortune to attend three Bach cantata concerts by Herreweghe, the first two in Bruges, the third one in Paris.* The program in Paris featured Cantata 105, everyone was in top form, and it was terrific to see Herreweghe conduct this piece that he and his ensemble know so well. It made me wish for a third Herreweghe recording of this cantata, because Dorothee Mields (not singing on the 1992 or 2012 recording), was mesmerizing in the “Wir zittern und wanken” aria and Peter Kooij’s strong rendition of the bass arioso almost brought me to tears.
Wieneke Gorter, August 8, 2020.
*To read more about these concerts in Bruges and Paris, find my posts from January 2018 here and here.
Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday, and since my favorite recordings (for now)* of two of those feature my first and second countertenor loves, Gérard Lesne and Kai Wessel, I thought it might be nice to talk a bit about how I came to appreciate these singers.
Because I grew up listening to Bach cantatas from the cantata recording project by Leonhardt and Harnoncourt, hearing these every Sunday from when I was a small child, I was completely used to alto arias being sung by countertenors. I have become better at it, but sometimes I still feel as if I have to consciously switch something in my brain before I can listen to a female alto sing Bach and take it seriously.
However, none of the alto arias from that Leonhardt/Harnoncourt project (1970-1989), stayed with me the way many of the soprano, tenor, and bass arias did. The voices of René Jacobs or Paul Esswood just never blew me away nor did their singing truly move me. I remember enjoying Michael Chance’s singing on recordings of English Baroque composers and in the arias he sang in the live performance of Bach’s St. John Passion with Harnoncourt I mentioned in this post. But still, not blown away.
That all changed the summer of 1988 or 1989. Still a teenager, I had started volunteering for the Utrecht Early Music Festival in 1987. I did that for several years and then was on the summer staff for a few years as well, all this in the team that managed the Exhibition. The booth right around the corner from our own information booth was staffed by the best CD curator I’ve ever met, Joost. He went to all the concerts, and knew all the Early Music recordings, and I LOVED the recordings he recommended. It was through him that I learned about Gérard Lesne. The second or third year I was there, Joost was selling Lesne’s Vivaldi CD from 1988 to everyone with the words “Buy this. Listen to it. If you come back to me, look me in the eye, and can tell me without any sign of emotion that you didn’t like it, I’ll take it back.” (or, as he literally said in Dutch: “Als je me met droge ogen kunt vertellen dat je het niks vond, dan neem ik hem terug.”) I became a fan, and will never forget hearing Lesne live, singing Charpentier, in the Chapelle Royale of Versailles in the Holy Week of 1994.
Gérard Lesne is featured on a live audio recording from 1988 of Cantata 45 Es ist dir gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist which you can find here on YouTube. It is from a concert on October 25, 1988, in the Notre Dame du Travail church in Paris, by La Chapelle Royale (one of Herreweghe’s ensembles), conducted by Gustav Leonhardt. Other soloists are John Elwes, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
Bach wrote this Cantata 45 in 1726 for the 8th Sunday after Trinity. Please find the score here, and the texts & translations here.
My blog post from 2016 about Cantata 136 Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz spotlights my second countertenor love: Kai Wessel. His voice and interpretation was nothing short of a sensation for me when Ton Koopman’s recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion came out in 1993. That a countertenor could also have such a beautiful tenor quality to his voice was new to me, and I found his singing incredibly moving. Thanks to this, I gained new appreciation for the “Erbarme dich” aria. Because of Kai Wessel singing the alto aria, the Bach Collegium Japan recording I recommended in 2016 is still my favorite interpretation of Cantata 136, though the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation from 2011 is very well done too, and that video is exciting because you can see the corno da tirarsi** in action in the amazing opening chorus.
Wieneke Gorter, August 2, 2020.
*This might change soon, because Herreweghe recorded this cantata program, including BWV 45, at the end of January 2020. I will let you know when this recording comes out. It is the first time they have recorded BWV 45 and 118, and I can’t wait to hear Alex Potter in BWV 198, and look forward to hearing BWV 78 with Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter in the famous duet, and Thomas Hobbs in the gorgeous but often overlooked tenor aria.
Another St. John Passion to watch today! Available until April 13, 2020: Collegium Vocale Gent’s / Herreweghe’s dress rehearsal of the St. John Passion from Bruges, March 13.
After this rehearsal, their entire St. John tour as well as St. Matthew tour was canceled. For Baroque musicians in Europe, this time of year, with the Bach passions, is when they earn most of their money. The link to the video also includes info on how to donate to Collegium Vocale Gent, who will make sure the money is divided equally over the musicians who are otherwise not getting paid for this long period.
Julian Prégardien, tenor-evangelist Krezimir Strazanac, bass-Christ Dorothee Mields, soprano Alex Potter, countertenor Reinoud Van Mechelen, tenor Peter Kooij, bass
Romina Lischka, viola da gamba
Find the German texts with English translations here, and the score, in two parts: part 1 here, and part 2 here.
Again, I urge you to support all musicians suffering enormous loss of income during this difficult time. Donate at least the money you would otherwise have spent on tickets to their performances, but if you can, give more. Take care of each other, please take social distancing seriously, keep going for walks if allowed, check in on your elderly neighbors, and wash. your. hands.
Wieneke Gorter, March 15, 2020, updated March 21, 2020.