“Adoration of the Magi” triptych of Jan Floreins by Hans Memling, 1479. Memling Museum (Old St. John’s Hospital), Bruges, Belgium. The right-hand panel features “The Presentation at the Temple,” with the Temple really being the former St. Donaas church in Bruges.
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This post is almost two days late, as it was for Friday February 2, the feast of the Purification of Mary, or Candle Mass, or Presentation at the Temple. If you have time, please read how this holiday was strongly connected to folk culture in my post from last year. In Lutheran reality, this was the day when Simeon’s song of praise Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren or Nunc Dimittis was celebrated. With his chorale Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin Luther turned Simeon’s song of praise into a message of “Now I can die in peace.” This is why all five cantatas (The famous Ich habe genug 82, 83, 125, 157, and 158) Bach wrote for this holiday are mostly about the joy of dying.
Since I’m following Bach’s chorale cantata writing in Leipzig in 1725, I’m featuring Cantata 125 Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin, written for February 2 of that year, and based on that same chorale by Luther.
My favorite overall recording of this cantata is Herreweghe’s recording from 1998, with Ingeborg Dantz, alto; Mark Padmore, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass. You can find it here on YouTube. Please consider supporting the artists by purchasing the album on Amazon. It also includes the stunning Cantata 8 (Herreweghe’s personal favorite!) and the beautiful Cantata 138.
Please find the German text with English translations of this cantata here, and the score here.
There are some similarities with last week’s cantata, such as the bass solo that is made up of bits of recitative and bits of chorale melody, but already in the opening chorus a new day is dawning. If you read the history of today’s holiday in my post from last year, you know that Candle Mass was a natural time of year to start with something new.
Could the new inspiration in Bach’s brain be the St. Matthew Passion? It is not unlikely at all. Van Hengel suggests that the opening chorus has elements of the St. Matthew opening chorus, but then argues that that piece was not written yet in 1725. However, Gardiner (in his book Music in the Castle of Heaven) makes a strong case that Bach might have initially planned to have the St. Matthew Passion ready for Good Friday 1725. I’ve pointed out before that we can find preludes to the “Great Passion” in Bach’s cantatas as far back as the fall of 1723 (see posts about cantatas 105 and 46), so it is not unlikely that Bach was working on this in January 1725.
Keeping all this in mind, it is striking that the first aria after the opening chorus is an alto aria in St. Matthew style, full of pietism. Watch a very young Alex Potter (keep reading to find out more about him) sing this aria with the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. The instrumentation resembles the “Aus Liebe” soprano aria from the St. Matthew Passion: there are no organ chords in the bass, only repeated cello notes, and for the rest it is just flute and oboe da caccia, an unusual combination.
Because of the many connections with this Cantata 125 I’m now going to sneak in a mini review of the Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale concerts I attended in Europe this past week.
Applause at the end of the concert in the Eglise St. Roch in Paris, January 30, 2018. From left to right in front row: Peter Kooij, Thomas Hobbs, Philippe Herreweghe, Alex Potter, Dorothee Mields. Photo by Aube Neau, published with permission.
Let’s take the alto aria from Cantata 125. I call this type of aria a “floating aria” because it has no real basso continuo: there is no melodic line in the cello or chords in the organ, i.e. no foundation for the singer to stand on. These floating arias are incredibly beautiful and the stuff of goose bumps, but also incredibly challenging for the vocal soloist. In the terrific concert in Paris on Tuesday January 30, soprano Dorothee Mields had two such arias: the “Qui tollis” from the Mass in A Major (BWV 234)* and the “Wir zittern und wanken” from Cantata 105. She did an absolutely marvelous job in both of them, but her singing was the most mesmerizing in the “Wir zittern und wanken” aria. Cantata 105 stood out during that Paris performance anyway in my humble opinion. It simply has the best opening chorus of all cantatas Collegium Vocale performed in the three concerts I attended. On top of that, the group (including soloists Thomas Hobbs and Peter Kooij) recorded this in 2012, and you could tell it was still in everyone’s bones and it was a pleasure to see Herreweghe direct the strings as well as the soloists. One of my favorite bass ariosos occurs in that cantata (it makes me think of the “Am Abend da es kühle war” from the St. Matthew) and Peter Kooij’s strong rendition almost made me cry.
Detail of right-hand wing of the “Adoration of the Magi” Jan Floreins triptych by Hans Memling, showing the Presentation at the Temple, or Mary presenting Jesus to Simeon
And then on to countertenor Alex Potter. It was in Bruges’ St. John’s Hospital museum that I saw the Memling painting featured in this post, and this is also where I ran into Alex Potter and was able to tell him how much I enjoyed his singing on Friday January 26. During the concert in Paris on January 30 he even sang a soprano recitative, in that wonderful cantata 105, and did an excellent job at it. But his most impressive performance was the “Quoniam” aria from the Mass in A Major (BWV 234)**, which I heard in Bruges on Sunday January 28 and again in Paris on Tuesday January 30. He had a clear understanding of the text, made the music soar, and seemed to passionately enjoy what he was doing. It was a joy to watch and listen to.
Wieneke Gorter, February 3, 2018.
*originally from Cantata 179 from August 8, 1723.
**originally from Cantata 79 from October 31, 1725.