For this third Sunday after Epiphany, Bach wrote four cantatas: 73, 111, 72, and 156. The Bible story for this Sunday is about the miracle of Christ healing a leper. Last year I mentioned that I had a hard time finding the corresponding art for that story. My readers immediately came to the rescue, and pointed me to the two images featured in today’s post. Thank you again!
My favorite of all these cantatas is Cantata 73 Herr, wie du willt, so schick’s mit mir, especially in the 2013 recording by Herreweghe. Please find that recording here on Spotify. Soloists are Dorothee Mields (soprano), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), and Peter Kooij (bass). If you don’t have access to Spotify, you can find their 1990 recording here on YouTube. Soloists on this older recording are: Barbara Schlick (soprano), Howard Crook (tenor), and Peter Kooij (bass).
I had been planning to attend a live performance by Herreweghe of this cantata as well as another one of my favorites, Cantata 198, on January 29 in Brussels, but unfortunately the programming of that concert was changed to the Mass in B Minor. I completely understand the reasoning behind this, and I am absolutely thrilled for the musicians of Collegium Vocale Gent that they get to perform for an audience after all (until earlier this week, it looked as if all concerts in Belgium would be canceled until the end of this month), but I’m so sad about the cantatas!
Please find the German texts with English translations of Cantata 73 here, and the score here.
Especially the bass aria makes Herreweghe’s recording of this cantata tower above all others. It is so well done by Peter Kooij and the orchestra; it moves me every time I listen to it.
The best part for me is the illustration of “Leichenglocken” (death bells) by pizzicato strings and a somewhat “tolling” movement in the vocal part. Bach used this feature in many other cantatas, for example in (cantata number/movement number): 8/1, 95/5, 105/4, 127/3, 161/4, 198/4.
To know what else to listen for in this cantata, please read my post from 2016 . There I also explain how this cantata is connected to Cantata 72.
Today was Ascension Day. In Bach’s time this was a very important holiday in the churches. Many countries in Europe have a four-day weekend starting on this Thursday. I did too as a kid growing up in the Netherlands. But we didn’t go to church on this day, and I don’t remember my mother playing the Ascension cantatas or the Ascension Oratorio on the turntable at home on this day. Instead we went for a bike ride, visit grandparents, or go camping. I didn’t know Bach’s music for Ascension Day at all until we performed BWV 11 and 43 with California Bach Society in the early 2000s. The choruses from these compositions are among the most fun I have every sung in a choir. I love the syncopated rhythms.
Here is an overview of Bach’s music for Ascension Day, as far as we know, in order of creation:
In 1724, Bach wrote Cantata 37 Wer da gläubet und getäuft wird (Whoever believes and is baptised). Listen to it here. Soloists in this recording by Ton Koopman/Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra are Sibylla Rubens, soprano; Bernhard Landauer, alto; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; and Klaus Mertens, bass.
In 1725, as part of the series of cantatas on texts by Christiane Mariane von Ziegler, Bach wrote Cantata 128 Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein (On Christ’s ascension alone). Listen to it here. Soloists on this live recording by John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists are Lenneke Ruiten, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo soprano; Andrew Tortise, tenor; and Dietrich Henschel, bass. Find my blog post from 2018 about this cantata, which includes a different recording by Gardiner here.
The last Bach cantata we have for this holiday is from 1726: Cantata 43 Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen (God ascends with shouts of joy). Listen to it here. Soloists in this live recording by Rudolf Lutz/J.S. Bach Foundation are Miriam Feuersinger, soprano; Annekathrin Laabs, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; and Wolf Matthias Friedrich, bass.
Nine years later, Bach wrote his Ascension Oratorio, BWV 11 Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen (Praise God in His kingdoms), incorrectly labeled as a cantata in the 19th century. Bach might have been inspired by the Christmas Oratorio he had written only five months before that.
On that Ascension Day, Thursday, May 19, 1735, this oratorio was performed in the morning service in the St. Nicholas Church, and again in the afternoon service in the St. Thomas Church. Watch the wonderful opening chorus here in a live performance by Philippe Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale Gent from 2014 from the Chapelle de la Trinité in Lyon, France. Or listen to the entire oratorio by Philippe Herreweghe/Collegium Vocale Gent on a CD recording from 1993 here. Soloists on that 1993 recording are Barbara Schlick, soprano; Catherine Patriasz, alto; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; and Peter Kooij, bass.
A little over 22 years ago, my husband and I moved from the Netherlands to California. My husband is a Jazz bass player in his spare time, so for him the music was another aspect to “living in Paradise.” There are many more Jazz performances and festivals here than in Europe, and there are lots of people here to do jam sessions with.
But for me it was a different story. I found a wonderful voice teacher and a good choir to sing in, but I missed the strong Dutch tradition of hearing and performing Bach’s Passions in the weeks before Easter. I used to have my biggest bouts of homesickness around that time of year. The heartache was softened only by it being my most favorite blooming season in California: the few weeks when two native trees, the purple Western Redbud (Cercis Occidentalis) and the blue-violet wild lilac (Ceanothus) bloom at the same time. The photos here don’t really capture how beautiful those colors are and how stunning it is when you see them together in the landscape, but it is something that makes me very happy.
Last year I didn’t have any homesickness, because all Passions in the Netherlands or Belgium I could have attended or participated in were canceled, so I didn’t feel I was missing anything. And while the world locked down, at the same time it became more accessible to me, because performances were now being moved to the internet. This meant I could watch the dress rehearsal of Herreweghe’s St. John Passion without the 11-hour plane ride or the struggle with jet lag. (That video registration is still available: find it here – scroll a bit down to where it says “Passions 2020”).
This year there were so many online St. Matthew or St. John Passion offerings from the Netherlands it was almost overwhelming. I didn’t have time to listen to all of them before writing this today, because most of the videos didn’t go live until yesterday, Good Friday. So I’ll just focus on a few that stood out to me.
Find the English translations of the St. John Passion here; the St. Matthew Passion here.
In the category “most interactive creation” I would like to mention the St. John Passion by Zing als vanZelf. An initiative of online singing instructor Bert van de Wetering, this organization invited thousands of singers to record themselves singing the chorales at home in the weeks leading up to Good Friday. They then recorded a performance with professional soloists singing the arias and the choruses with the excellent Combattimento Consort (Cynthia Miller Freivogel, concertmaster) as the orchestra, this all under the direction of Pieter Dirksen. Then they edited all this together into a video where you see the performance from a pretty church in a small town in the Netherlands, but every time there is a chorale you see the “choir” of individual volunteer singers pieced together on the screen. A really clever and touching solution. Watch it here. If you enjoy it, please consider making a donation, similar to what you would have paid if you would have attended this in person. The link for that is right there under the video.
For readers who understand Dutch and would like to learn more about the St. Matthew Passion, I highly recommend the video program from the organization that every year brings performances of this masterpiece to the beautiful Bergkerk in the city of Deventer. This year they recorded four arias from the St. Matthew Passion, in the order they appear in the second half of the work: “Erbarme dich” (sung by countertenor Maarten Engeltjes), “Aus Liebe” (sung by soprano Renate Arends), “Komm, süßes Kreuz” (sung by bass Florian Just), and “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (sung by bass Marc Pantus). What I liked best about this video is the conversations director Klaas Stok has with each soloist before they sing their aria. Through these conversations, I gained a lot of new insights into the meaning of the different arias. I especially loved what Klaas Stok had to say about the architecture of the piece, the role each aria plays in the overall structure, and how different movements are connected. Of all the talks, I particularly enjoyed bass Marc Pantus’ take on “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,” the final aria on the program. You can watch this until April 14. Just click here. But please note, it is all in Dutch. Again, a link to donate is right there under the video.
Last but not least, the most impressive performance I listened to yesterday and today: The St. John Passion (1725 version) by the Netherlands Bach Society under the direction of René Jacobs. This was shown on Dutch television on Good Friday, so if you don’t understand Dutch, you’ll have to sit through a confusing excerpt from the St. Matthew Passion and a few ads at first, but then you can forward the video 14 minutes, to skip the pre-concert interview with René Jacobs. Soloists are Daniel Johannsen, tenor (Evangelist); Johannes Kammler, bass (Christ); Robin Johannsen, soprano; Alberto Miguélez Rouco, countertenor; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; and Arttu Kataja, bass. There is so much fluidity and phrasing in the orchestra, such a good blend in the choir, as well as excellent enunciation from the choir, it is extraordinary. All the choral movements are extremely transparent, I enjoyed that very much. Jacobs takes some risks with considerably slower tempi in the chorales than is usual in the Historical Performance Practice world, stretching out the pauses in the Evangelist’s recitatives, and taking long fermatas on ending notes, but it is never old-fashioned or too Romantic. It makes for a very engaging, one of a kind performance. All soloists are wonderful, but I would like to give a shout-out to the two tenors: Daniel Johannsen for being an excellent Evangelist, and Thomas Hobbs for his fabulous “Zerschmettert mich” aria (one of the arias that is not in the better known, 1724 version). Donate to the Netherlands Bach Society here.
If you don’t feel like listening to any Passion music anymore, please find my three Easter blog posts from previous years through the following links:
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).
Hello everyone. I hope you are all safe and well. Thank you for reading this blog, and a warm welcome to all of you who started following recently. Bach wrote three cantatas for this Sunday:
In Weimar, in 1714, Bach wrote Cantata 61 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. This one I remember the best from my childhood, because my mother loved Seppi Kronwitter’s singing of the soprano aria on the Harnoncourt recording. Read about it here.
In Leipzig, in 1724, Bach wrote Cantata 62 Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. My most recent writing about this cantata is from last week, not for this blog, but for that of California Bach Society. Find it here.
Since the release of Herreweghe’s recording in 1997 I have been in love with the opening chorus of Cantata 62. For me, nothing says “Christmas is coming” more strongly to me than this music. And yes, Bach wrote two Advent cantatas with the same title. You better not mix them up when you have been engaged to sing the bass solos. Read a story about that here. If you would like to learn more about this opening chorus, or even sing along to it yourself, I encourage you to sign up for California Bach Society’s free workshop on this cantata this coming Saturday, December 5, at 11 am Pacific Time, on Zoom.
In 1731, Bach transformed a secular birthday cantata from 1725 into Cantata 36 Schwingt freudig euch empor. Read about it here. My favorite interpretation of the soprano aria is by Nuria Rial. I first heard Nuria Rial sing on the German radio station WDR3, exactly one month after my mother passed away in 2010. I was staying at my parents’ house in the Netherlands with my kids. My mother had always preferred the German classical music station over the Dutch one, especially for their Early music programming, so WDR3 was pre-programmed into my parents’ fancy equipment. The radio host played a piece from this album, and I was mesmerized. After it was over I went on Facebook and told all my singer friends (that’s why I still know what day it was). But I didn’t find out about her live recording of the soprano aria from Cantata 36 with the J.S. Bach Foundation until 2014.
I always write about bass arias around this time of year (see this post). But let’s not forget about the tenor arias. As I’ve said before, I believe that Bach wrote some of his best trio sonatas in the form of tenor arias. Wonderful examples of this are the following tenor arias from the Fall of 1724:
from Cantata 78, sung here by Howard Crook on the Herreweghe recording from 1988
from Cantata 5, sung here by Raphael Höhn with the J.S. Bach Foundation
from Cantata 38, sung here by Johannes Kaleschke with the J.S. Bach Foundation — this is the “consolation” aria I mentioned in my previous blog post.
And for today, the 23rd Sunday after Trinity, the fabulous tenor aria from Cantata 139 Wohl dem, der sich auf seinen Gott, sung here by Johannes Kaleschke with the J.S. Bach Foundation. When I looked at the text of this aria again today, I realized that if Cantata 139 were an opera, this aria would be Joe Biden’s:
Gott ist mein Freund; was hilft das Toben, So wider mich ein Feind erhoben! Ich bin getrost bei Neid und Hass. Ja, redet nur die Wahrheit spärlich, Seid immer falsch, was tut mir das? Ihr Spötter seid mir ungefährlich.
God is my friend; what use is all the raging that an enemy has raised against me! I am consoled in the midst of envy and hate. Yes, though you speak the truth only rarely, though you are always false, what is that to me? You scoffers are to me no danger.
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.
At the end of a two-week trip to Italy in the summer of 2018 (my family’s first visit to that country), we would have only one afternoon and night in Florence. After booking our hotel in a neighborhood a good friend had recommended, I saw on Google maps that the hotel was around the corner from a church called Santa Maria del Carmine.
The name rang a bell, but I didn’t immediately realize why. Then I started searching my blog, and yes: there it was, the fresco of TheHealing of the Cripple, from the Brancacci Chapel in that church, in my blog post from 2016 about Cantata 48. After seeing a lot of art in other cities in Italy and with a big train trip ahead of us, we decided to have this be the only art we would go see in Florence, and save the rest for another trip. It was a good decision, because this way I could really let it sink in that I was seeing these frescos in real life, and this way we had some time left to eat ice cream, rest, see the sun set over the city, and enjoy a good meal.
In my blog post from 2016, I recommended Herreweghe’s recording of Cantata 48Ich elender Mensch. (from 1723), and I still stand by that choice. Find all the links to the recording, a comparison with the St. Matthew Passion, and my explanation of the silver lining in the opening chorus here.
One year later, in 2017, I wrote about Cantata 5, Wo soll ich fliehen hin? which Bach wrote for this same 19th Sunday after Trinity, in 1724. Since then, I have a new favorite recording of this cantata: the excellent 2018 performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation that was released to YouTube in April 2019. You can find that video here. Soloists are: Soprano: Mirjam Berli; Alto: Jan Börner; Tenor: Raphael Höhn; Bass: Manuel Walser; Violin: Eva Borhi; Tromba da tirarsi: Patrick Henrichs.
Find the German text with English translation of Cantata 5 here, and the score here.
For a list of the bass arias with trumpet the Leipzig congregations would have heard between June 1723 (when Bach started working in Leipzig) and October 1724 (when he wrote Cantata 5), including links for listening, read my blog post from 2017 here.
This is an extended lesson, in several steps, but please bear with me, it’s worth it and you get to watch or listen to some excellent videos. Happy learning and listening!
This 16th Sunday after Trinity seems to be “chorale Sunday” for Bach. His cantatas for this Sunday (161, 95, 8, and 27) either contain a high number of chorales, or are centered around an important chorale. Read for example about the four (!) chorales in Cantata 95 Christus, der ist mein Leben from 1723 in this blog post. Already in 1716, in Weimar, Bach put great emphasis on the chorale in the first cantata he ever wrote for this Sunday, Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde.
Why this stress on chorales? In his book about Anna Magdalena Bach, David Yearsley suggests it has something to do with widows. The Bible story for this Sunday is the Resurrection of the Widow of Nain’s son. Based on contemporary sermons, Yearsley concludes that this 16th Sunday after Trinity was seen as some sort of National Widow Day, and wonders why no Bach scholar ever discusses this in relation to these cantatas. On page 207 of his book, he says: “Even by Bachian standards, this group of cantatas is dense with chorales, the singing of which was one crucial way for widows to make their lives bearable; melodies and texts buttressed single women’s emotional well-being and held off melancholy.”
The crucial role the chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End (My heart is filled with longing to pass away in peace) plays in Cantata 161 Komm, du süße Todesstunde from 1716 brings me to Part II of my review of the All Souls production by the Netherlands Bach Society in the Fall of 2019, guest-directed by Alex Potter. (Part I is here). That program included the absolute best performance of Cantata 161 I have ever heard. Unfortunately, none of the performances were recorded.
I will discuss two good alternatives for recordings later, but first I would like to introduce* Alex Potter with this video by the Netherlands Bach Society. In this video, Potter talks about the countertenor voice, and explains how he came to be a countertenor. It’s a lovely and very accessible interview. But for me, the best are the snippets of rehearsals for the All Souls program. It’s cold comfort for the absence of a complete All of Bach recording, but for a few seconds, you can see Potter perform the alto recitative from Cantata 161 with the superb band he had put together for this : the dramatic so schlage doch section around 1’38” and the start of the recitative around 7’12”. Other singers in this recording are Dorothee Mields, soprano; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; and Stephan McLeod, bass.
The chorale Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End features prominently in the opening movement of Cantata 161, is referred to in the tenor aria, and then comes back in the final movement. It was an important chorale for Bach, and he used it often. Watch this 3-minute explanation by organist Matthias Havinga on how earthly misery gets replaced by heavenly paradise in the chorale prelude (BWV 727) of the same name, also written in Weimar. **
Potter wanted to make absolutely sure that the Netherlands Bach Society audience members, who all have St. Matthew Passion running through their veins, would not hear this tune as O Haupt voll Blut und wunden:
“It is NOT ‘O Haupt’ – indeed in hymnals from the time, ‘O Haupt’ is often listed to be sung to the melody of ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’,” he explained a few days after the concerts, when I had written him to ask about some of his choices.
By the time Bach repeated this cantata in Leipzig, probably sometime in the late 1720s or in the 1730s, O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden had become much better known, and Bach might have had a similar concern as Alex Potter had in 2019: he wanted to make sure the congregation would have the correct chorale, and thus the correct message in mind.
In the original Weimar version from 1716, the chorale melody in the opening chorus was played, without words, on the organ. Listeners would have heard the words in their heads. For a wonderful example of this version, listen to Herreweghe’s recording here on YouTube, or here on Spotify. Soloists on this recording are Matthew White, countertenor, and Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor.
Bach’s later Leipzig solution: He replaced the organ part with a soprano part, using the first verse of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. For an example of this version, with all sopranos singing the chorale, watch the live performance by the J.S. Bach Foundation here on YouTube. Please note another typical Leipzig change here: recorders were replaced by the more fashionable transverse flutes. Soloists in this recording are Alex Potter, countertenor, and Daniel Johanssen, tenor.
It makes that you hear these two texts at the same time, which is very special:
Komm, du süße Todesstunde, Da mein Geist Honig speist Aus des Löwen Munde; Mache meinen Abschied süße, Säume nicht, Letztes Licht, Dass ich meinen Heiland küsse.
Come, sweet hour of death, when my spirit feeds on honey from the lion’s mouth; make my departure sweet, do not delay, last light so that I may kiss my saviour.
Herzlich tut mich verlangen nach einem sel’gen End; weil ich hie bin umfangen mit Trübsal und Elend. Ich hab Lust abzuscheiden von dieser argen Welt; sehn mich noch ew’gen Freuden: o Jesu, komm nur bald.
My heart is filled with longing To pass away in peace; For woes are round me thronging, And trials will not cease. O fain would I be hasting From thee, dark world of gloom, To gladness everlasting; O Jesus, quickly come!
Alex Potter’s 2019 solution: Use the soprano part from the Leipzig version, sung solo by the incomparable Dorothee Mields, but keep the recorders from the Weimar version.
A pragmatic solution, as Potter explained partly in the program book: recorder player Benny Aghassi was available; partly in his message to me: “I think that for a modern audience having the voice cut through a bit more makes it clearer – also with the text. I also think that any opportunity to hear more Dorothee Mields is worth it, and I got to sing with her as an added bonus.”
It turned out to be a brilliant one. If you have ever watched and heard Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter sing a duet, you know that that is pure heaven. I also truly prefer the somewhat more penetrating sound of recorders over the sweet tones of the flutes in all the movements of this cantata that they appear in (alto aria, alto recitative, chorus, and closing chorale), but especially in the illustration of the death bells in the text “so schlage doch, du letzter Stundenschlag!” (therefore sound, stroke of the last hour!)***
And, in those concerts in the Netherlands in 2019, we got to hear even more Dorothee Mields. In an extra effort to set the audience up with the correct chorale, Alex Potter had her sing Johann Hermann Schein’s setting of Herzlich tut mich verlangen right before the cantata started. Especially in the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague on Sunday November 3 this was an event: She stood in a very humble location behind the stage, almost tucked into a corner next to the stairs leading up to the pulpit, hidden from view for probably half the audience. Then, during the instrumental introduction to the Bach cantata, she very slowly climbed the stairs to the pulpit, and then sang the chorale from there during the opening aria. It was as Bach intended: to die for.
Update from 2021: there now is an extremely inspired Herreweghe recording with Dorothee Mields and Alex Potter singing this opening movement together, i.e. Herreweghe adopting Potter’s idea from 2019. I was so happy to see this. It was recorded live at De Singel in Antwerp on Sunday January 31, 2021 (during the Covid19 pandemic, so without audience). Find it here.
I mentioned before that Herzlich tut mich verlangen is also referenced in the tenor aria. It is not just with the word “Verlangen” in the text, but also with the “figura suspirans” (or longing in the music, as explained in the organ video of Matthias Havinga mentioned above) that is present here too, in the tenor part as well in the violin part. The effect Shunske Sato’s longing style of playing had on Thomas Hobbs’ singing in this aria was out of this world. Thomas Hobbs really needs a shout-out for his role in this All Souls production, even though I’m writing this so long after the fact. I’ve seen him several times in concerts with Herreweghe, and his stage presence has always been an inspiration to me, but I was especially impressed by his singing in these performances. The way he sang the sentence “Der blasse Tod ist meine Morgenröte” in the tenor recitative of Cantata 161 was unrivaled. And in the first half of the program, Hobbs and his laser-beam long notes were the star of Rosenmüller’s Dies Irae and the Gregorian Requiem that preceded it.
Wieneke Gorter, September 26, 2020, updated February 13, 2021.
* Since I first heard Alex Potter live in 2018, I have written many posts about his extraordinary interpretations of Bach’s music. You can find most of them by typing Alex Potter into the search bar at the top of this post. The top three, in my humble opinion, are here, here, and here.
** Find the video of the entire organ prelude (BWV 727) here.
***Bach illustrates death bells in instrumentation, often using flutes, but sometimes only pizzicato strings, in cantatas 73, 8, 95, 105, 127, and 198.