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.
Entry of Christ into Jerusalem by Pietro di Giovanni d’Ambrogio, 1435-1440. Pinacoteca Stuard, Parma, Italy.
Following Bach’s cantata writing in 1725, we have now come to Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, an oh so pretty composition with two horns in the orchestra, also the very last of Bach’s 1724/1725 cycle of chorale cantatas. And Bach probably knew that when he was writing it. It is based on the chorale about the Morning Star, a metaphor for Christ.
The recording of this cantata I like best is the one by Montreal Baroque, with soprano Monika Mauch, counter-tenor Matthew White, tenor Charles Daniels, and bass Stephan MacLeod. Please find it here in my playlist on Spotify. If you don’t have access to Spotify, you can purchase the album here on Amazon or listen to Harnoncourt’s recording on YouTube.
This cantata was the first I ever wrote about. It was in college, as an assignment for Frits de Haen: we had to compare a modern-instrument and a period-instrument recording of a piece of our choice. I don’t remember why I selected this cantata. At the time the only period-instrument recording I had was the one by Harnoncourt. Frits loved the review I wrote (in Dutch) and kept giving me nudges to write more. For several years in a row after that first review I wrote for his class, I would run into him at the Utrecht Early Music Festival or at another concert, and he would always ask “are you still writing?” or “why aren’t you writing?” and told me that I should really write every day or every week. His words have always stayed with me and are one of several reasons why I started writing this blog in January 2016.
You might think it is because of Palm Sunday that there was music in the Leipzig churches again on this Sunday. However, in Leipzig Palm Sunday was firmly part of Lent (the 40 days of introspection before Easter): no thinking beyond the crucifixion until Good Friday, and thus not celebrated with music. Or was it?
An exception was always made for the Annunciation of Mary: if that day, March 25, fell within Lent, it would still be celebrated, an thus Bach could write a cantata for that day.
The only surviving Bach cantatas for the Annunciation of Mary, Cantata 182 Himmelskönig, sei wilkommen from 1714** and Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern from 1725 were written for days when this holiday fell on Palm Sunday. And perhaps not surprisingly, both these cantatas are also very much Palm Sunday cantatas, or at least Bach’s librettist interprets the Annunciation as yet another announcement of the arrival of Christ. The references to the coming of Christ outnumber the references to Mary, in the text as well as in the music.
I think it is striking that in Cantata 1 Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern Bach uses a chorale that was so strongly associated with the Christmas season, and writes music that is festive and perhaps even regal, but at the same time humble, with horns in the orchestra instead of the trumpets and timpani he would have used for a bigger holiday. Whether he was indeed illustrating the Palm Sunday story (a humble king entering Jerusalem, riding on a donkey) I don’t know, but it is very well possible.
For the first Sunday after Trinity in 1724, June 11: Cantata 20 O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort: French Overture, with cantus firmus in the soprano
For the second Sunday after Trinity in 1724, June 18: Cantata 2 Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein: Chorale motet, cantus firmus in alto.
For the Feast of St. John in 1724, Saturday June 24: Cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam: Italian concerto, cantus firmus in tenor.
For the third Sunday after Trinity in 1724, June 25: Cantata 135 : Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder: Chorale fantasia, cantus firmus in bass.
The Feast of St. John, celebrating the birth of St. John the Baptist, always falls on June 24 (exactly six months before Jesus’ birth). Read more about this feast day in my blog post from last year. This means that in 1724, this date came *after* the second Sunday after Trinity, while of course this year (2017) it came *before* that date.
Because I’m trying to follow the order in which Bach wrote his cantatas in 1724, I did not write about this cantata this past Saturday, but feel it should be presented within the order Bach wrote them in: between this past Sunday and next Sunday. So after the French Overture in cantata 20 and the chorale motet in cantata 2, Bach now presents you with an Italian concerto in this cantata 7 Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam. The performance I like best is the one by Montreal Baroque, because of the opening movement and because of Charles Daniels singing the tenor aria. Other soloists are Daniel Taylor, countertenor, and Stephan MacLeod, bass. You can enjoy this performance here on YouTube. The phrasing of the orchestra is beautiful and overall this recording is much more thoughtful and satisfying to me than many others I listened to.
Find the German text with English translation of this cantata here, and the score here.