Notes and Editorial Reviews
An excellent introduction to Bach's cantatas. Even those collecting complete sets such as those by Suzuki or Koopman would find this inexpensive set an excellent pendant.
This set of cantatas covers a large part of Bach’s compositional career, from his time as organist at Mühlhausen, in his early twenties, to his first years as cantor in Leipzig. Other than an observation in the notes that these works “belie the image of the stern, aged contrapuntalist of popular myth”, there seems to be no connection – of season, theme or soloist – between them. In the light of such themed collections – some of Herreweghe’s own recordings for Harmonia Mundi, for example – and completed or ongoing cycles of the cantatas, it would be easy for the present set to be ignored.
Please do not ignore it. For a minimal outlay (around £9 or even less in the UK) here be treasure indeed – two hours of it. These are excellent performances, excellently recorded, utterly absorbing. My only criticism, as usual with this series, is that the notes are minimal – about one page each in English, French and German. The French notes are not a translation of the English, as the German notes are: they are actually more informative, listing, for example, the Sundays on which the cantatas were performed.
There is a note to say that sung texts are available online at www.virginclassics.com, but I’ve been down that road before and never managed to find the promised goodies. The same goes for promises of finding librettos at the emiclassics parent site. In any case, there are several sites where information about, texts and scores of the Bach cantatas, in German and in translation, may be found. A good place to start is bachcantatas.com.
To begin with Cantata 131 on this site. Here you will discover that the text is taken from Psalm 130 (‘Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord’) with the central stanzas from Bartholomäus Ringwaldt, that the cantata was composed at Mühlhausen in 1707, and you will be able to download the German text, several English translations and versions in other languages, the vocal score, in German and English, with piano accompaniment, commentaries by various eminent commentators, etc. (Be warned that the music is contained in quite a large file – 49 pages – and that the English in the score is a paraphrase, designed to be sung, not an exact translation.) There are also links to all current CDs containing this cantata – including the current Herreweghe set. If you follow this hyperlink, you will also be able to find similar information relating to the other cantatas on these CDs.
If, as is generally believed, this is the earliest of Bach’s cantatas to have survived, what a wonderfully developed work it is. Just as Sibelius in his first two symphonies is clearly influenced by Tchaikovsky but is already recognisably ‘Sibelian’, so, too, in this early work Bach is wholly himself. Though the occasion was probably penitential – marking a disastrous fire – it certainly does not sound morbid. Despite being in a minor key, even the opening words, ‘Out of the depths …”, marked adagio, are set reflectively rather than mournfully and in the sinfonia which precedes them, the oboe sounds placid rather than plaintive. Significantly, though the words are cries from the depths, it is the highest voices, sopranos and altos, who enter first. At letter C the tempo changes to vivace – a confident, not a despairing call to the Lord to hear. At letter F, the bass and the choral sopranos duet on the words ‘If thou, Lord, shalt count our sins ..” the tempo changes to andante but the mood remains positive. The soprano melody, based on Ringwaldt’s chorale ‘Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut’, necessarily sounds slower – and calmer? – because the minims and semibreves of the chorale contrast with the bass’s quavers and semiquavers – a prayer for mercy set against the expectation of forgiveness. Even the words ‘am Holz mit Todes-schmerzen’, referring to the atoning suffering of Jesus on the cross, are not dwelled upon: this was music for a Lutheran congregation, not a Calvinist one.
The section beginning as adagio (letter K) soon changes to largo (letter L) and is reflective rather than morbid. The marking lento at the beginning of the tenor/choral altos duet (10 bars before letter O) appears to be editorial but appears to be appropriate for this section in which the male soloist again expresses confidence while the alto melody is again based on ‘Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut’. The Fugue which concludes the work (from letter V) with the promise of release from sin matches the vivace fugue at the end of the opening chorus and is dance-like in character. This final section progresses from adagio (letter T) via un poc’allegro a mere three bars later, adagio again (U), allegro (9 bars later) to the fugue itself (V).
I have analysed this cantata in some detail because my view of it is at odds in some respects with the commentaries on the website to which I have referred. These commentaries use such terms as ‘plaintive’, ‘profoundly penitential’, ‘predominantly sober’, ‘sombre’, ‘anxious’ and ‘trembling’. These qualities do exist in the music, but in a subordinate role: the overall tone is hopeful and Herreweghe’s performance rightly subordinates the negative qualities to the positive. It would hardly be possible to imagine a performance which more exactly chimed with my interpretation of the mood of this cantata – or, indeed, of Bach’s religious music as a whole. Even in the closing sections of the great Passions the mood conjured by the music is reflective rather than mournful – the ‘sure and certain hope’ of the moderate reform tradition against the anxiety of the puritan, forever uncertain whether he is one of the elect.
In his early years at Leipzig, Bach continued to employ some of the techniques he had used at Mühlhausen – the interwoven chorale, employed in Cantata 131, is found again in Cantatas 93 and 107 on this set – but, miraculously, he even managed to improve on what was already near-perfection. Invidious as it is to single out one work, 105 would probably have the greatest appeal, especially in such an excellent performance.
The final cantata, ‘Why art thou so troubled?’, was composed in Leipzig in 1724 for the 7th Sunday after Trinity: the Epistle for that day (Rom.6 19-23) speaks of the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life, while the Gospel (Mark 8 1-9) deals with the feeding of the four thousand. The text is not from either of these readings but relates to them – a hymn by the Lutheran pastor Johann Heermann (1585-1647) on the theme of trust in God. The score for this cantata is less unwieldy (24 pages) with the text in German only: English and other translations are also available on the main page for this cantata. Once again Herreweghe’s performance captures the mood of this cantata excellently, as it does of the other five cantatas on these discs.
The solo vocal contributions are all first-class: neither here nor in the choral singing did I find any cause for criticism. The minimal notes do not indicate the size of the chorus but it clearly represents a compromise between the one-voice-to-a-part position and the over-large choir. The orchestra, too, is an ideal size; both it and the chorus perform excellently. The recording is also excellent. With works spanning a wide range of Bach’s output, from the conservatism of the one Mühlhausen work to his second Leipizg cycle – though there is nothing here for the major festivals – this set would serve as an ideal introduction to the cantatas.
These recordings of the cantatas are also available on a 4-CD set together with the short Lutheran Masses in equally fine performances. At even less than twice the price of the current 2-CD set (around £13 in the UK) some may prefer to obtain the cantatas in this form (5 61721 2). One small word of warning: I have seen the acoustic for the Masses described as over-reverberant.
Two other Virgin Veritas 2-CD sets of Bach’s choral music offer excellent value: the Magnificat, Easter Oratorio and Cantatas 4, 11/249b and 50 with the Taverner Consort and Players/Parrott on 5 61647 2 and Cantatas 51, 82a, 84, 199, 202 and 209 with Nancy Argenta and the Ensemble Sonnerie/Huggett on 5 61644 2. My recommendation of all three sets is the more cogent for the fact that none of them came to me as review copies: they were all purchased by me and I listen to them and the many other Bach cantatas in my collection regularly – an excellent way to end a hectic day. You can’t go wrong with a Bach cantata. Remember that their original liturgical function provided a similar welcome break in the middle of the 4-hour-long Hauptgottesdienst or main Sunday service in Leipzig.
There are also good 2-CD bargain recordings of the B-minor Mass and the St Matthew Passion from Virgin Classics but for these works my loyalty to the excellent Archiv/Gardiner sets is unshaken. And these are available unbelievably inexpensively, together with the Christmas Oratorio and St John Passion in a 9-CD box set, 469 769 2.
Those who are bitten by the Bach cantata bug, as I have long been, may wish to go for one of the complete or near-complete sets currently available or ongoing from Gardiner, Koopman, Suzuki or the older DG/Richter, Hänssler/Rilling and Telefunken/Harnoncourt/Leonhardt editions. Whilst I have some discs from all these series in my collection, I continue to resist putting all my eggs in one basket: these works lend themselves to a variety of performing styles. Two of the cantatas on this Herreweghe set, for example, nos. 39 and 93, are also on Karl Richter’s set of Ascension-Whitsun-Trinity Cantatas (439 380 2, 6 CDs for around £32) and, while it is true that, as expected, the Richter versions are slower (slightly slower in 39, more so in 93) they are still excellent within their own terms, with splendid singing from the likes of Edith Mathis and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
-- Brian Wilson, MusicWeb International