It may seem odd to include a work titled as an Oratorio amongst the cantatas but there is considerable justification for doing so, if one considers the origin of the piece. The original composition was the laudatory cantata BWV 249a written for the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weißenfels. The music from this cantata was then re-used for a sacred cantata for Easter Sunday 1725. Then came the secular cantata BWV 249b for Count Joachim Friedrich von Flemming and finally, in the early 1730's, Bach revised the score of the sacred version, titled it Oratorio and gave us the work that we so love today.
The work opens with a wonderful two part sinfonia-and-adagio. The former is gloriously upbeat and uplifting, the latter contemplative and spiritual. An introduction that promises one of Bach's finest works. The excellent first chorus (originally a duet) turns the tempo back up calling us to contemplate the empty tomb of Jesus. In the first recitative, Mary Magdalene, Mary (the mother of Jesus), Peter and John bemoan their loss and Jesus's mother (soprano) continues the theme in her quietly beautiful aria accompanied by a fine flute line. In the next recitative, Peter (tenor), John (bass) and Mary Magdalene (alto) find the stone moved aside and the sepulchre, leading Mary Magdalene to understand what has happened. This introduces one of the highest points of Bach's inspiration: Peter's aria Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer (Softly now my fear of death). This is simply one of the most gloriously beautiful pieces of music ever written. A gentle and evocative melody woven through with delicate tendrils of accompaniment. The next recitative sees the two Mary's sighing in thirds and Mary Magdalene asks where Jesus is in her more urgent, upbeat aria. John affirms Jesus's resurrection in the final recitative and the final chorus ends the oratorio with a glorious song of praise.
This outstanding work is suffused with the spirit of the dance. The fifth movement is a tempo di minuetto, the seventh a bourée, the nineth a gavotte and the eleventh a gigue. In addition to this, the opening three movements may well have been adapted from lost concerti. Hidden delights indeed.
Copyright © 1999, Simon Crouch.