These CDs comprise the first two volumes of a projected complete traversal of Bach's 200-plus cantatas. I admit I haven't heard all of them, but over the years I've performed quite a few and probably have more scores of these things than any other in my pitifully small music library. I remember Harnoncourt's epochal march through and used to buy the LPs as soon as they appeared. It was a landmark of the stereo era, and, what's more, we knew so at the time. At first, each volume seemed like a wonderful new present, but I pooped out long before Harnoncourt and dropped back into buying only those sets with cantatas I knew, for reasons I hope will become clear. Other than money, what stopped me was my realization of the near-Shakespearean variety of the cantatas – musical and dramatic.
To me, the cantatas represent the essential Bach, just as plays (rather than sonnets) represent the essential Shakespeare. They are, among other things, teaching pieces, out of a tradition of religion-cum -entertainment that stretches back at least to the medieval mystery plays. Illiteracy spread across all classes, the ability to read and write seen as a special skill of part of the middle class or of the Church. Luther's Bible (and, later, Tyndall's) in the vernacular may have made it possible for each man to be his own priest, but until the Reformation, reading was taught mainly to priests – others educated catch-as-catch-can, usually within a family or, in scattered enlightened communities, through the office of a local priest. Some Church officials thought the spread of reading among the laity dangerous, and several documents from many European countries report reprimands, excommunications, and burnings (people and books) for teaching others to read. Protestant church schools, however, greatly and effectively expanded the franchise, although not necessarily to, say, women.
Consequently, imparting doctrine had to come from means other than the written word. Bach's cantatas stand firmly among those pedagogical means. The texts put doctrine into basic dramatic terms: the battle for the soul, God as lover and bridegroom, the weight of sin, Christ's Passion, the soul's pilgrimage, and so on. Although I've heard educated Germans sneer at them, I find the cantata texts remarkable not only in their formal variety and in their range of dramatic invention, but in their vivid clarity as well. The dramatic incarnations of doctrine are both imaginative and basic: Christ as St. George slaying the old dragon, the lover anxiously awaiting the beloved, Jacob wrestling with the angel, and more. From these texts, Bach builds a similar variety of instrumental and choral textures and an arsenal of dramatic musical expression (within a cantata as well as among cantatas) – following Luther, including pop tunes – and we shouldn't forget these texts as the triggers for musical inspiration. The modern-day fundamentalist and revivalist movement shares many of these aims and expressive devices.
In the beginning is the word. The performers of Bach's cantatas ignore or misinterpret the text at their peril. An "all-purpose" approach to the cantatas will not do, for it denies their variety of invention. Nor will a reading which fails to demonstrate the dramatic brilliance and precision of Bach's choral and instrumental treatments. A "one-to-a-part" approach, fine for certain cantatas, applied across the board can't begin to transmit the textural variety. Just think of the four distinct planes of sound in BWV 106's duet "In deiner Hände" – continuo, violin, alto, bass, and treble chorus. Yet a post-Berlioz orchestra and elephantine chorus drowns out the individual lines. Furthermore, a relentless solemnity won't do for the celebratory cantatas, just as a light, chipper approach misses the weight of the "Passion" cantatas. Overall, Harnoncourt comes closer than anybody to conveying this diversity, but even he doesn't strike gold every time. Rilling, for reasons I don't understand, gets praised for what strikes me as an unimaginative, homogenous approach. Richter does better at conveying the drama, but even so one cantata sounds like another much of the time. An integral set of cantatas poses a supreme test of musical insight and interpretation – the same sort of difficulty as an integral set of Beethoven symphonies squared.
I first encountered Koopman as a conductor of the Brandenburgs. The musicians were splendid, achieving beautiful tone and little miracles of clarity. The interpretations, however, were uninvolving. Casals's idiosyncratic, out-of-style account generated more excitement than Koopman's scruples. To a great extent, that continues here. One nice thing about the set is the inclusion of alternate versions of various movements as "appendices." You can hear not only Bach's first or second thoughts, but also his adjustments to different performing conditions. Koopman pays a great deal of attention to tone and balance and, what's more, has the players and singers to back him up. These are bright, "pretty" performances. However, Koopman shows almost no understanding of the text. He's either happy or sad, at times inappropriately, and seems unable to find textural variety. Whatever interpretive juice flows through these performances come mainly from the soloists.
More specific points on each cantata follow.
Cantata #21 "Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis" ("I had much grief"): One of the great ones. The work falls into two large parts, reflecting the two main moods of most of the texts: the soul is overcome with sorrow, which transforms into joy because of God's grace. The opening sinfonia, slow and solemn, features a wonderfully expressive oboe soloist, (I assume) Marcel Ponseele, who puts out a long, intense line. The following chorus – ("I had much grief in my heart; but Your consolations restore my soul") begins with one of Bach's expressive wallops – three broken repetitions of the word "I" ("ich"), as if the persona were so afflicted with sorrows he had trouble even telling them. As one can see, the text splits neatly into two parts, and Bach creates two sections: the first, continuing the mood of the sinfonia; the second, much quicker. Both pivot about the word "aber" ("but"). Bach, in yet another brilliant stroke, brings all movement to a halt by having the full choir declaim each syllable on a long note. In both cases, Koopman lets the brilliant word-painting go by. The moments are matter-of-fact. The pivot is an emotional pivot as well, which we can see in the text, but Koopman's choir continues rather po'-faced in the second part, with the same emotional affect as the first.
A heartbreaking soprano aria follows – "Seufzer, Tränen, Kummer, Not" ("Sighs, tears, care, distress"), in which the soloist tells of sickness of soul. The oboe soloist here surpasses even his work in the Sinfonia. I was about to write that Barbara Schlick, the soprano, delivers a lesson to other singers, but that sounds way too dry. Her voice isn't a large one or particularly pretty, but the beauty she gets lies outside the reach of most vocalists. It reminds me a bit of Elly Ameling. She has an extremely flexible line: she seems capable of anything, any dynamic, any degree of emphasis at any moment without losing the forward impulse of the music. The dissonances in her part (for the technically-minded, the suspensions) receive different amounts of emphases, and the meaning of the text at that moment determines the stress. Her handling of ornament is both various and alive to the moment. She lets the listener know that ornament isn't simply a vocal hoop for the singer to jump through, but an expressive device.
In most performances, recitative usually marks time until the next chorus or aria comes along. That's a mistake, since Bach usually lavishes great invention on his. In fact, for his didactic purpose, the recitative usually carries the burden of the theological argument and thus for him assumes an increasing importance. As marvelous as the preceding aria was, the following soprano recitative absolutely electrifies. "Why have You turned from me, my God, in my need, fear, and trepidation? Don't You know your child? Don't You hear the grieving of those who have bound themselves faithfully to You? For You were my joy and now have become angry with me. I seek You everywhere. I call and cry to You. My woe and grief! It seems now that You know it not." At the two questions, Schlick subtly quickens the tempo and suggests great agitation without great volume. The next phrase ("For You were my joy") she begins wistfully, turning into the hurt lover at the second half of the phrase, all without nudging her elbow in your ribs and moving from one to the other almost imperceptibly.
The aria that follows is one of the most beautiful in Bach's entire catalogue, as the soprano sings of a river of tears and the storms of the soul. I don't quite understand the criticisms of Bach as a vocal writer. The rap usually runs that his vocal writing is really instrumental writing. Actually, in his slow movements, you can make the opposite case equally well. At the beginning, all performers rise to the occasion. For the first time in this account, everyone seems to work at the same level. As the movement continues, however, Barbara Schlick to be carrying everybody else. The instruments are rhythmically poky, delaying slightly the beginnings of their phrases, although they briefly come alive at the storm section.
The first part of the cantata concludes with a magnificent chorus: "Why are you so heavy, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I will thank Him, for He is the help of my countenance and my God." Yet another emotionally bifurcated text. The chorus catches both the agitation and the serenity of the words – one of its finest moments in the whole set. The fugue is pure jubilation. Chorus, soloists, and instruments – everybody dances.
Up until now, Bach has expressed the emotional dichotomy of the text mainly through the use of binary (two-part) forms. Most Baroque composers use binary form most of the time, even in abstract compositions (the aria and each variation of Bach's own Goldberg Variations, for example). Bach's genius connects the abstract form with emotional states in musically-convincing ways. From now on, however, Bach will find other means as well to express not only the separate states of despair and joy, but the movement from one to the other.
Part II opens with a dialogue between Jesus and the soul, and introduces a fabulous baritone, Klaus Mertens, who reminds me of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in his prime. Close your eyes and step into a time machine to thirty years ago. Mertens has a light baritone, probably not big enough for grand opera – just as well, since the subtlety he brings to his singing and phrasing would disappear in a large hall. The duet between soprano, yearning for Jesus, and the baritone, speaking comfort, is another high point, but due almost entirely to the soloists. Here, the intertwining of the voices and the soloists' trading off the musical symbolism of rising and falling half-steps (usually on the words "ja" and "nein" – yes and no – respectively) show the soul in transition. Again, however, Koopman treats the instruments like wallpaper: you know they're there, but they don't really commend themselves to your attention.
"Be satisfied again, my soul, for the Lord gives you blessings." In this chorus, Bach resorts to one of his favorite devices – essentially an aria on an original musical theme set against a pre-existent chorale tune. The effect, as here, places the plight of an individual (aria) in the context of a general wisdom (chorale). The chorale, in this case, is "Was helfen uns die schweren Sorgen" (How do heavy sorrows help us?) and ends with an admonition not to think that God has abandoned us and that God will in time reveal the purpose of His trial. Here, Bach has written both the aria and the chorale for chorus, with three of the four voices moving relatively quickly through the aria and the remaining voice taking the chorale tune (first in the tenor, then in the alto) in long, even notes. Bach also hints at the dichotomy and its resolution by juxtaposing the aria with its free inversion (essentially, he turns the notes upside-down: if the original line goes down, its inversion goes up). Obviously, a lot goes on here, and it imposes a supreme test on a choir to keep everything clear. I like Koopman's general approach. He begins by pitting soprano, alto, and bass soloists against the choral tenors. Then the tenors, followed by the choral sopranos and basses, take over the main motive of the aria, as the altos intone the chorale. This not only provides clarity, but a lovely textural variation. I don't know the validity of such an "arrangement," but it works beautifully indeed. However, Koopman fails to find the right emotional note. It all sounds so dreary. Perhaps it's a matter of making the chorale tune more prominent, but, at any rate, what should come over as serene becomes weepy instead. It's an important point in the overall architecture, as well as in Bach's lesson for the worshippers. It is here that the soul becomes reconciled.
"Erfreue dich, Seele, erfreue dich Herze" (Rejoice, my soul! rejoice, my heart!). From here on out, the cantata jubilates. Schlick flits ecstatically over the vocal line, light as a butterfly. The cellist comes close to matching her, but hesitates slightly at odd solo moments, thus giving the impression of a slight drag on the high spirits.
If the soul rejoices, so does all Christendom in a smashing finale. Instruments, soloists, and choir. "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and praise and glory. Praise and honor and glory and power to our God for ever and ever." Many listeners will recognize this as the final text of Handel's Messiah as well. Handel creates a Georgian monument of praise, Bach an angelic frenzy. The soloists begin the fugal part (second sentence) with miraculous streams of running notes, rhythmic jewels. The chorus gradually takes over without any loss of clarity. The fugue subject is such as requires a "tonal" answer. That is, instead of the second entry exactly repeating the first, one note is changed – for the technically inclined, the 5th note of the scale is lowered to the 4th. I mention it only as another example of how Bach makes conventional technique serve an unconventional expressive purpose. The fugue begins by outlining a simple do-mi-sol-do fanfare, which in the second entry becomes do-mi-fa-do. The wider leap from fa up to do contributes to a ratcheting up of the music's intensity. Eventually, every part seems to spin out rapid lines of alleluias. The fugue subject eventually disintegrates from the choir altogether, although you still catch hints of it in the orchestra, until the choir hits out a final "Lob" (praise), as if to start the fugal subject one last time. Instead, they cut it at the first note, moving right into the amens and alleluias. I doubt heaven's music is this wonderful and Koopman ends with a joyful noise.
Cantata #131 "Aus der Tiefe, rufe ich, Herr, zu dir" ("From the depths, I cry to Thee, Lord"): Bach achieves a tour de force with this setting of Psalm 130 entire, fitting the prose of Luther's Bible to the dance rhythms of the Baroque, as well as to a chiasmic formal structure – chorus/ aria with chorale/ chorus/ aria with chorale/ chorus. Furthermore, the cantata makes its points economically. This should have been a highlight of the collection, but Koopman produces some decidedly mixed results.
We see indications of things going wrong in the opening movement. Koopman misses the emotional weight of the text and creates the sort of "pretty" Bach critics have sniffed at – they imply "pretty, but brainless." Part of the problem may stem from the somewhat quick tempo, combined with the clear, bright sounds of ensemble and chorus. After all, the text runs "Out of the depths I cry to You, Lord. Lord, hear my voice, let Your ears mark the voice of my supplication" – which to me calls for at least a hint of Angst. Nevertheless, within this, Koopman and his chorus offer some very lovely things, notably the subtle handling of dissonance on the word "rufe" ("cry"). At "Herr, höre meine Stimme" (Lord, hear my cry), we return to "pretty" Bach again, but even so Koopman's choir attains a remarkable clarity in passages of extremely close contrapuntal imitation.
"So du willst, Herr, Sünde zurechnen, Herr, wer wird bestehen?" (If You, Lord, mark our sins, who will stand?) A bass aria (with a chorale melody in the chorus) follows. Koopman doesn't manage to solve balance problems among bass, solo oboist, continuo, and choral altos. The altos hold back so much, their words – on the oppressive knowledge of sin – just about disappear. Yet, even here we get more superbly expressive work from the oboist.
The next chorus functions as the structural pivot of the work. Koopman has completely mistaken the text – "I await the Lord, my soul awaits, and I hope in his Word" – missing the yearning in it, expressed musically in a chromatic fugal subject. The choir projects contentment, rather than longing. As a result, the movement becomes uneventful, with little drive, direction, or connection to what follows – pretty much a write-off.
The aria with chorale, "mirroring" the first, pits solo tenor and cello against continuo and choral tenors. The solo tenor's text intensifies the previous verses – "My soul awaits the Lord from one morning-watch to the next" – as the chorus longs for sin's absolution in the blood of Christ. Again, there's a balance problem among the forces, but this time it lies in the solo cello, which fails to stand out from the continuo. The tenor, Guy de Mey, does not have a voice that grabs your attention (as does the bass, Mertens), but in this case it serves to make the chorale more prominent. Nevertheless, the reading fails to match the rhetorical voltage of the text.
The final chorus – an introduction and fugue – succeeds best for the performers. Again, however, the interest comes mainly from the extremely high level of execution, rather than from the reading itself. I note especially the rising chromatic line, taken up by one voice after another, which celebrates the freeing of the soul from sin – kind of like letting the string slip through the fingers before the balloon takes off in the wind. The chorus is a marvel: one can trace the progress of that chromatic line throughout the choir, despite the ornate imitative texture that surrounds it. For some reason, however, Koopman seems to blank out at the very end. One has no sense of arrival at any place other than a sheer drOp. The piece ends abruptly in a quiet, unsatisfying poof.
Cantata #106 "Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit" ("God's time is the best time of all"): I'd call this a remarkable work as far as its form goes, but this won't distinguish it from at least a hundred of its fellows. Bach wrote this predominantly joyous music very likely for a funeral. The joy comes from the promise of resurrection.
The cantata begins with an instrumental sinfonia for two recorders, problematic in many readings. First, the texture in the beginning (in the lower strings) can come across as tubby, particularly in performances which use modern cellos only, rather than Bach's specified mix of cellos and gambas. Second, most of the musical matter splits between two recorders who trade phrases, thus raising the possibility of slight delays in entrances and blend problems. Beyond these technical issues, however, lies the problem of finding the right tone for the sinfonia. In many accounts, time simply passes. Koopman and his forces resolve the difficulties and sing without apparent effort. The slightly more acerbic gamba stands in relief from the cello, the two flutes are just about seamless. In fact, a listener would distinguish two recorders only because at times they sing together in thirds and sixths. Finally, Koopman finds a magic emotional tone, somewhat similar to Gluck's music for the Elysian fields and of perfect suitability here.
A multi-sectional movement comes next. Often Bach, in accordance with normal Baroque ideas of musical structure, divides his choral movements in two (usually slow intro plus fast, imitative main section), but here he cuts up to an extreme I can't find anywhere else in his output, except perhaps in the "Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother." The cantata movement falls into no less than five contrasting parts. The first two are the usual intro and fughetta: "God's time is the best time of all. In him, we live, weave, and are, as long as he wills it." Koopman strikes a right balance between the stateliness of the music and the modesty of his forces – neither the Big Bow-Wow nor the decorous simper – and the long melismata on the word "leben" (live) comes with the happy energy of a springing lamb. Another interesting bit of word-painting comes at the phrase "solange er will" (as long as He wills it), with the syllable "lang" in the sopranos held against quick melismata in the recorders – implying, of course, a very long time indeed. The third section – "In Him, we die at the appointed time, whenever He wills it" – solemn and awe-struck, serves as another introduction, this time to a tenor aria. "Oh, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, until we become wise." In his setting, Bach emphasizes the words "bedenken" and "sterben müssen" (consider, must die), both by making these words arrival points of phrases and through the dissonance of half-step suspensions, respectively. As I've remarked, Guy de Mey, the soloist, hasn't the most gorgeous voice in the world; in fact, it sounds a bit wheezy, and his intonation runs about a quarter-tone flat. Nevertheless, he understands how the aria works. Even so, things get a lift from the bass soloist, Mertens, with his aria, exhorting us to put our "house in order, for you must die and not remain alive." It's a call to arms, and one can easily imagine the main theme on trumpet. The aria has fiendish runs on the word "alive" which leave most singers fighting for breath. Mertens sails through it all without a gasp, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The only reason why this singer isn't better known, I'm convinced, is because he hasn't the voice for opera. Nevertheless, he blows away many big-name baritones on artistry alone. The movement ends with a mournful fugue: "It is the old law: Man, you must die." Koopman again comes up to the mark, both technically and emotionally. The textures are beautifully clear and the effect is almost visual – generation after generation rearing up and withering away with each new subject entry. The soprano (here, the soloist, Barbara Schlick, rather than the usual choral sopranos) provides the emotional pivot to eager joy: "Yes, yes, come, Lord Jesus, come." This combines with the fugal subject and the mourning harmonically transmogrifies to bliss. The end of this complex movement, on the soprano's text, can throw a performance. Those which don't quite come off sound abrupt, pooping out, as Koopman does at the end of Cantata 131. Here, however, he manages a satisfactory conclusion.
We get next a double aria with chorale – one of the finest in the series. The alto (here, a male alto – Kai Wessel) first sings "In your hands, I commend my spirit. You have saved me, Lord, faithful God." Beneath this, the choral women sing the well-known chorale "Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin" (with peace and joy I journey there). Wessel hoots a bit, as opposed to the sweet, incisive tones of Derek Lee Ragin and Brian Asawa, but the balance problems noted in other such movements fail to turn up here. The alto drops out as the chorale continues. At this point, the bass enters with his aria: "Today, today, you shall be with me in Paradise." Mertens is ardent, pushing the metaphor of the bridegroom, as the chorale sings of eternal rest. "Death is my sleep, soft and quiet." We end in that way, with gamba and cello trading phrases.
This is a profound movement. What possibly could top it? Bach comes up with an introductory chorale – a German version of the Gloria patri – followed by double fugue – that is, a fugue with not one, but two subjects, heard simultaneously – based on the notes of the last line of the chorale ("Through Jesus Christ, Amen"). The chorus sounds a bit decorous in the chorale. This is, after all, a hymn of praise. However, the fugue is a wonder of choral singing, with crisp running notes on the "amens," and every entrance telling in its effect. This cantata is obviously one of the Koopman series highlights.
Cantata #196 "Der Herr denket an uns" ("The Lord thinks on us and blesses us"): Scholars believe Bach wrote this work for a wedding. It's lively and light. To reinforce this, Koopman uses a chorus of one-to-a-part, and it works. However, the aria soloists differ from the choral singers and remain his A-team. The only disappointment among the singers is again the tenor, de Mey, who fails to blend with Mertens in their duet. I also quibble with a too-fast tempo in the opening sinfonia, which leads to rushing smaller note values. The ensemble has the chops to handle these passages, but they shouldn't have to call upon them.
Cantata #71 "Gott ist mein König" ("God is my king"): An early work, the cantata was composed for the inauguration of the Mühlhausen town council and thus stands among the "festival" cantatas, also marked by elaborate choruses and extra instruments (most tellingly, brass instruments) added to the ensemble. This class ranks as my favorite among the cantatas, mainly because it appeals to my shallow side. This cantata, by the way, was the only one published in Bach's lifetime. A particularly interesting feature of the cantata is the use of brass and percussion, which tend to break in and up regular rhythmic patterns. The effect reminds me of fireworks going off. Koopman handles the pomp of the festive music, but falls down on the contemplative movements. Either they go by without any distinctive trace or simply sound too dreary for the text. Also, Koopman tends to favor abrupt endings – why, I have no idea. After the fifth or sixth one, it tends to annoy rather than to enlighten.
Cantata #150 "Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich" ("To You, Lord, I lift up my soul"): a penitential cantata, one of the monuments of the series, and probably the oldest Bach cantata extant. It is full of amazing things. A musical symbolism seems at work here, with downward chromatic scales representing the soul weighted with sin and diatonicism representing longing for or trust in God. For some reason, Koopman trims the chorus to one voice to a part and immediately loses emotional as well as musical weight. He also throws away the full range of color written into the piece. Furthermore, he fails to receive extra clarity or incisiveness in compansation.
An introductory instrumental sinfonia lays out the main motive of the first chorus – an octave leap followed by a chromatic descent, all over a rising minor-scale bass. "To You, Lord, I lift up my soul," with the octave leap conveying the lifting and the longing of the soul for God. This music should open like a cavern to the light. While Koopman gets much of this with his small band, he really doesn't achieve the full contrast with the next section, beginning on the words "Mein Gott." A rapid section follows – "I hope in You. Let me not be confounded, that my enemies may not rejoice over me." "Let me not be confounded" is set to a brilliant section of counterpoint which scatters its lines to the four winds – a musical confounding of the counterpoint. The movement ends with a musical motive consisting of several repeated notes followed by a chromatic descent – "That my enemies may not rejoice over me," in German, "Daß sich meine Feinde nicht freuen über mich." The gutterals and aspirants of the German to me call for sharp articulation, but Koopman's choir smooths everything out. This is no battle.
Barbara Schlick once again rescues the situation with her serenely rapturous aria, "Doch bin und bleibe ich vergnügt." "Nevertheless, I am and remain content, though cross, storm, and other trials rage, death hell and what follows. Although misfortune strikes Your faithful servant, there is righteousness, and righteousness will always remain." The storm metaphor is neatly realized by both soloist and ensemble with slightly agitated arpeggios.
The next chorus, "Leite mich in deiner Wahrheit" (Lead me in Your truth) again suffers from the lack of vocal and emotional weight and misses the agitation of the soul daily waiting for God's help. The notes, however, are all there, beautifully sung.
Another remarkable movement follows – this time a trio for alto, tenor, and bass, with a fiendishly difficult virtuoso cello part. "Cedars must suffer hardship in the winds" gives voice to the buffeting storms in the cello. Above all this, the trio floats like the dove on the fact of the deep, for the most part calmly with one of Bach's loveliest tunes. Koopman takes this section faster than anyone else I've heard (perhaps taking a few years off the cellist's career in the process), but, boy, does it pay off. The contrast between voices and cello comes off here as in no other version I know.
The following chorus is yet another slow introduction leading to a quick imitative section. The slow intro conveys the patience of the soul asking for God's help. The quick part depicts God plucking the soul from the net of sin. The first part is gorgeous. The second part again lacks the incisiveness of aggressively-articulated consonants.
The final chorus is a passacaglia – one of the few vocal ones I know, and thus yet another pointer to Bach's inventiveness as a choral writer, even early on. I know first-hand how hard it is to bring this off in performance. One of the few successful attempts I heard live, and the success came about through a dramatic shaping of the text through rising and falling dynamics. Nothing like that happens here, and consequently the movement comes off as a bit monotonous.
Cantata #31 "Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubilieret" ("Heaven laughs! earth rejoices"): The "pretty Bach" approach suits this festive Easter cantata, a bit unusual in that it is both festive and Passion cantata. It opens with an instrumental "sonata" before the first chorus. I can't fault the sheer playing or singing in any of this set, and Koopman, instead of emphasizing the fanfare motives (the usual option), stresses a suspension idea – that is, a dissonance by a "wrong" or non-harmonic tone that becomes a consonance, usually by moving down a half-step against held notes of the destination chord. It turns out that this decision adds to the brilliance of the work, since the fanfares get to be heard in any case.
The first chorus, a honey which fully lives up to its title, shows, among other things, the typical binary thought processes of Bach's and the Renaissance and Baroque mind in general. The text splits between rejoicing in God the creator and the solemnity of Christ rising from the grave. The movement shares mood and musical imagery with the opening chorus of Bach's Magnificat, except for the composer applying the brakes at the words "Der sich das Grab zur Ruh erlesen" (roughly: He who triumphed over the grave). The contrasts also apply to the setting of the first line. The chorus laughs through the melismata on the word "lacht," while they dance an incisive rhythm on the word "jubilieret." Bach isn't as rhythmically giddy as in the Magnificat here, but the music still goes straight to the feet. The choir soars on the runs of eighths and sixteenths and switch to dignity at Bach's signal.
A recitative with a very odd text (some of the imagery taken from the Gospel of John) follows:
Erwünschter Tag! sei, Seele, wieder froh!
Das A und O,
Der erst und auch der letze,
Den unsre schwere Schuld in Todeskerker setzte,
Ist nun gerissen aus der Not!
Der Herr war tot,
Und sieh, er lebet wieder;
Lebt unser Haupt, so leben auch die Glieder.
Der Herr hat in der Hand
Des Todes und der Hölle Schlüssel!
Der sein gewand
Blutrot bespritzt in seinem bittern Leiden,
Will heute sich mit Schmuck un Ehren kleiden.
Longed-for day! Soul, again be happy!
The Alpha and Omega,
The first and the last,
Who sat in Death's prison for our heavy guilt,
Has now burst forth from His plight.
The Lord was dead,
and, behold, He lives again.
If the head lives, so live the members.
The Lord has in His hand
The key to death and hell.
He whose robe was
Sprinkled blood-red in His bitter Passion,
Today is clothed in jewels and honor.
The imagery is sectional – Bach's librettist goes from one image to another without connecting. We see Christ as Lord of Eternity, prisoner, head of the body of the Church, warden, sufferer, and king. The music reflects the leaping nature of the imagery, running from a "speaking" recitative to brief arioso sections. Some of the high spirits of the first movement break in here, especially at the words "Sei, Seele, wieder froh!" The following aria for bass, "Fürst des Lebens, starker Streiter" (Prince of Life, mighty warrior), portrays Christ as king and knight. Bach sets to a purposeful, martial rhythm. All the majesty of the text and the music lies with the soloist Mertens. The accompaniment comes across as rather listless and pale.
Tenor Guy de Mey mails in the next recitative and aria. In fairness, however, I must point out that the recitative is musically rather conventional for Bach. The aria ("Adam muß in uns verwesen" – "The Adam in us must rot away") tells of the need to subject our nature to Christ, for the promised resurrection. De Mey negotiates the florid twists and turns of the melodic line lightly, but the aria comes across as dutiful. Koopman's stolid accompaniment doesn't help.
I find Barbara Schlick guilty of the same in her recitative, but there's very little in the text to take off from. The aria, however, ("Letzte Stunde, brich herein, Mir die Augen zuzudrücken!" – "Last hour, fall upon me, to shut my eyes") is probably one of the high points of the set, with (predictably) outstanding solo work from the oboist.
The final choral, "So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ," was one of the most popular melodies and texts of the early Lutheran era. Many composers set it. Bach's is elaborate in orchestration (with trumpets and oboes, among other instruments) but fairly straightforward in harmony and part-writing. However, Bach does incorporate syncopated suspensions in the high instruments, leaving the sensation of yearning for, a pilgrimage to a distant heaven. Again, one gets pleasure from the sheer beauty of the players' and singers' performance.
Cantata #185 "Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe" ("Compassionate heart of eternal life"): Most of the cantatas so far have been "writ large." This is the first in Koopman's set at a truly intimate, chamber scale. Instead of an elaborate opening chorus, Bach gives us essentially a duet between soprano and tenor in a "pastoral" triple time. Bach even pares down his counterpoint from fugal texture to "call and response," like R&B's Sam and Dave or the final movement of Franck's violin sonata. The cantata presents a musical lesson that illuminates Matthew's "Judge not, that ye be not judged" and "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." The chorus pleas that its heart be softened to goodness and mercy; the relatively simple musical means illustrate this. However, the plea for a soft heart generally implies the supplicant hasn't got one, and the insight provides Bach the opportunity for a master stroke. Against the soloists, the choral sopranos enter with the chorale "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" ("I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ"), a phrase at a time, also in triple meter. The chorale text equates the love of one's neighbor with the love for Christ, and the soloists' duet itself starts to take off musically from the chorale phrases, so that the disparate parts of the texture itself begin to move toward concord and sympathy. Despite incomprehensible diction, Koopman's sopranos electrify at each phrase, as the soul begs Christ to hear its prayer. I have no idea whether this is a balance problem due to Koopman or to his engineers: the sopranos are simply too distant.
The alto recitative which follows continues the message in an exhortation that "hearts perverted to stone and granite" soften. Kai Wessel, the male alto soloist, just doesn't have the power to suggest the heart of stone (Bach roughens the harmonies here). It's as if there's a big hole in the voice through which breath escapes, and he tends to hoot. Nevertheless, he redeems himself in the aria "Sei bemüht in dieser Zeit / Seele, reichlich auszustreuen" ("Strive, O soul, to strew generously"), where the lightness and agility of his voice on the word "auszustreuen" conjure up little seeds scattered on the wind.
Mertens comes in once again like a young Fischer-Dieskau with the recitative "Das Eigenliebe schmeichelt sich!" ("Our vanity flatters itself"), particularly in the shadings he gives to the text. In the first line, for example, he manages to convey both anxiety and the sternness of a sermon. This is the didactic nub of the cantata. The recitative makes the lesson clear and directly communicative. Bach makes it difficult for the listener to lose himself in counterpoint or melody. Mertens sings it as if it were indeed the most important part of the cantata. He follows this with the aria "Das ist der Christen Kunst" ("This is the Christians' goal… not to forget one's neighbor"), at once exhortative and intimate.
The final chorale "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" presents the chorale tune whole, rather than, as in the opening duet, in fragments. The soul is now ready and composed to ask Christ to melt the heart. Koopman brings out a tasty violin obbligato I hadn't ever noticed before, syncopated against the four-square chorale rhythm. All things considered, a superior effort.
Cantata #4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden" ("Christ lay in the bonds of death"): I don't presume to rate Bach, especially against himself, but this has long been a favorite of mine, since I first heard the Roger Wagner Chorale on an old EMI LP, sadly never transferred to compact disc. The Wagner sound, slightly bottom-heavy, especially in the altos, suits the darkness of this Passion cantata. After all these years, Wagner's remains the performance by which I judge others.
Bach constructs each movement as a variation on the chorale of the same name, so that by the time of the last movement – the chorale in its "archetypal" form – we know the tune. Indeed, the tune shapes the structure of every movement, and yet every movement differs from its siblings. Each vocal movement takes a stanza of the chorale for its text. It reminds me of a great jazz soloist pulling out one surprising chorus after another. Yet another interesting feature of Bach's treatment of the tune is his separate handling of the last word of each verse – "Alleluia." Essentially, this creates variations within variations.
Barring the Prélude of the opening instrumental sinfonia, Bach structures the cantata's seven movements chiasmically around the chorale's Versus IV:
The sinfonia itself takes its musical matter from the chorale tune, although Bach greatly varies the rhythm. The tune's main feature Bach exploits is an opening descending half-step, often for him the musical symbol of suffering. Koopman takes the sinfonia much faster than I'm used to, but in so doing he brilliantly brings out the chorale, unlike any other version I've heard.
The opening chorus is one of Bach's greatest. In concept, it takes off from organ Préludes based on chorale tunes, where one hears an independent musical argument fitted against the tune in long notes, much like Bach's fairly well-known Prélude to "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." In these, Bach usually establishes the argument and then brings in the chorale tune as an emotional lift, or the sudden revelation of the hand of God in the busy-ness of human affairs. In this chorus, however, he begins with the tune – long notes in the soprano, as opposed to his normal practice of burying the melody in the alto or tenor. Immediately, the tune fragments and bends to new shapes in the other parts, and Bach places all of it into highly independent – each voice has a different rhythm – four-part counterpoint. "Christ lay in the bonds of Death, given over for our sin. He is risen again and has brought us eternal life." It is as if the Passion and resurrection of Christ informs the world. Typically (as we have seen), Bach splits the movement in half, at the words "Therefore, let us be joyful, praise God and be thankful to Him, and sing hallelujah." At this point, the entrances reverse, with the three lower voices coming in first with adumbrations of the chorale and the sopranos finally capping the phrase. Bach somehow pulls off a "change in direction" in the music. In the first half, the music tends to "sink" down. In the second, it seems to rise. At the final phrase – "und singen Halleluja" – Bach brings off another master stroke. The tenor begins, as usual, with a variant of the relevant chorale phrase, as the bass accompanies in what seems to be strictly functional "note-filling." However, it is the bass material, on the word "Halleluja," that increasingly dominates the musical argument. Furthermore, the counterpoint radically simplifies, until all voices, including the soprano, sing "Halleluja" in rhythmic concord – to me a musical image of all creation praising God.
Bach contrapuntally riffs on the "Hallelujas," as one after another breathlessly tumbles out, syncopated, alla breve in all the voices. This section by itself would test most choirs. How well does Koopman do? It's another mixed bag. The choir's diction occasionally goes south and parts of the choral texture temporarily disappear. On the other hand, the choral sound is wonderful, and basically clear and bright, and Koopman brings off beautifully the ascent to the climax at "und singen Halleluja." The alla breve hallelujas have the dangerous excitement of high speed and the "off-balance" syncopation. I can't imagine anybody bettering Koopman here.
"No one in all mankind could overcome Death. Our sin caused everything; no innocence could be found. Death came so soon and took power over us, held us prisoner in his kingdom. Alleluia." Bach sets this to a moody, freely imitative duet (based, naturally, on the chorale) between soprano and alto over what seems to be a typical Bach "walking bass," but which I realized (after nearly forty years of knowing this work) is actually a variant of the chorale's "Halleluja." Again, Bach splits the stanza in half, with the soprano beginning in the first and the alto kicking off the second. Bach keeps the voices close and even has them cross, so that the soprano sometimes sings below the alto. I infer from this that Bach wants the voices to "match," so that you can't tell one voice from the other. Schlick and Wessel don't even come close, although they are extremely well-tuned. I don't particularly care for the vocal color of either in this movement – too bright. A traditional solution uses the choral women, which softens the "edge" of the sound and contributes to the anonymity of lines.
Bach illustrates the third stanza with an heroic tenor aria, depicting Christ as warrior-knight defeating the dragon of death. Bach sets against the tenor, which takes the chorale tune, an energetic violin solo, one of those Baroque "perpetual motion" machines. The soloist, de Mey, doesn't really have the voice for this. His forte is agility, rather than ringing heroism, and, indeed, he sounds languid and drooping. All the vigor in this movement comes from the violin.
We have reached the cantata's pivotal movement, telling us of the war in Hell. It begins as a double fugue in three parts, with the first half of the opening chorale line simultaneously set against the second half. However, Bach soon drops this and settles into a relatively straightforward fugue, with interjections of the chorale from the altos. "It was a miraculous war, where Death and Life wrestled. Life took the victory. It has swallowed up Death. Scripture has announced to us how one death devoured the other. A mockery has been made of Death." Bach carries the martial vitality of the tenor aria to the fugue. At the words "Wie ein Tod den andern fraß" ("how one death devoured the other"), the imitative entrances of a single phrase quickly overlap, so that we get the impression of the snake who eats his own tail. Cutting through all this intense activity, however, is the chorale tune in the altos. All this is duck soup to Koopman's choir. One hears just about everything in an extremely complicated texture and in the right balance.
Now retracing our steps on the mirror path, we come to another aria, this time for bass. "Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm" ("Here is the righteous Easter Lamb") shows Christ not only as the Lamb on the cross, but a roasted ("gebraten") lamb at that, seared by the flames of love. Compare the daring vulgarity of this with the bland "sensitivity" of today's Christian pOp. To me, it shows a powerful movement in decline, if only because the culture at large has embraced the bland, broad path, rather than the hard, narrow one – narrow and hard like a knife, and just as strong and just as dangerous. Anyway, Bach treats the tune this time as an Italianate aria, with lots of note-runs on single syllables (technically, "melismata"). For me, this is the emotional deep of the entire cantata, with the dark e-minor color perfectly incarnate in the bass voice. The violins comment on the melody in free imitation of the bass. The "alleluias" are noteworthy, in that the entrances between bass and strings come quickly and even overlap (a contrapuntal device called "stretto"). The general effect is to increase the listener's emotional pulse, and Bach uses stretto here to exactly that end. I've sung this aria myself, and the main difficulty for the singer (or, in traditional performances, choral bass section) is the length of the phrases. It's very easy to run out of breath. Of course, Mertens has no problems at all, not even snatching a breath for the next phrase. In fact, unless I really listen, he never makes me aware of the vocal difficultly. The interpretation is immaculate, with an elegant, subtly propulsive legato line.
The duet this time features soprano and tenor. The chorale tune – to "So feiern wir das hohe Fest" ("So we celebrate the high feast") – becomes one of Bach's contrapuntal gigues. The soprano and tenor trade off going first with each phrase, and Bach often employs invertible counterpoint (the upper line becomes the lower line next time around). The aria is freely imitative, but it often feels like canon – at the fifth, third, and unison. Despite the learning, it's still a dance, and both de Mey and Schlick dance lightly – basically, what they do best.
The final chorus presents the chorale tune in chorale style at last. Most traditional performers treat it as a magnificent summing up, but, compared to Koopman, they seem almost kitschy. Under Koopman, the chorale is much more modest, as if the congregation were joining in. From the depths of the bass, we move to the dance of the duet and then to a quiet farewell with this chorale. Koopman scores one of his finest successes here.
In the second volume, Koopman has switched tenor soloists from Guy de Mey to Christoph Prégardien, a definite change for the better. De Mey was a fine musician, but the voice itself struck me as extremely plain, weak, and wearing over the long haul. Prégardien, on the other hand, sings in a class with, and great similarity to, Mertens – again, a young Fischer-Dieskau in vocal color (if not range), attention to the drama of the text, and agility.
Cantata #12 "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen" ("Weeping, grieving, trouble, trembling"). The cantata illustrates the theme of winning Christian glory through suffering. "Cross and crown are bound together" says the alto aria. Kai Wessel, the alto, is still the weak member of the solo quartet. However, Mertens lifts the solo work with his aria, and Prégardien makes a stunning debut in the series with his "Sei getreu" ("Be faithful"). The choral work also stands out, especially the suspended dissonances in the opening chorus on the title words – cries of pain cutting through the texture. Marcel Ponseele, credited this time, spins a beautiful oboe line in the opening sinfonia.
Cantata #18 "Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel fällt" ("As rain and snow fall from heaven"). I had not heard this cantata before, and it struck me as bizarre, both textually and formally. The opening sinfonia builds on a ground composed of successive leaps downward of a fifth, and with the bassoon coloring sounds a bit like an infestation of giant frogs – not a criticism. I love the quirkiness of it. The cantata text comes from the Evangelical Church Militant, pleading for steadfastness to God's word, with imprecations against the devil, Papists, Turks, blasphemers, fornicators, and gluttons, among others – most of this coming in an extended recitative for bass, tenor, and chorus, which punctuates the pronouncements of anathema with the prayer, "Hear us, dear Lord God!" The section contains some of Bach's most daring music and most vigorous rhythms, even as it flits (it is, after all, a recitative) from section to section. Koopman does a marvelous job minimizing the piecemeal nature of the movement. Barbara Schlick follows in full sweet voice with the aria "Mein Seelenschatz is Gottes Wort" ("God's word is my soul's treasure"). After the denunciations of the previous movement, the aria – which from her sounds like child-like innocence – indeed falls like rain.
Cantata #61 "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" ("Now come, Savior of the heathen"). Obviously, a work for Advent. The opening movement shows Bach's choral inventiveness. As far as I know, it is, if not the first, one of the earliest examples of a choral movement built on the instrumental form of the French overture. Over the dotted rhythms, the choir repeats the lines of the eponymous chorale, with a quick, triple-time fugal section providing the contrast. The form – especially the dotted rhythms – signals the overture for the new year. Other outstanding features include a recitative with pizzicato chords on the strings, which represent Christ knocking on the door of the believer's house – "If anyone hear will hear My voice and open the door, I will enter and take the evening meal with him and he with Me." Under Koopman, the effect will raise the hair on the back of your neck. Mertens and Schlick turn in marvelous arias, with the interpretive edge going to Schlick in her rapturous account of "Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze" ("Open, my heart, that Jesus may come and enter").
Cantata #172 "Erschallet, ihr Lieder" ("Resound, ye songs"). This disappointed me. It's just the kind of jubilant cantata that seems made for Koopman, but the results, although quite good, aren't really special, despite some thrilling brass work. The high point of this performance comes with the soprano-alto duet, "Komm, laß mich nicht länger warten" ("Come, let me wait no longer"), where the soprano waits for the infusion of the Holy Ghost, played by the alto. Kai Wessel's entrances electrify. It's his single greatest moment so far. The organ continuo jumps about quirkily, but so delightfully that I had to see who got credited. It turns out that Koopman himself pressed the keys and pedaled the pedals.
Cantata #132 "Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn" ("Prepare the way, prepare the road"). Another Advent cantata, this one seems to take off from the same Biblical verses as the "Ev'ry valley" aria from Handel's Messiah. The piece has no elaborate chorus and lacks a final chorale. Koopman uses the one from Cantata 164, "suitably transposed." How do they know it's missing? The text by Salomo Franck was published separately as part of a collection of cantata texts. As far as the performance goes, the soloists do their usual fine job. However, it's the violinist Margaret Faultless who stands out in the alto aria "Christi Glieder, ach bedenket" ("Members of Christ, ah, consider"), as she embroiders fancy-work around the tune and yet remains in perfect balance with continuo and soloist.
Cantata #182 "Himmelskönig, sei willkommen" ("King of heaven, be welcome"). A festival cantata for Palm Sunday and another monument. Bach wrote a prominent part for flute (probably recorder), loved by players. The soloist here, Marion Verbruggen, is all right, if a little too tight in her phrasing and perhaps uncertain rhythmically. Bach usually pits her against the violinist, in this case Margaret Faultless, who steals the glory with incredibly fine playing and impeccable ensemble. The opening chorus is fine, although I've heard it better, joyously alive, notably from Harnoncourt and Jürgen Jürgens. Yet, it is the chorus who provides the best moments, notably in the two final movements. Bach ends in an unconventional way. The chorale not only does not occur as the last movement, it's not even in chorale style. Instead, the three lower voices enter into fugato based on the chorale's phrases, while the sopranos crown the counterpoint with the chorale in augmented note values. We've seen this before, of course, but not in this formal position. A triple-time (I almost wrote "waltz") little fugue follows, as the chorus, accompanying Christ, dances joyfully into Salem.
Cantata #152 "Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn" ("Tread the path of Faith"). This cantata I've made acquaintance with only here. It begins with a gorgeous instrumental concerto (slow introduction and fugue), where soloists Ponseele, Faultless, and Verbruggen – with beautifsupport from the organist (either Jan Kleinbussink or Koopman himself) – create a nearly perfect ensemble out of Bach's highly ornamented, even fussy, lines. They also maintain a vigorous rhythmic Schwung in the music. They keep it in the first aria, with Mertens flexing the muscles of evangelical orthodoxy. Bach shares his message with songs like "Give Me That Old-Time Religion." I've long felt, however, that Bach wrote for two kinds of bass soloists: one really a light, flexible baritone (as in the "Et in spiritum sanctum" from the Mass in b) with the emphasis on the upper end of the range and the other a true bass (heard in the Magnificat and in the Cantata #4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden") who gets to show off mainly the compass of his entire range, including the low end. Here, Bach writes definitely for the latter type, and Mertens's low tessitura is notably less solid than his middle and upper. But I'm picking nits. Mertens sings, as ever, stylishly, with great attention to textual meaning. Barbara Schlick does well in her aria, and the two join in a final duet: a dialogue, actually a catechism, between the soul and Christ. This is one of the rare sacred cantatas not anchored to a chorale.
Cantata #191 "Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut" ("My heart swims in blood"). This cantata, for solo soprano, is structured like a Puritan sermon. The soprano confesses not only to sin, but to the psychological anguish of sin and to the possibility of being denied heaven. About halfway through, the soul throws herself on the mercy of the court, so to speak, and ends in the jubilation of God's forgiveness. Bach writes music of wide expressive and formal range (including a mini-chorale Prélude for the soloist) which seems to demand an almost operatic approach, within the limits of Baroque style. Schlick's emotional span appears limited in comparison, although she's always a fine musician. Her highpoint is luckily reached at the work's conceptual pivot – the aria "Tief gebückt und voller Reue / Lieg ich, liebster Gott, vor dir" ("Deeply bowed and full of repentence, I lie, dear Lord, before you"). She sings quietly rapt, blending submission with hope.
Cantata #203 "Amore traditore" ("Love, traitor"). A rarity in Bach, a conventional Italian cantata, along the lines of Handel's "Armida abbandonata," though not as elaborate. The text conveys the frequent notion of the complaint against love and the resolve never again to be so foolish, one that persists down to our own day. Apparently, our ancestors' resolution hasn't been all that strong. Remember Bacharach and David's "I'll Never Fall in Love Again"? Here, Klaus Mertens takes on the protagonist's role. The forces are modest – solo bass with cello and harpsichord continuo. Cellist Jaap ter Linden joins Mertens and Koopman. The result is curiously domestic, as opposed to something you'd find in a concert hall. The music and the performance call out for a party of friends and a large punch bowl.
Hochzeitsquodlibet ("Wedding quodlibet"). This work reminds me of a platypus, a strange creature that seems assembled from spare parts. The quodlibet in this case is not the contrapuntal joining of disparate tunes (as in the thirtieth Goldberg Variation), but a hodgepodge of texts and musical styles, known as the "successive" quodlibet. Add to this the fact that it exists only as a fragment – apparently we've lost the first and last pages. According to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the Bach clan liked to entertain in this way, even spending evenings improvising these things. This is an early example, when Bach was still in Mühlhausen. Musically, it's pretty slight, but it's fun, with a ton of what seem to be "inside" jokes and references, which suggests a party to me. The four soloists, harpsichord, and cello basically have a good time.
At the time of this writing, Koopman has brought out two more volumes of cantatas – a total of four, in a projected series of twenty. That I bought all with my own money seems to indicate that they interest me, despite, as I've written, mixed results. As far as I know, nobody has the interpretive lock on these things, any more than Furtwängler's Beethoven supersedes Szell, Harnoncourt, Walter, Kleiber, and so on. Of the four volumes, this is my favorite, as far as the performances go. If you're of a mind to sample, I suggest starting here.
Copyright © 1997, Steve Schwartz