Christ lag in Todes Banden is one of those relatively few cantatas where there seems to me to be a major advantage for one side in the small forces/original instruments versus larger forces/modern instruments dichotomy, especially in the opening two movements. The weight of modern instruments seem to lend an extra seriousness and gravity that this cantata requires. This is not a cantata full of tunes and merriment but if you, like me, enjoy singing or playing one of the voices in Bach's counterpoint then there is a lot in this for you. The text is Luther's eponymous hymn in its entirety and the music in each verse is derived from the German hymn Christ ist erstanden which itself is derived from a plainsong sequence Victimae Paschali laudes. This cantata is believed to be one of Bach's earliest and its form too is early, being similar to organ chorale variations in the manner of Böhm and Pachelbel.
The cantata opens with an extended sinfonia that immediately establishes a grave mood. The chorus which follows maintains this mood with a grand and profound fugal setting of the chorale melody. This really is glorious stuff! The opening movements are followed by a pair of duets separated by three diverse chorale settings. Each of these settings is very fine: The first is for tenor soloist; the second for the choir and the third for the bass soloist. The work closes with a straightforward setting of the chorale.
Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.