The opening movement of BWV 123 is one of those pieces of music that must make even the most ardent atheist wonder whether there is a God after all. If you've not heard it, then do so. Your life will be enriched. A first hearing of the chorale melody from which this chorale cantata is derived might very well just pass you by as "just another chorale" (try listening to the closing chorale harmonisation before you hear the opening movement) but Bach takes the delicate descending theme and weaves it into a beautiful, painfully evocative, dance for the flutes and oboes. (Robertson describes it as a courante, Finscher as a gigue, take your pick). In between this wonderful orchestral ritornello the verses of the hymn are interweaved. Now try and get that tune out of your head!
Having reached these heights of inspiration, alas, the rest of the cantata falls short. There are two arias, one for tenor and one for bass, separated by recitatives. The tenor aria is highly expressive with an effective oboe d'amore accompaniment, the bass aria is gentle with a delightful flute accompaniment. They are both good arias but after that opening they needed to be outstanding. The cantata is concluded by the straightforward chorale harmonisation. Here the last line of the hymn is sung piano: My whole life be to Thee surrendered, 'til I am laid in the grave.
Copyright © 1996 & 1998, Simon Crouch.