BACH Cantatas Vol.5. Various/Amsterdam Baroque/Koopman (Erato) – INKPOT
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Complete Cantatas Volume 5
|Lisa Larsson, Sibylla Rubens, Anne Grimm, Els Bongers sopranos
Elisabeth von Magnus alto Christoph Pregardien tenor
Klaus Mertens bass
Includes full texts in German, English and French
|Volume Five is the second and final instalment in Koopmans survey of the secular cantatas Bach composed in Leipzig. Volumes 6 to 20 will cover the surviving 180 sacred cantatas of the same period.
Apologies to the reader for another long review (but this is four CDs). Because our, er, education systems are so lacking, collectors (including myself) are unfamiliar with most of these 200+ marvellous cantatas. So I think an introduction, based on my impressions and biases of course, will be helpful. Otherwise it’s like asking you to buy a good house/car without looking at it first. Helps me appreciate the music too.
On performance: my biggest impression came from the Amsterdam Baroque Chorus, whose contributions in this series remains one of its biggest assets. As in other volumes, this choir sings with spirit and musicality. They are matched beautifully by the superb orchestra (which I have endlessly praised).
No serious complaints regarding the soloists, vocal and instrumental. The vocal presence of Larsson, Pregardien and Mertens is comforting – and I was not disappointed. My only concern when I bought this set was (again) for the alto Elisabeth von Magnus, but she’s okay if you get use to her slightly wobbly voice, which seems to be firming up.
The biggest drawback is that this is a 4-CD full-price set. Even though the average timing for each CD works out to a good 60 minutes, it still blows one heck of a Panama Canal through the pocket. But I felt pleased supporting this magnificent project.
For those of you who already know the music, you can skip the rest of this review (though there are more performance comments below). For the rest: smack your lips, rub your hands and on to the music!
AS I have suggested of Volume 4, the secular cantatas are among the most “fun” of all of Bach’s large-scale works, with colourful scoring, rich melodies and much festive splendour. Volume 5 begins immediately in this vein, starting with the hugely enjoyable Cantata BWV 207a, Auf, schmetternde Tne der muntern Trompeten (“Come, blithesome trumpets’ blare”), first performed on 3 August 1735 for the nameday of the elector of Saxony and King of Poland, August III.
After the booming introduction of drums, the orchestra strides in with a festive march, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra coloured with brilliant trumpets, flutes, oboes, and harpsichord. Matching this is the jaw-dropping and absolutely splendid “choralization” of the third movement Allegro from Brandenburg Concerto No.1, with trumpets and timpani thrown in for good measure. This chorus is pure fun! Just look at the libretto:
With words like this, how could any Baroque composer resist putting in his best? The text is a mixture of shameless praise for “Augustus” and pastoral imagery. Highlights include a delightful duet for bass and soprano, “Mich kann die Se Ruhe laben” (“Sweet rest can comfort me”) on disc 1: track 6, which is followed by the Trio II from Brandenburg Concerto No.1, here effectively rescored for trumpets, oboes, bassoon, strings and – listen for Koopman’s (right) very fun harpsichord! The cantata ends with another grand chorus, closing with the festive march heard in the beginning.
BWV 206, Schleicht, spielende Wellen, und murmelt gelinde (“Glide, playful waves, and murmur softly”) marked August III’s birthday in 1733. The text personifies the four principal rivers of Saxony, Poland and the Habsburg empire: the Pleiee (soprano), Danube (alto), Elbe (tenor), and the Bistula (bass). They, of course, heap more honeyed praise for the King – how he listened to this cantata and not cover his face in embarrassment I don’t know. I would have crept behind my chair and stayed there till the concert ended.
Not surprisingly, gallons of water imagery fill the cantata, the arias nicely distributed among the rivers. The soprano aria is distinguished by the cheerful airs of the baroque flutes. The opening and closing choruses include that favourite sound of mine – baroque trumpets and timpani – and are sumptiously grand. In a masterstroke, Bach directs the solo soprano and alto to sing a duet in the centre of the final chorus.
Coupled with each of these nameday cantatas is a wedding cantata. The identities of the couples for whom these were written are unknown. Both works are scored for solo soprano accompanied by oboe and strings, with a flute thrown in BWV 210. BWV 202, Weichet nur, betrbte Schatten (“Be gone, dull shadows”), begins in an apprehensive mood. The solo soprano bids winter begone as she welcomes “Flora’s joys” into the world. Lisa Larsson is the solo voice throughout this 20-minute work. Thankfully so – just listen to her girlish joy in the famous aria “Sich ben im Lieben” (“To cultivate Love” 1:19), accompanied by oboe, cello and harpsichord.
Larsson bursts immediately into song in Cantata BWV 210, O holder Tag, erwnschte Zeit. Almost 33-minutes in length, it is in fact quite a moody work, with much music that sounds melancholic and serious, if noble. There is a beautiful recitative which preceeds the final aria. Here the solemn atmosphere lifts and the blessings of the couple are sung. Beautiful flute-playing from the ABO.
THE SECULAR CANTATAS include several named, dramatic works. One such is BWV 213 Lat uns sorgen, lat uns wachen, a.k.a. “Hercules At the Crossroads“. This is a 46-minute drama per musica which sits alone on disc 4. After a heavenly opening chorus, the cantata depicts Kevin Sorbo – I mean Herc – seeking the “right path in life”. The allegorical figures of Pleasure (soprano) and Virtue (tenor) make their individual cases before him. No prizes for guessing who Herc chooses – Xena? Alexandra Tydings? No, no, nothing so um… “uninteresting” as compared to Virtue. Virtue is what he nobly chooses… Actually, Larsson makes a pretty good case for Aphrodite with her lovely aria “Sleep, my beloved, and take your rest” [4:3].
Once Herc’s moral calibre is settled, he is of course compared to Prince Friedrich Christian, whose birthday this cantata celebrates. Catch the “echo” aria – a Baroque speciality – “Faithful echo of these regions” [4:5]. By the way, Herc’s role is sung by alto Elisabeth von Magnus. There is an alternative version with countertenor on Philips (442 779-2), but that countertenor happens to be fairly unpalatable. This Erato performance is far superior and much more engaging. For a superb countertenor, look no further than Andreas Scholl on the Jacobs/Harmonia Mundi set.
The rustic and mirthful “Peasant Cantata“, BWV 212 Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet, begins disc 3. The opening Sinfonia includes dances “alla rustica”, quickly setting the merry mood of this “cantata burlesque”. Indeed, merriment fills this cantata, poking fun at “Mr. Tax Collector”. It’s all a bit of a joke, of course, as the dedicatee of the work was a tax collector himself before becoming director of the Knigliche Kammermusik in Dresden. The colourful scoring includes lute and horn, and Bach also quotes snatches of popular songs of the day. The performers obviously enjoy this work, in particular the bass Klaus Mertens, whose characterization of the words and music must be singled out. Before the characters retreat to the tavern, the soprano sings:
… And this is just one of the many little things in this cantata which makes me smile.
After this little play, the Amsterdam Baroque launches into one of Bachs mightiest choruses, “Zerreiet, zersprenget, zertrmmert die Gruft” (“Destroy, break asunder, shatter the tomb”) from Cantata BWV 205. This 40-minute outdoor cantata, called “Aoelus Pacified” (or “satisfied”), is scored for a full complement of woodwind, brass, strings and timpani, plus a continuo lute.
Compared to Rene Jacobs “Aoelus Pacified” on Harmonia Mundi (HMC 901544/5), Koopman’s is more rounded and musically appealing. He allows you to savour every musical phrase and dynamic whereas Jacobs tends to rush at hectic “motor” tempi, which is quite furious and exciting, or annoyingly rushed, depending on your tastes. But I do find my feet tapping to both renditions. Opening chorus: Koopman 6’23”, Jacobs 5’33”.
The story goes like this: Aeolus, Big Boss of the Winds, is gloating at the violent power of his winds (hmm). Zephyrus (God of Breezes – see left), Pomona (Goddess of Fruit) and Pallas (Goddess of Wisdom) all try to pacify Mr. Hot Air. They fail until Pallas asks Aeolus not to disrupt the ongoing festivites. The master of the winds asks with contempt why he should yield, and she mentions the name of Dr. August Friedrich Mller, PhD (Philosophy), of the University of Leipzig – to which Aeolus finally agrees. Now we know who this cantata was written for!
Left: Detail of Zephyr from “The Birth of Venus” (c.1485), by Sandro Botticelli
The varied use of instrumental accompaniment is fascinating, and for me the best moments include the huge choruses which frame the cantata. Together, they constitute a quarter of the music, and are impressive for their word painting: the buffeting winds of rushing woodwind scales, the tearing trumpets, blustering horns and the thundering boom of timpani; all which are converted to festive celebration at the end. Unusually, Aeolus himself commands the entire orchestra, brass and drums all, in a big aria where he – Mertens in stately voice – directs the winds to draw back. Great stuff!
My best compliment to these musicians is that I am envious of the fun they are having.
CHIA HAN-LEON thinks Gabriel is much more interesting to watch than Xena. Wonder how they keep all that make-up fresh?
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164: 17.5.1998 Chia Han-Leon
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