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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cantatas for Whitsun

  • Cantata, BWV 172 "Erschallet, ihr Lieder" 1
  • Cantata, BWV 59 "Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten" 2
  • Cantata, BWV 74 "Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten" 3
  • Cantata, BWV 34 "O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe" 4
1 Martina Jankova, soprano
2,3 Magdalena Kožená, soprano
1,3 Robin Blaze, countertenor
4 Bernarda Fink, contralto
1,3 Christoph Genz, tenor
4 Steve Davislim, tenor
1 Reinhard Hagen, bass
2,3 Peter Harvey, bass
4 Christopher Foster, bass
The Monteverdi Choir
The English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv 463584-2 66:52
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Summary for the Busy Executive: In the spirit.

Bach wrote four cantatas for Whitsuntide, or Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus's disciples after the crucifixion. Since Bach tied his cantatas to the readings for the day in the Lutheran year he intended them for, it makes sense to know them: in this case, Acts 2:1-13 and John 14:23-31. Acts describes the Holy Ghost entering the souls of the disciples, how they were suddenly able to understand all languages as if their own, how they amazed some, and how others scorned them as drunk "with new wine." John gives Jesus's admonition to the disciples to keep his commandments and, if they do, his promise that the Holy Spirit will remain with them.

Cantata 172, Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten (Ring out, ye songs! Resound, ye strings!), comes from 1714, during Bach's Weimar years. Most writers consider Picander, his main librettist during this period, his finest collaborator, and Picander probably supplied the original text. The title leads us to expect a glorious noise, and Bach doesn't disappoint. Three trumpets on a do-mi-sol figure herald a festival concerto movement. The chorus declaims the opening lines, "Ring out, ye songs! Resound, ye strings! / O holiest times," stretching out the word "seligsten" (holiest). The contrasting section, "God will prepare our souls as temples," features elaborate imitative writing for the choir.

The bass enters with a recitative setting of John 14:23, "Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten" (whosoever loves me, keeps my commandment), and a martial hymn to the Trinity, accompanied by the unusual combination of three trumpets, timpani, and continuo. The trumpets virtuosically decorate the main theme a downward do-sol-mi-do from the bass – a musical representation of three-in-one.

The word-painting continues in the tenor aria "O Seelenparadies, / das Gottes Geist durchwehet" (O paradise of the soul, through which the spirit of God wafts). We turn from the heroic to the tender. The tenor gives us a downward minor sol-mi-do, as strings weave long lines representing the breath of God moving over the face of paradise. The contrasting section gently exhorts the soul to prepare for the coming of the Holy Ghost.

We now reach the highpoint of the cantata representing the entry of the spirit of God into the soul. This takes the form of an ecstatic Baroque love-duet between soprano (soul) and countertenor or alto (the Holy Ghost) as well as between cello and oboe, which plays a decorative version of the chorale melody "Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott" (come, Holy Spirit, Lord God), Luther's translation of the Latin hymn Veni, Sancte Spiritus. We get a familiar Bachian trope in these dialogues expressing mystical union at the lines "Ich bin dein, und du bist mein" (I am yours, and you are mine). The cantata ends with a gorgeous setting of a verse from the chorale "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" (how brightly shines the Morning Star), Philipp Nicolai's famous Christmas chorale, and a Bach favorite. A high violin, representing things celestial, descants on the melody.

The next two cantatas have the same title, but only because we refer to Bach's cantatas by the first line of their texts. The cantatas differ textually. Both take John 14:23 as their main text. Cantata 59, appearing in 1723, counts as one of the more modest Bach cantatas. Bach doesn't indicate even a final chorale movement for mixed chorus, although most performances include one anyway. "Wer mich liebet" gets set as another dialogue between soul and Spirit, this time using soprano and bass soloists. Each section of this movement begins with the motif on the words "Wer mich liebet." The soprano in recitative expresses disturbed awe at the grace bestowed ("O what honors are these"), especially since man is but dust and vanity. Lots of chromatics here, which ease as the soul realizes that God wants us only to love Him, and bitter turns to sweet as recitative turns into arioso. The choir comes in with a straightforward setting of "Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott."

The bass rejects the kingdoms of the world for the chance to rest with God in heaven, indicating that the spirit has entered his soul ("er in unsern Herzen thronet" – God reigns in our hearts). A solo violin sings a "naïve" descant to the bass line. Again, Bach's score ends here, but some, like Gardiner, feel that the work ends too abruptly. Gardiner ends with the third verse of Luther's chorale.

A year later, in 1725, Bach again turned to John 14:23. The opening chorus is a more elaborate arrangement of the opening duet of Cantata 59, this time featuring full chorus and adding a third trumpet to the ensemble. As marvelous as the duet is, for sheer pomp, this revision blows it away. The following soprano aria, accompanied by oboe da caccia represents a rewrite of the BWV59 bass solo with violin. The text differs, however. The believer prays for the Holy Ghost to dwell in his heart. Although one pits one Bach work against another only foolishly, the bass version of this seems to me the more daring, with its wide separation of solo voice and violin obbligato. In an altus recitative (here taken by the countertenor), the believer declares his heart ready for the Spirit. The bass then sings Jesus's stern words from Acts: "I go away and come again to you. If you loved me, you would rejoice." In contrast to the rich, festive scoring throughout the rest of the cantata, the ensemble of bass solo and bare continuo stands out, emphasizing the uncompromising quality of the message.

The tenor, in an echo of "Erschallet ihr Lieder," calls for tuning strings and songs to celebrate the promised return of Christ. The violins get a concerto-like part and the tenor a similar workout in long ecstatic runs, anticipating the joy at the Lord's arrival. A contrasting section talks about the trials Satan will set on the disciples, but the tenor reaffirms his trust in Jesus. A recitative for bass from Romans 8:1, reinforces the idea that "there is no damnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." A fire-breathing altus aria (again, here taken by the countertenor), drives home the point that salvation comes through Jesus's passion and blood. Trumpet, oboe, vocal, and solo violin fanfares of Vivaldian brilliance punctuate the message. In the contrasting section, strong slashes of string chords depict the soul's laughter at Satan's rage. The austerity of the final chorale delivers an almost shocking contrast. Bach uses the tune "Komm her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn" (come to me, says the son of God) – a verse which proclaims that Christ's sacrifice has earned for us miserable sinners the gift of grace.

For me, although relatively brief, this cantata ranks among Bach's best. He seems working at a white-hot level of invention and skill in every number. I have no idea why groups don't do it more often.

Cantata 34, O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe (O, eternal fire, O source of love), comes from very late in Bach's life, around 1746. He based it on an earlier wedding cantata written somewhere in the 1730s. It opens with yet another festival chorus, complete with pairs of trumpets, oboes, and timpani. The choir sings with unbelievable vigor (in the literal sense that you have a hard time believing humans are capable of such energy or such music) and then drops into a magnificent double fugue, representing the kindling of the heart with "heavenly flames." Although in a different rhythm, its electricity reminds me of the opening to Bach's Magnificat.

A tenor recitative tells us that since our hearts keep the divine word and thus prays to God to "make our hearts yours." An serene alto aria on the happiness of the blest follows. It's the kind of music that Mendelssohn built on for "O rest in the Lord." The parts avoid wide leaps and Bach refers to pastoral drones and shepherd pipes (2 flutes in obbligato) in the accompaniment.

At this point, Bach could end with a four-part chorale setting. Instead, a bass recitative sets up God's "word of blessing" on those in grace. Then Bach hits us with a masterstroke – the full choir shouts the mighty word of God – "Friede über Israel" (peace upon Israel) – and follows with an allegro chorus of praise, which emphasizes the word "thanks" to His hands, His grace, and His blessing. The cantata ends in an exciting choral dance.

Once again, the performances come from Gardiner's 2000 "Cantata Pilgrimage" European tour, probably recording sessions somewhere around the live concert date. Gardiner may be my overall favorite in these works, and although others may better him in individual cantatas, I've never found anything by him less than superb. He always seems to be in the running. The Monteverdi Choir has a beautiful sound without sacrificing clarity. All the soloists sing with musical intelligence and sensitivity to the texts. This time around, Magdalena Kožená, Robin Blaze, and Reinhard Hagen stand out. Soprano Kožená, a Gardiner stalwart, demonstrates her fine dramatic sensibility. Robin Blaze has one of the most beautiful countertenor voices I've heard. Bass Hagen approaches my ideal of a Bach bass – a weighty, yet clear sound, without sacrificing either the movement of the musical line or flexibility. The engineering is near perfect.

Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz