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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cantatas for the 11th Sunday after Trinity

  • Cantata, BWV 179 "Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei"
  • Cantata, BWV 199 "Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut"
  • Cantata, BWV 113 "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut"
Magdalena Kožená, soprano
William Towers, countertenor
Mark Padmore, tenor
Stephan Loges, bass
The Monteverdi Choir
The English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv 463591-2 64:20
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Summary for the Busy Executive: The Word made music.

Bach stated that he intended his cantatas to provide "well-regulated" church music, by which he meant that instead of throwing in whatever cantata to provide a pleasant musical interlude during a service, he would compose a work which related to the Biblical readings for that particular Sunday of the church year. Therefore, to understand a particular cantata fully, one must pay attention not only to its libretto but also to the Biblical texts on which provide the foundation for the sermon. Indeed, the Bach cantata becomes another sermon, this time musical.

The readings on the 11th Sunday after Trinity concern the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Gospel of Luke as well as St. Paul's confession of guilt and humility for having persecuted Christians before his vision on the road to Damascus. The two readings share the thread of humility and in particular Jesus's admonition that "Whosoever exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted."

Written in 1723, Cantata 179, Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei (see to it that your fear of god be not hypocrisy), splits into two parts: the first dealing with the hypocrisy of the Pharisee, the second with the humility of the tax collector. With its repetitions of "siehe zu" and "mit falschem Herzen" (with false heart, on a descending chromatic run), the opening chorus rains blows on the religiously smug, as if Pharisees made up the entire congregation. A stern tenor recitative continues in the same vein, explicitly comparing "today's Christendom" to the Pharisees and to the Laodiceans (who wavered in and tried to water down their faith). A tenor aria featuring slashing figures in the strings rails against those "hypocrites, outwardly beautiful, who cannot stand before God."

A bass recitative shifts the cantata's attention to the humble Christian, who remains the same "within and without." Even though you do not steal or fornicate or bear false witness, don't presume that you are a true Christian. The recitative ends with an exhortation to acknowledge your sins in return for divine mercy – the latter to music of great serenity. A heartbreaking soprano aria (with an oboe da caccia duet in the accompaniment) expresses the soul in confession. A lovely bit of word-painting occurs at the line "ich versink im tiefen Schlamm" (I sink in the deep mud) when the line descends into the lowest part of the soprano register. The cantata ends with a chorale where the contrite, sinful man asks for mercy before God.

Cantata 199, Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut (my heart swims in blood), may very well win Most Grotesque Cantata Title. Bach wrote it in 1714, nine years before Cantata 179. Apparently Bach's cantatas are numbered in the order the editors submitted them to the catalogue. The numbering system is so ingrained that most likely a more rational numbering system isn't possible, since most aficionados know exactly which cantata BWV4, for example, refers to.

Bach's cantatas are either heavily choral, usually representing the mass of Christendom or the voice of dogma, a mix of choral and solo (the latter often depicting states of the individual soul), or pure solo, the case here – a workout of four recitatives and arias for soprano. This is also one of Bach's most intimate cantatas, based on the common Italian secular model, here adapted to Lutheran worship. It also turns recitative from purely explicatory toward expressive ends and to a greater extent even than in other Bach cantatas. It seems to be a sudden epiphany in his development as a composer of cantatas.

Cantata 199 preaches about how the guilty soul finds grace through confession. The first recitative-plus-aria shows the sinner's lament due to isolation from God. "I must hide myself before the one before whom even angels hide their faces." The recitative is dramatic and tortured, the aria more lyrical, though still sad, with a gorgeous accompaniment featuring the oboe, surely one of the more affective instruments. Before the recapitulation of the aria opening, the soprano breaks down into recitative again. "My heart is a river, my eyes a hot fountain of tears. Oh God! who will satisfy you?"

In the next group, the soul begs for forgiveness, with a dramatic outcry of the tax collector's prayer: "Gott sei mir Sünder gnädig" (God, be merciful to me, a sinner). The aria, "Tief gebückt und voller Reue" (deeply bowed and full of rue), one of the most beautiful in all of Bach, the composer himself daringly sets up as the direct utterance of the soul. It exquisitely balances faith with atonement. The soul pleads for God's patience. Essentially the first time that Bach establishes major tonality, it thus marks a change in the direction of thought.

The following recitative, incredibly brief, is superficially explicatory: I've sinned and now I'm going to atone. However, the opening phrase closely resembles the opening of the first recitative. Consequently, even though the words speak of heartfelt confession, the soul recalls its heart swimming in the bloody sea of sin, thus reinforcing the sincerity of atonement. Its associated "aria" is really a chorale movement, a type usually taken either by a mixed choir or by a choir section (as in the Actus Tragicus). Here, however, I doubt that Bach had anything in mind other than the soloist. The soprano sings the chorale tune "Ich, dein betrübtes Kind" (I, your troubled child) over a lovely cello obbligato, somewhat similar in effect to the well-known choral setting of "Wachet auf." The soul seeks redemption in the "deep wounds" of Christ.

In the final recitative-cum-aria, the soul reaffirms its faith in the redemptive wounds of Christ, "as in the true rock" (an ancestor of the spiritual "I Got a Home in That Rock"). The aria, a gigue, sings of the soul's elation at its reconciliation with God. Unusually, Bach ends on an aria rather than on the usual chorale. This has to be deliberate, since he had on hand the chorale movement and placed it earlier in the cantata. It makes sense to conclude that he wanted to end on an expression of great joy – furthermore, the joy of the individual – rather than on communal doctrine.

From 1724, Cantata 113, Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (Lord Jesus Christ, you highest good), is based on the chorale tune of the same name. Neither as angry nor as tortured as the other cantatas for this day, it emphasizes forgiveness and redemption. Over flowing sixteenth notes, the mixed chorus sings the chorale phrases, where the "wretched sinner" prays to Jesus for mercy. A stately tempo conveys a straightforwardness, reinforced by the steady tread of the chorale, rather than spiritual anguish, despite the minor tonality. Another chorale movement, for alto (here, a countertenor), like its counterpart in BWV199, pits a solo voice intoning the chorale tune over an independent string melody, asks that Christ's suffering on the cross redeem his sins. Again, this represents more general dogma than personal distress.

The bass then sings a pastoral triple-time aria. In the A section, the soul tells of the fear and trembling it undergoes if it does not act justly. In the contrasting B section, it tells us "my heart would break, if your word did not promise consolation." Even here, however, the mood stresses solace, rather than the broken heart, especially with Bach's special emphasis on the words "promise" and "consolation." A remarkable "chorale and recitative" follows. The bass intones the chorale tune, occasionally interrupting himself with recitative expressing the individual soul's joy at divine forgiveness – a mixture of the dogmatic with the personal.

The tenor tenderly praises Jesus's redemption of sinners, accompanied by a solo flute whom Bach gives some kick-butt fast runs in a generally moderate tempo. Part of the chorale appears in the aria's B section. The recitative after is full of wonderful touches. The general message is to hear the call of Jesus and to pray like the tax collector, "God, be merciful to me." In the previous aria and at the very beginning of this recitative, we've had continuo only (keyboard, cello, and possibly solo melody instrument). When Jesus speaks, the strings enter – as Leonard Bernstein noted – creating a "halo" around Christ's words to the end of the number.

A killer duet for soprano and alto follows. It's full of extremely long runs, impossible to take in one breath. When people talk of Bach's "clumsiness" writing for voice, they probably have this aria in mind. Yet such lapses occur rarely, at least in the cantatas, and this probably represents the most extreme case. Its first brief snatch varies the chorale tune and then attaches the chains, as the soul pleads to break the yoke of sin and to live in childlike obedience to God's word. Many writers on this cantata consider the duet somewhat pro forma, not really worth the effort. I think it a splendid example of Bach's contrapuntal art and thus impossible to dismiss so cavalierly. If Bach were easy, anyone could do it.

The final chorale prays God to strengthen the soul "with the spirit of joy" and to heal sin with Jesus's wounds, so that at death, "washed in the sweat of Christ's death," the soul can join the company of the elect in heaven.

The means of performance matter to me less than the performance itself. I've heard great performances of Bach cantatas that took many different routes. I have no idea of Gardiner's scholarly accuracy, but his expressivity and the beauty of the playing, choral work, and solo singing overwhelms me. This is one outstanding disc – an interpretation that misses almost nothing. He hits all the expressive points I know about. The choir sings Bach's complex lines intelligently and with absolute awareness of their proper place in the texture. The instrumental ensemble almost made me cry, it was so good. In a group of stellar solo singers, Magdalena Kožená, soprano, stands out for her dramatic, psychologically penetrating readings, without leaving the scale of Baroque music for Verdi and Wagner. Tenor Mark Padmore finishes in second place, bass Stephan Loges in third, due mainly to a slightly too-quick vibrato. Countertenor William Towers doesn't have all that much to do, but I welcome the different, "woody" timbre.

Gorgeous Bach in gorgeous sound. Can you pass this up?

Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz