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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Cantatas for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany

  • Alles nur nach Gottes Willen, BWV 72
  • Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir, BWV 73
  • Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit, BWV 111
  • Ich steh' mit einem Fuß im Grabe, BWV 156
Joanne Lunn, soprano
Sara Mingardo, contralto
Julian Podger, tenor
Stephen Varcoe, bass
The Monteverdi Choir
The English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Archiv 463582-2
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Beautiful choral and instrumental work. Soloists may not be to everyone's taste.

Bach created his cantatas to inspire the listener to piety and regularly tied them to the Bible reading on the particular day he meant them for. The Feast of Epiphany (January 6) celebrates the visit of the Magi. The Bible readings for the third Sunday after come from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans and from the Gospel According to St. Matthew. Both emphasize the Christian duty to charity toward strangers and one's enemies. The St. Matthew passage tells the story of Jesus healing the leper and the centurion's servant. That said, the cantata texts emphasize more the need to trust in the will of God, in good times and bad. They essentially exhort the listener to strengthen his faith.

Cantata 72, Alles nur nach Gottes Willen (all only according to God's will), says this most directly, especially in the opening chorus, in a vigorous 3/4 similar to the "Deposuit" of Bach's Magnificat. One particular rhythm predominates – two quarter notes and a rest – on the word alles (all), as if laying down and reinforcing a cosmic law. Even when the choir doesn't sing or goes on to new material, the orchestra carries the motif on. An alto recitative, arioso, and aria follows to deliver the message of blessedness and the promise of salvation to the Christian who submits. The text repeats the phrase "Herr, so du willt" (Lord, as you wish), and Bach varies the same musical motif. The Christian sings of resting in Jesus, so long as one accepts one's circumstances, despite human failure to understand the ways of God. The aria's main interest is that contrary to the textual surface meaning of finding rest, the music moves energetically, stressing the eagerness of the soul. It's Job without the exasperation of the sufferer at the end. Following a bass recitative urging the soul to belief, a soprano aria, frolicking like lambs in spring, tells of Jesus's promise to the believer. The cantata ends with a chorale summing up all these points.

Composed two years previously in 1724 (Bach cantata numbering foxes me), Cantata 73, Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir (Lord, as you will, so let it be done with me) of course makes many of the Cantata 72 theological points. It begins with a remarkable complexity in the service of drama. The instruments take up an allegro, similar in rhythm to the first Brandenburg, through which an eighth-note motive, which corresponds to the chorale tune, "Herr wie du willt," and rhythmically fits those words, bubbles up and runs throughout the movement. The choir enters with the chorale tune, but the solo tenor, representing the soul's anguish over the troubles that come his way, interrupts with a recitative after two lines. This is unprecedented in Bach's cantatas. It may well be unique. It creates a dramatic dialogue between the legion of the faithful, represented by the chorus, and the individual soul. The chorus returns with two more lines of the chorale, entreating God not to let the soul perish. A bass recitative breaks in, this time simply affirming faith. The musical characters of both recitatives differ – the first harmonically unstable and chromatic, the second more diatonic. The choir finishes up with the rest of the chorale, telling of God's grace, praying for patience, and believing that God's will works for the best. You'd think we'd end there, but now the soprano enters with yet another recitative, combining the tenor's anxiety with the bass's steadfastness. The instrumental allegro continues in a rounding-off of the movement, with interjections from the choir, now making explicit the main motif on the words, "Herr, wie du willt."

A sprightly tenor aria follows, with solo oboe prominent – a prayer for joy, with a confession of occasional soul-sickness and uncertainty for contrast. In the next section, a recitative and aria, the bass recitative talks of the necessity of submitting one's "wayward, defiant, despondent" will to God's, while the aria keeps repeating "Herr, so du willt" (Lord, as you will). The tune base is "BISt du bei mir" (if you are with me), found in the Anna Magdalena Notebook, and it soothes the previous anxieties. A poetic touch occurs in the third stanza, at a reference to funeral bells ("I follow unafraid"), with soft plucks on the strings to represent tolling. The chorale tune "Von Gott will ich nicht lassen" (I will not part from God) ends the cantata with the words "Das ist des Vaters Wille, / der uns erschaffen hat" (this is the Father's will, who has created us).

Cantata 111, Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit (whatever my God wills always happens), reminds me of the Energizer bunny, racing and driven. It's a bit unusual, in that the texts and references come from the Old Testament, rather than from the New. The instruments in the opening chorus hammer at a rhythm – eighth and two sixteenths – that Bach sometimes uses to convey great elation. Here, it becomes an engine impelling the movement forward like gangbusters. The chorus enters with chorale verses in the treble, accompanied by striding quarter notes in the low voices, marching inexorably on. A bass aria, "Entsetze dich, mein Herz, nicht" (don't be dismayed, my heart), continues the confident tone. An interesting point of word-setting comes with the first word, "entsetze," always followed by a slight rest, before rising resolutely to an emphasis on the word "nicht" (not).

The alto enters with a recitative on the foolishness of trying to avoid God and cites Jonah's flight in illustration. The alto and tenor then engage in a heroic duet "So geh ich mit beherzten Schritten / nach wenn mich Gott zum Grabe führt" (so I follow dauntlessly when God leads me to the grave). It features electrifying, fanfare-like arpeggios in the strings, which the voices emulate. As the soul follows God, so one voice follows another. This gins up an already high energy level. The ensuing soprano recitative provides a vent, and toward the end, a gentle arioso depicts a peaceful end. The chorus rounds things off with a straight setting of another verse of the opening chorale.

Bach led a rough three years leading up to 1729. In addition to fighting with the Leipzig town council for payment of services rendered and ordered, he and Anna Magdalena had lost their oldest child, age three years, and Anna Magdalena was anxiously going through another pregnancy. Furthermore, his friend and librettist Salamo Franck (a.k.a. Picander) had also died. For Cantata 156, Ich steh' mit einem Fuß im Grabe (I stand with one foot in the grave), he chose a published cantata text by Picander. Picander's writing features contrasts of ideas – life and death, joy and suffering, body and soul. Overall, the text concerns fear of death and hope in salvation, according to God's will. Unlike the other three cantatas for this day, this one has no choral movement, other than the chorale setting at the end, and it leads off with an instrumental sinfonia. An oboe sings one of Bach's most tenderly beautiful melodies, which also occurs as the slow movement to one of the harpsichord concertos. If anything could represent the "peace which passeth understanding," it's this tune. It establishes with the listener an intimacy which is this cantata's hallmark. It leads directly to the title aria for tenor, while in the background the sopranos intone the chorale "Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Gut" (do with me, God, according to your goodness). Throughout, Bach uses descending bass lines, depicting the lowering into the grave. The mood is mostly calm, excepting a passage where the tenor prays for a blessed end.

The bass begs for mercy, lest his sufferings consume him. Finally, he confesses himself ready to accept God's judgment. An alto aria follows, "Herr, was du willt, soll mir gefallen / weil doch dein Rat am besten gilt" (Lord, what you will should please me, because your counsel is the best). For the first time, we hear expressions of joy, especially in long runs of sixteenth notes (melismata) in both the voice and the accompanying oboe, usually a symbol of elation in Bach (compare with the opening to the Magnificat). The alto sings of joy (on the melismata) and sorrow/death/prayer/entreaty (slightly anxious chromatics) but ends with the cheery opening, "Herr, wie du willt" (Lord, as you will).

The bass returns with another recitative, praying for health of body and spirit. The cantata ends with a verse of the chorale "Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir" (Lord, as you will, so let it be done with me), which we heard in Cantata 73.

The performances come from John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000. Nevertheless, I don't believe these are live performances, although the sessions probably took place shortly after a concert. These occurred in Milan's Chiesa di San Marco. Gardiner, for reasons I've never fathomed, gets rapped by various writers for his Bach. I consider these accounts knockouts – fabulous instrumental and choral singing, intelligent solo work. Everybody just sounds so good, with Gardiner alive to Bach's musical symbolism and drama. These readings flow with good, red blood. I might quibble with Stephen Varcoe as the bass soloist. More of a light baritone shading into tenor, Varcoe lacks bass darkness in his voice. However, he sings so magnificently, with exceptional intelligence and musicality, I think he makes you forget it. I have no idea of Gardiner's academic correctness, but I've always been open to different approaches, the scholarly ones and the Modern/Romantic ones. To me, the expressive result primarily matters, not how you got there. I've not heard a bad Bach performance from Gardiner and his group. That may arise from the luck of the draw, or maybe they're just that good.

Copyright © 2013, Steve Schwartz