I’d never even heard of a cantata before getting the set of Bach CDs, but if one is to believe the following quote, they’re a very important part of Bach’s music:
Bach’s greatest achievement is the Cantata Project, the five annual cycles which he began when he came to Leipzig and finished five years later. Because of losses in manuscripts and only the barest suggestion of the overriding design, we are probably doomed to see this monument as a series of individual works rather than a mighty collection of 300 parts with hundreds of movements.
Douglas Cowling, 2007-May-06, Bach Cantatas mailing list
I’m starting my cantata listening with the three works written for the first week in Advent, which was last Sunday, and happens to be the beginning of the church year. I doubt if I’ll be able to listen to all of Bach’s cantatas in order, but I’ve listed the upcoming dates for all the cantatas, the place of all of Bach’s works on the Bach Edition CDs, as well as my progress listening to them on this page.
Here, I’m listening to cantata 61 from CD III-1, cantata 62 from III-28, and cantata 36 from IV-5. They’re all conducted by Pieter Jan Leusink and the Netherlands Bach Collegium with the Holland Boys Choir. Soloists include Ruth Holton (soprano), Sytse Buwalda (alto), Nico van der Meel (tenor) and Bas Ramselaar (bass). In reading reviews of Leusink’s complete cycle, many commentators seem to specifically dislike Buwalda, and complain that Leusink’s interpretations aren’t very considered. Leusink recorded the entire set of Bach’s cantatas in a single year, and the reviews usually mention this as a possible reason for why his cycle isn’t as polished and “correct” as other cycles. I haven’t been listening to cantatas long enough to really know if these complaints are valid or not.
I also downloaded Philippe Herreweghe’s Adventskantaten CD from eMusic. It’s got the same three cantatas on it, and Herreweghe’s cantata recordings are highly regarded by the same people who aren’t all that fond of Leusink, so it should be a good comparison.
I’m using several references to guide my listening. First, and foremost is the Bach Cantatas website. They’ve got commentary culled from the mailing list of the same name for all the cantatas and many of Bach’s other works. For a mailing list, there’s an amazing diversity of very expert opinion on all aspects of Bach’s music. Second is Simon Crouch’s Listening Guide to Bach’s Cantatas, which provides a short summary of all the cantatas and his opinions on them. Finally, I borrowed a copy of W. Gillies Whittaker’s two volume The Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach from the library. It’s out of print, but is available from used booksellers for a reasonable price. It’s a pretty detailed look at each cantata, but it suffers a bit because it doesn’t reflect recent scholarship regarding Bach. Alfred Dürr’s The Cantatas of J.S. Bach is apparently the best source of contemporary information, and it includes parallel German / English translations for all the cantatas, but none of the local libraries have a copy, and a new paperback is more than $70 from amazon.com. Sight unseen, that’s an awfully expensive book, but if I really get into the cantatas, maybe it’ll be worth it.
I’ve listened to these three cantatas more than 30 times in the last week and a half, so it’s time to write about them and move on to something else.
Cantata BWV 61, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come thou blessed Savior, come)
This cantata was first performed December 2, 1714 in Weimar. Bach held the title of concertmeister at the time, and was formally required to compose new church music once a month. This cantata is also known to have been performed November 28, 1723 in Leipzig .
The first movement starts with a great chorus, with violins and other stringed instruments playing the melody from Martin Luther’s hymn, which names the piece. It’s a great introduction to the work, and for me, to the cantata form.
Next is a recitative sung by the tenor backed by a violin and organ, followed by an aria that’s also sung by the tenor. According to the Wikipedia, the difference between a recitative and an aria is how speech-like the rhythm of the vocal accompaniment is, and I guess in that context the tenor is really singing the third movement in time with the melody, rather than speaking over it as he does in the second movement. It’s cool to have one follow the other with the same singer so I can hear the difference between them.
The fourth movement is another recitative, but this time the strings are plucked (pizzicato). The passage being sung comes from Revelations 3:20: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.” and the plucked strings is meant to evoke the sound of Jesus knocking. It sounds a bit like a foolish compositional trick, but it really does work, especially at the point in the music. I’ve always disliked Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring because of the clopping sounds meant to evoke the sound of horses, but I don’t mind Bach’s use of pizzicato here.
The work concludes with a beautiful soprano aria and an absolutely fantastic chorale. I like the last movement best; it’s really joyful. Unfortunately, it’s also really short, and to me, seems to end the cantata prematurely.
As far as the two different recordings I have (Leusink and Herreweghe), the timing differs between the two works, but the instrumentation, singing and expressiveness of the piece are very similar between the two. I really can’t complain about either, and I don’t know if I would even be able to recommend one over the other. This surprises me a little bit because most of the commentary I’ve read about Leusink and the singers have placed his versions near the bottom of the available choices. Not so in my ears!
Cantata BWV 62, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (Come thou blessed Savior, come)
Cantata 62 was first performed on December 3, 1724 in Leipzig as part of Bach’s second annual cycle of cantatas. He wrote five complete cycles during his first years as capellmeister at the St. Thomas School (an incredible output given all the performances, practice and other labors he was required to do in addition to essentially composing a new work each week), but unfortunately most of the last two cycles have been lost.
This cantata is based on the same hymn as 61 and has a similar structure of a chorus, an alternating series of arias and recitatives, and a final chorus. Compared to 61, I like the opening chorus even more because it seems like the instrumental part has more of a chance to develop before the chorus comes in, making it that much more dramatic. There’s also a lot of counterpoint among the singers that I like.
Next we’ve got a tenor aria, bass recitative, and bass aria. Only the bass aria is interesting because of the strong instrumentation. For this movement, I do prefer Herreweghe’s version over Leusink because it’s very forcefully played and sung. Leusink seems to drag it out and it loses a lot of it’s power.
The final recitative before the closing chorus is a duet for the soprano and alto singers, which makes it different from the movements thus far. The chorus for this cantata is even shorter than the chorus of cantata 61, but it’s also not as good. The best part of this cantata is the opening chorus, by a long shot.
I like Herreweghe’s version quite a bit more for this cantata, mostly due to the quickened pacing which makes it brighter and more urgent sounding. The opening chorus and the bass aria really benefit from the faster timing.
Cantata BWV 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor (Swing joyfully yourselves on high)
This sacred version of cantata 36 comes from Bach’s reworking of several secular cantatas (versions 36b and 36c still exist) and was first performed December 2, 1731.
Here we have a completely different pattern, with an opening chorus, followed by alternating chorales and arias. Like the other Advent cantatas (maybe cantatas in general?) it ends with a chorale. There are no recitatives here, which is apparently unusual, but for me is a welcome change.
The opening chorus has a lot of the counterpoint I like from the opening of cantata 61, but here the instrumentation features woodwinds (Oboe d’amore) rather than strings carrying the melody. The rest of the cantata carries along similarly to the chorus, with a variety of duets, arias and chorales and more woodwind accompaniment. The melody is very simple and is easy to pick out throughout the work.
I like the soprano aria in the seventh movement not so much because of the singing, but because the voice and the featured violin (violone?) complement each other very well.
Similar to cantata 62, Leusink is slower and more leisurely than Herreweghe. That works well for the soprano aria, but not so well for the opening chorus. I also like Leusink’s soprano (Ruth Horton) more than Sibylla Rubens. Horton sings more gracefully and emotionally, while Rubens really belts it out like an opera singer. I think the aria needs a lighter touch. Anyway, it’s a mixed bag here and I can’t outright recommend one version over the other. And in general, I don’t think you can go wrong with either recording. The music is too good.