Bach: Secular Cantatas, Vol 03 - Suzuki

Bach: Secular Cantatas, Vol 03 - Suzuki


Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal

Johann Sebastian Bach:
Durchlauchtster Leopold, BWV 173a (Serenata)
Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten, BWV 202
Schwingt freudig euch empor und dringt bis an die Sternen
BWV 36c; Quodlibet, BWV 524 (Fragment)

Joanne Lunn (soprano)
Hiroya Aoki (counter-tenor)
Makoto Sakurada (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Masamitsu San’nomiya (oboe & oboe d’amore)
Natsumi Wakamatsu (violin & viola d’amore)
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki (conductor)

Although two of the works on this disc were composed for weddings, they are completely different in character. Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten is a charming and gracious garland of recitatives and arias for soprano solo in which Spring, Flora, Apollo and Amor are all invoked in a blessing of the newly wedded couple and their union.

The Quodlibet (Latin for ‘what pleases’) on the other hand, is an altogether unceremonious composition which was probably intended for a private function in Bach’s own circle or family. All we have is a fragment of the work – in Bach’s own hand – and the beginning and ending of the piece, including the title page, are missing.

It is therefore not even certain that it is Bach’s own work, but may have been a collaboration between several of the wedding guests. Compositions of this kind belong to a tradition which combines quotations from songs, toasts, market traders’ calls, proverbs and puns, and were especially popular at weddings – where they frequently got out of hand!

The third disc in Bach Collegium Japan’s series of secular cantatas also includes a birthday cantata composed in the honour of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, Bach’s employer during years 1717–23. Durchlauchtster Leopold (‘Most illustrious Leopold’) celebrates the ‘propitious day’ while extolling the ruler’s ‘excellent attributes’ and ‘princely renown’.

Two duets in minuet form lend the work the character of a courtly serenade, which didn’t stop Bach from reusing it, with a new text, as a church cantata a few years later. The name of the recipient of Schwingt freudig euch empor, another congratulatory cantata, is no longer known, but the text tells us that he was a teacher of high standing and of an advanced age.

Once again Bach, who must have been attached to the work, reused it as a church cantata, but also, with the new title Steigt freudig in die Luft, as a birthday tribute to Charlotte Friederike of Anhalt-Köthen, the wife of Prince Leopold.

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PCM recording

Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - July 7, 2014

Now that all the sacred cantatas by Bach have been issued, BIS has turned to the seemingly less popular set of secular cantatas. A motley collection they are, 20-odd scattered remains from what was certainly a much larger assemblage written throughout his career; they must have been a significant source of his fees as a musician. We have some twenty-three secular cantatas (as against nineteen extant and seven incomplete) but the total output of Bach in this genre is unknown.

Bach himself made no clear distinction between his sacred and secular cantatas. Indeed, he reused a number of secular cantatas, including BWV 173a and BWV 36c on this disc, often applying them in the Leipzig cantata cycles. BWV 36c, a salutary birthday present for a much-loved elderly academic, was used no less than five times by the composer, who seems to have had a soft spot for the music.

Although the non-religious cantatas do not have the greatness of many cantatas in the ecclesiastical cycles in terms of humankind's relationship with the Lutheran God, they provide some of the only evidence we have of Bach's day-to-day life in the churches, palaces and public places in cities that he worked in. Interestingly, Bach's happiest years were at Cöthen (1717-1723), which was a secular court where he had no duties in church music, forbidden by Calvinism, and where he composed a significant number of the validated secular cantatas..

Suzuki's scholastic preparation and direction for these Secular Cantata volumes receive the same care, inventiveness and insight as in the Lutheran volumes, and the accumulated experience of his musical teams often throws some new light on this relatively unpopular music for one-off occasions.

"Praises for the Boss" in musical terms was one duty for Bach which was required to carry out in every one of his employments. A good example of this type of annual Birthday Cantata is that for Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen, BWV 173a, in December 1772. Here the" people", through their musical proxies, pay homage to the Prince - something that Bach would, in this case, not find hard to do unequivocally, as he admired Leopold's musicality. Soprano Joanne Lunn and bass-baritone Roderick Williams take up allegoric personages, Soprano representing "Providence" and Bass an allegory of "Renown". The instrumental accompaniment is essentially a small chamber group, with Violin I & II, Viola I & 2, cello, transverse flute and bassoon. Rather than a large public occasion, this was an intimate gathering for the inner circle of the Köthen castle inhabitants, who were expected to know their Greek and Roman mythologies. This cantata bears Bach's designation of "Serenata", which refers to an evening event in the Palace and is quite commonly applied to the more intimate occasions..

Joanna Lunn's sweet, pure voice expresses general joy and admiration for Leopold with a flowing expressiveness, while Roderick William declaimes the Prince's virtuous treatment of his subjects with authority. Suzuki's buoyant rhythms in this Cantata underpin the beaming vocal praises, particularly in the two Gavotte movements, which could easily be danced to.

Contrary to BWV 173a, we know little or nothing about BWV 36c ('Soar joyfully upwards') , beyond its approximate date, 1725. What we can infer from its text (of unknown origin) is that It appears to have been in praise of a local elderly University academic (he had reached "silver embellishment of age"), who was evidently greatly loved and respected by his students. As an ex-Academic myself, I regret that our present-day University students are more than unlikely to commission such a distinguished piece of music as thanks for the staff! Despite some over-the-top hyperbole ("The day in which you were born - Appears as salubrious - As that of which the Creator spoke: 'Let there be light"), the animated vocals convey great generosity of warmth and thankfulness for the lucky professor. Tenor Makoto Sakurada, bass Roderick Williams and soprano Joanne Lunn come together for choruses at the start and finish of the work, and in between their lovely Italianate solos are aided by the orchestra, particularly the oboe d'amore and viola d'amore soloists, who intertwine so beautifully with their vocalists in several inspired arias. No wonder Bach used this material in at least five other occasions.

The 'Wedding Cantata' is one of the few well-known secular pieces. Bach must surely have been asked to write for many more weddings than have been preserved. Again there is no information about date, name of the couple, who the poet was or where it was performed. It was, however, as with the other cantatas on this disc, certainly a ceremony for the bourgeois as there are no trumpets and drums. 'Weichet nur' consists of a series of Baroque tableaux each described by the soprano, referring to the seasonal context of the ceremony. Bach introduces us to Flora, Phoebus and Amor and shows us some wonderful orchestral onomatopoeia in converting sights to sound, for example the lifting of the mists in the work's chilly opening. Joanne Lunn takes this into the vocal realm, suggesting rustics in an aria which is quite folksy, and in Amor's part in the fifth movement. Nudging and winking at the bride and groom, she sounds elegantly mock-bashful. Beautifully done by Suzuki's ensemble, but not quite matching my favourite soprano recording by a young Elly Ameling.

The star of this disc is 'Quodlibet' BWV 524. Avid Bach lovers will likely have seen it listed in indices, but there are few recordings. Although another wedding piece, it is of a totally different style and audience type. Not a cantata, then, but a humorous folk session, in which protagonists snatch disjointed fragments of text and mismatch them together - skilful and probably well-lubricated by alcohol in much the same manner as today's TV improvisation games. As mentioned in the booklet notes, "they were especially popular at weddings, where they frequently got out of hand". Clearly, despite the lack of trumpets and drums, quodlibets were hardly indicative of bourgeois audiences.

Suzuki, in a footnote referring to his production, tells us that Bach's own manuscript of this particular quodlibet (others can be found instrumentally in the Goldberg Variations and The Art of Fugue) lacks its first two and last two pages and is thus considered a fragment. Nevertheless, he has organised a setting which captures the rude humour and reckless behaviour going on in a post-wedding entertainment, quite a new approach, as the Quodlibet as recorded in several complete Bach Cantata series is just done verbatim.

Beginning with the single word "Steiss" meaning "bottom" (in what sense I leave the reader to decide; the singers apparently interpret it anatomically as one might do in a drunken party), the now four soloists (with the addition of counter-tenor Hiroya Aoki) do battle with each other and a very active continuo. There are vivid sound-pictures of a glugging bottle, a buzzy instrument probably from a Renaissance band, much audience encouragement from the chorus, mock throat clearing, and a variety of fake voices. At this point I was rather worried that the singing might be done in the dreaded "mummorset" accent which some performances of Purcell exhibit, but at least it seemed as if the whole cast were thoroughly enjoying themselves in a very non-cantata way. The final words on the last page say "What a nice fugue" and the singers inhale a pantominic deep breath which is, of course, followed by silence.

If this was indeed written by Bach (and there is no solid evidence that it was), this shindig shows us another side of his life, even beyond his love of a pipe and some beer. I like to think that writing the line about the fugue could have caused him to have a dry chuckle.

The BIS engineers have provided their usual clear and well-balanced recording of smaller than usual forces in the Shirakawa Hall, which they must know now like the back of their hands. Despite some competition from other recordings (although few of them are with period instruments and practise), these are fine performances (although I find it hard to judge the unique Quadlibet which is done with such gusto) and collectors of the BIS Bach Cantatas series will certainly add it to their shelves. Otherwise, buy it for its magnificent Baroque style and sound - or at least, try out that Quadlibet!

Copyright © 2014 John Miller and


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Also released by King International (KKC-5797)