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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Secular Cantatas

O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit (Wedding Cantata) (BWV 210) [35:39]
Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht (Coffee Cantata) (BWV 211)* [25:46]
Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Makoto Sakurada, tenor (*); Stephan Schreckenberger, bass (*)
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
Recorded in July 2003 at Saitama Arts Theatre Concert Hall, Tokyo, Japan. DDD
BIS CD-1411 [62:05]

 

The secular cantatas aren’t among the most popular works of Johann Sebastian Bach. There are exceptions, though: one of them is the so-called 'Coffee Cantata'. The other work on this disc is far less well known and is seldom performed.

Most secular cantatas were commissioned by personalities in public life for performance at special occasions, like weddings, birthday celebrations and social and political events. As a consequence these works were usually performed once, and then put aside. This is the reason so many of works in this genre by Bach and others have been lost. That is also the case with Bach's secular cantatas. More then twenty have been preserved, mainly due to the fact that Bach treated his compositions with utmost care. It is an established fact that about thirty cantatas have been lost. It is assumed Bach wrote many more.

The second way in which Bach made sure his music was preserved is through his use of the 'parody' technique: he regularly re-used material from his secular cantatas in other cantatas, either secular or - more often - sacred. Arias and choruses were given a new text and - if necessary - the music was adapted to fit. The best-known example of a composition which contains material from secular cantatas is the Christmas Oratorio. This practice was quite common in Bach's time. It should be kept in mind that in those days no fundamental difference was made between sacred and secular music. In fact, secular cantatas could contain sacred elements, like the wedding cantata 'O holder Tag', where the opening recitative ends with the lines: "We are by God to this commanded: amidst the joyful to rejoice". And the closing aria puts the wedding in the perspective of eternity: "Make full now your dwelling, bring joy to your heart, until you the Lamb's own high feast doth refresh". The 'Lamb', of course, refers to Jesus Christ.

It is not known for sure, who the addressee of this cantata was. It is assumed that the bridegroom was university educated, and was a great lover of music, as these lines from the aria 'Grosser Gönner, dein Vergnügen' suggest: "And among thy wisdom's treasures can thee naught inspire such pleasure as sweet music's charming art". The fact that there is a beautiful hand-written copy of this cantata, which contains only the parts for the soprano and the basso continuo, and which was apparently meant as a gift for the couple, has given rise to the assumption they belonged to the circle of Bach's friends.

The Coffee Cantata is completely different. It wasn't written for a specific occasion, but rather to be performed during one of the concerts which Bach and the Collegium Musicum gave in Zimmermann's coffee house from 1729 onwards. Unlike most secular works from that time this cantata is neither about shepherds and shepherdesses, gods and goddesses, other mythological characters, nor about kings or aristocrats, but about middle class people and one of their habits: the drinking of coffee. The lively interaction between the protagonists points into the direction of a performance in which the singers weren't just singing, but also acting their parts.

The text was written by Picander, who also wrote the words of the St Matthew Passion. As it was published in a collection of poems, at least two of Bach's colleagues also set the text to music, but in those cases the cantata ends with the aria 'Heute noch, lieber Vater'. This way it comes across as a moralistic piece. In Bach's version a recitative is added, which describes how the daughter plays a trick on her father and comes out the winner. The closing trio, 'Die Katze lässt das Mausen nicht' is also an addition. It isn't known whether Picander has written these additions on Bach's request or whether Bach himself has written them. Anyway, these supplements considerably change the character of the original.

From a purely musical point of view this is a very good recording. Carolyn Sampson has a beautiful, warm and yet clear voice, which is well suited to this kind of music. Her German pronunciation is quite good too. The other singers - in the Coffee Cantata - perform at the same level, and so does the instrumental ensemble, playing here with one instrument per part. The solo parts for transverse flute, oboe d'amore and violin are well played.

But in both cantatas something essential is missing. In the wedding cantata it is joy. The first aria begins with the line: "Play on, o ye lively anthems", but there isn't much liveliness and joyfulness in this performance, which rather drags on. There is a lack of contrast between the arias, and the interpretation is also marred by a too rhythmically strict approach to the recitatives.

The Coffee Cantata should be recorded in an intimate atmosphere, not unlike the coffee house where the first performance took place. The concert hall in which this recording was made doesn't seem the most appropriate venue. The pauses between the tracks are too long, which results in a lack of interaction between the protagonists. The main problem is that whereas this cantata is meant to be humorous, the performance here is dead serious. Carolyn Sampson doesn't appear communicate as a cunning girl trying to play a trick on her father - she sings her part with a rather straight face. And Stephan Schreckenberger fails in his portrayal of the elderly father - his voice lacks strength and depth.

After listening to this disc I turned to Emma Kirkby and David Thomas, who give a really humorous performance and play their characters most convincingly, complete with lively interaction. Christopher Hogwood's Academy of Ancient Music surpasses the Bach Collegium Japan in realising the swinging rhythms of the arias.

Johan van Veen

 

Visit the Bach Collegium Japan webpage for reviews of other releases in this series



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