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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Secular Cantatas X: “Cantatas of Contentment”
Angenehmes Wiederau, freue dich in deinen Auen, BWV30a [35:42]
Ich bin in mir vergnügt BWV204 [30:20]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), Makoto Sakurada (tenor), Dominik Wörner (bass), Bach Collegium Japan / Masaaki Suzuki
rec. 2017, Saltama Arts Theatre Concert Hall, Japan
BIS BIS2351 SACD [66:11]

This issue completes one of the great modern recording odysseys, being the final disc of complete surviving secular cantatas from Bach Collegium Japan, the group that has already given us the complete church cantatas – as well the Passions, Masses, and some major instrumental music besides. Only about twenty secular cantatas have survived in performable condition. These pieces are not so far from the work of Bach the church musician (he even transferred some secular music into his church texts) and are hardly lesser works than the sacred music.

This final volume opens with Angenehmes Wiederau, freue dich in deinen Auen (‘Pleasant Wiederau, rejoice in your meadows’) from 1737 – a musical tribute to the incoming new lord of the estate of Wiederau, south-west of Leipzig. The text is by Picander, Bach’s frequent Leipzig collaborator, and is the usual piece of flattery from the characters of Good Fortune (alto), Time (soprano), Fate (bass) and the local river, the Elster (tenor). It is thus a dramma per musica, with little drama but excellent words for music. Bach deploys three trumpets and timpani as well as the four vocal soloists, in what the excellent notes of Klaus Hoffman tell us is “surprisingly modern music”, showing the “spirit of a new age” with a style then dominating the court of Dresden, each number influenced by the dance. So here we have the old man showing what he could do with the musical manners more familiar to his sons and pupils.

The opening and closing choruses with trumpets and timpani are especially delightful, and each aria has its own dance pattern and instrumental colour, with flute, oboe and violin providing solos or appearing in combination. The vocalists are regulars of Suzuki’s series, so we know the high standards we can expect. The bass Dominik Wörner has two arias, and if he does not always have the sweetest sound, his style is suave and the musical manner is ingratiating, especially so in the skilful negotiation of the more florid decorative passages. Counter-tenor Robin Blaze rivals the accompanying flute with his own vocal fluting, and Carolyn Sampson’s pure soprano, ideal for baroque music, has no trouble with some tricky-sounding melisma. Tenor Makoto Sakurada, in the last of the arias, invites the honoured guests to settle in the meadows with flowing, liquid tone (well, he is impersonating a river). In terms of invention this must be one of the most serenely delightful of all the secular cantatas. Small wonder Bach re-used its music (minus trumpets and drums) for a church cantata (BWV 30).

In contrast with all these festive frolics, Ich bin in mir vergnügt (‘I am content in myself’) is a much more intimate work for solo soprano, flute, oboe and strings. The occasion for its composition is unknown, but the title in Bach’s score reads Cantata von der Vergnügtsamkeit (‘Cantata of Contentment’). It’s not quite the homely pipe-and-slippers piece that that might make it sound, but a reference to the Enlightenment moral ethos of being content with what life has to offer. The music too is more varied than the contentment theme might suggest, with again each of the first three arias having a distinct instrumentation, first with two oboes, then with violin solo, and third with the flute. This third one, ‘Meine Seele sei vergnügt’ (‘May my soul be content’) is, at 6:48, the longest item on the disc, and offers a contest of expressive eloquence between Kiyomi Suga’s flauto traverso and soprano Carolyn Sampson which ends as an honourable draw with each perfectly matching the other. But then it almost goes without saying that Sampson is exquisite throughout. The fourth and final aria is a hymn to “heavenly contentment” which uses all the forces. It’s a lovely piece, even if its sentiment that “Divine contentment…makes the poor rich” can seem a little complacent to some modern sensibilities.

The Bach Collegium Japan sing and play as satisfyingly as they have done since their foundation in 1990 and the hero of the disc, as ever, is Masaaki Suzuki. His sense of the tempo giusto in this music is unerring, and his response to the sprightly dance measures is always infectious. If any Bach cantata disc could be described irreverently as “foot-tapping” this could be it. The booklet notes, texts and translations, and the SACD sound, are all well up to the series standard, and this is a most attractive disc well worthy of bringing a fine series to its close. “Cantatas of Contentment” might not be the most exciting title for a Bach recording, and there is nothing of the moving tragic tone sometimes found in the church cantatas. But I can see why Suzuki and colleagues chose to end their great traversal of all the cantatas with these ones. Contentment – or deep satisfaction – must have been exactly what they felt as the last recording session closed.

Roy Westbrook

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