Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sunday Bach - Advent 3

The light shines in the darkness
Bach's cantata for the third Sunday in Advent is another case of a missing original score. Like last week's cantata, Bach wrote a cantata for this Sunday during his tenure in Weimar, but when he got the job in Leipzig it wasn't needed; the Thomaskirche didn't perform cantatas during Advent. So Bach expanded his original Advent cantata to a much larger work for the 7th Sunday after Trinity and promptly lost the original Advent score. Thankfully, later scholars have managed to piece together the original from a deconstructing of the later version and notes from the librettist Salomo Franck and various performers of the day. So we have something of a version of Bach's cantata for Advent 3, BWV 186a, Ärgre dich, o Seele, nicht (Fret not, o soul, Weimar, 1717). Here's what Michael Beattie of Emmanuel Music has to say about this cantata:
In Leipzig, cantata performances were suspended during the last three Sundays of Advent, so the Advent cantatas that we have all predate his tenure there. BWV 186a is a reconstruction of a later piece written for the 7th Sunday of Trinity, but an existing wordbook of Bach’s wonderful librettist Salomo Franck confirms the original date of its first performance (1717) in Weimar. In the Gospel for that day [Matthew 11 :2-10] John the Baptist sends his disciples to see if Jesus is indeed the prophesied Messiah. BWV 186a radiates great intensity though a curiously muted and melancholy tone. Bach was clearly responding to the many thematic dualities throughout this great text, perhaps the most important: the idea of God’s brilliance and image humbly reflected in the form of a servant.  
In the opening chorus the bass line marches patiently, supporting winding counterpoint from the upper strings. The viola (the most melancholy of instruments) is often the principal voice, asserting itself even when orchestra and chorus are fully engaged. The sustained notes of the chorus (on staggered entrances) produce a truly ‘confounding’ harmony, but they immediately relent and become part of the string counterpoint. The remaining lines of text are set motet style with only the support of the inexorable bass line. The bass (accompanied by continuo alone) speaks the words of John in a deceptively simple, almost jolly, tune. The wiry, angular melismas on the words ‘zweifelsvoll’ [doubtful] and particularly ‘verstricken’ [entangle] are surprising and among the most tortured in all of Bach. In the chorales and choruses the viola usually doubles the tenor line, so it is interesting that Bach chose these two ‘partners’ as vocal and instrumental soloist for the next aria. Craig Smith felt that Bach’s re-scoring in the later version of this piece for violins and oboe up the octave was ‘one of his few mistakes’ The viola’s sparkling figuration shines brilliantly through its inherently covered sound, matching the text perfectly. The gorgeous aria for soprano with its soulful, chromatic violin accompaniment is both embracingly comforting and heartbreaking. The duet for soprano and alto once again responds amazingly to the duality of the text: faith does not erase sorrow, it simply makes it more bearable. Bach choses a crazed, joyous dance in a minor key; the effect is ultimately more disturbing than comforting. The chorale is a bright, bracing and determined setting of Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, verse 8.
Today's performance is reconstructed from a full performance of the later BWV 186 for Trinity 7 by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

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