Sunday, January 07, 2018

Sunday Bach - Epiphany 1

Bach wrote several cantatas for the first Sunday after Epiphany, but this one is the gem of the lot - BWV 124, Meinen Jesum laß ich nicht (My Jesus, leave me not), Leipzig, 1725. The main theme of the day is the story in the Gospel of Luke of Jesus in the temple at the age of 12 dazzling the scholars there with his knowledge, as well as panicking his parents by sneaking off to do so; this explains why most of the cantatas written for this day seem to focus on loss - the fear that the beloved has left us behind. This one definitely plays on this theme, but in a very light, almost childlike way. The late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music waxes positively poetic on that childlike quality in his essay on this piece:
The Gospel reading concerning the 12-year-old Jesus in the temple is one of the most vivid in all of the New Testament. It long has been a favorite subject for composers. One of the lovliest pieces in all of Schütz is his setting of the story, partly dramatic and partly a beautiful ground bass setting of verses from Psalm 84 for Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Bach’s cantata for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany is a jewel. Although not directly referring to the story, it is permeated with the childlike sense of wonder and wisdom. The opening chorus the cantata BWV 124 is one of the greatest. It is so transparent in texture, so casually economical in means that, looking at the score, one could miss how extraordinary it is. Its form is that of an oboe d’amore concerto. The strings are remarkably restrained, most of the time playing almost sketchy looking chords upon which the oboe d’amore plays its roulades. The opening theme is, in character, a minuet. Gradually the theme expands to include graceful dotted rhythms that become the main motion into the cadences. The harmony is so transparent that the chorus parts are actually the richest things in the piece. The beautiful melody, one of Bach’s favorites is gorgeously harmonized. Notice the ravishing suspensions in bars 25-27. The choral writing is full of colorful text painting, much of it plays on words about leaving, holding and the light. Echo effects at the end make the final “lass ich nicht” even more poignant. The very simplicity of the texture makes for extraordinary possibilities of sophisticated phrasing. In bar 73, for instance the word “kleben” (hold) is held through the beginning of the concerto entrance. Its final cuttoff is at exactly the moment that you don’t expect it. 
After a secco recitative, the tenor sings an aria about the cruel strokes of death. One expects something heavy and ponderous. Here again Bach keeps the texture light. The Oboe d’amore plays a winding tune over the light strokes of the strings. 
For all of its drama, the there is something childlike about the piece. It is full of the most wonderful touches, for instance the joining of the oboe and tenor in sixths on the words “Doch tröstet sich die Zuversicht” The bass recitative is warm and radiant. Exactly in keeping with the character of the piece. 
We have seen three or four wonderful “running with stumbling footstep” pieces in the 2nd Jahrgang. The most notable is the famous duet from BWV 78. Our duet here for soprano and alto runs more than ambles but has some of the same appealing qualities. It is surprising that it is not more well-known. The continuo line is particularly appealing: the leaps of the tenths are especially charming. The final chorale is equally beautiful. It somewhat resembles the marvelous harmonization, also in E major, that ended the first version of the St. Matthew Passion. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a March 2000 recording by the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir under the direction of Ton Koopman. Enjoy!

Photo © 2008 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

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