Sunday, May 20, 2018

Festival Bach - Pentecost I

In Bach's time, and indeed through much of the history of the Church, Pentecost was the major festival of the church year, even more so than Christmas and Easter. Why? Because Pentecost marks the birthday of the Church itself, when the disciples, energized and emboldened by the descent of the Holy Spirit, emerged from hiding in the upper room and went out into the world to spread the Good News. These days, and especially here in the United States, it's less so, mostly due to the influence of evangelicalism, which has that uniquely American distrust of any and all institutions and sees Christianity not as the Church Universal but more as a way to advance the "salvation" of the individual; for them Pentecost is a nod to the emergence of the Holy Spirit as another of those personal benefits of being a Christian.

But in Bach's time Pentecost was a three-day celebration of the birth of the Church, and some of Bach's best writing was done for this celebration. Like last year I'll be posting cantatas for all three days. Today we'll be listening to BWV 74, Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten (He who loves me will keep my word, Leipzig 1725). This is a particularly magnificent cantata because it's a showcase for the varied styles of Bach's writing, especially that very Italianate aria for alto in the midst of the work. Here's the late Craig Smith of Emmanuel Music on this cantata:
The texts of Marianne von Ziegler always are supported by biblical passages. In the Pentecost cantata BWV 74, there are three movements based upon the Gospel reading in John. In addition, three of the movements are arrangements of a smaller Pentecost cantata, BWV 59. Of all the von Ziegler texts this is perhaps the most successful, mainly because such a large percentage is either from the Bible or chorale texts. The two readings for Pentecost are unique in that the actual narrative is not from the Gospel but from from Acts. The speculative commentary is in the Gospel reading from John. This very metaphysical Gospel reading is the source of all three movements based upon biblical passages. 
The first chorus is an expansion of the soprano-bass duet that begins Cantata BWV 59. Of all of Bach’s arrangements of his own music, this is one of the most remarkable successful. There is something sketchy, even patchy, about the original duet. Its two trumpet parts sound rather puny and the duet writing is unvaried and a little hollow sounding. In examining the two movements, one perceives the choral version to be longer and much more detailed. In fact, the two are exactly the same length and there is no change in any details of the phrasing. Rather, by adding two oboes and oboe da caccia, a third trumpet, and expanding the duet voices to four-voice chorus, Bach opens up the texture and makes something richly varied and exquisitely delicate out of something perfunctory. The expansion of the voice parts is even more ingenious: what were the third and fourth imitative voices in the first violin and first trumpet of BWV 59 become the tenor and alto parts in BWV 74. The orchestra is limited to accompaniment until the first violin and first oboe imitative entrances of the countersubject. What was confusing and a bit jumbled in the earlier version becomes here very clear. Perhaps because of its thinner first version, there is wonderful transparency and delicacy to the chorus. No trumpet and drum chorus in all of Bach has as much quiet music as this one. 
Bach made quite extensive adjustments to von Ziegler texts. His adaptation of her first aria text is a skillful adaptation of a text to fit already extant music. The BWV 59 version has an octave difference between the violin and bass solos. That displacement is eliminated in the more poetic combination of soprano and oboe da caccia. What is rather surprising is how the childlike openness of the soprano aria text seems more in line with the character of the music than the original bass aria text. 
After a brief secco alto recitative, the second biblical passage, a stern sentence in which Jesus quotes from himself becomes a bass aria with continuo. Throughout the cantata there is a richness and variety of orchestral scoring. This aria stands in relief, with its bleak, continuo only texture. Certainly there is Lutheran preacher quality to the setting. The text surely refers back to the wavering faith of the disciples during the passion time. Jesus admonishes the disciples, almost challenging them to take the leap of faith. The grinding and earthbound bass line certainly is in wild contrast to the extravagant and airborne string writing of the following tenor aria. Its capacious orchestra tuttis remind one of the sacred arrangements of secular Cöthen pieces that Bach had done the year before. It is possible that all of this cantata, not just the BWV 59 music, is recycled. For all of its brilliance and appropriateness stylistically, almost none of this cantata sounds like music that Bach had been writing in his second Jahrgang. The aria is certainly the most outwardly exuberant and animated things to appear in this cantata up to this point. Bach goes to great lengths to heighten the intensity and vitality of the writing throughout the movement. Notice how the empty spaces of the opening tenor entrance are filled in at the da capo. 
The influence of Mariane von Ziegler’s rhetorical, rather than poetic, bent is even felt in the third biblical passage to appear in this cantata. Here, rather than using either the gospel or the epistle for the day, a line from Romans is set as an accompanied recitative. There is, unusually in a recitative, even an emphatic text repetition. This recitative not only sets off the wild storm that is the alto aria, but reintroduces the wind choir that is to be so prominent in that aria. The Vivaldian brilliance of the solo violin part in the bravura alto aria is also uncharacteristic of Bach’s Leipzig string writing. Certainly this aria brings a kind of brilliance and energy unheard up to this point in the cantata. In the opening chorus we heard placid and lyrical exchanges between the string and wind choirs. Here they have a pounding intensity further augmented by the fiery solo violin figuration. The violin part clearly has a Tartini-like devilish quality, while it also illustrates the “rattling chains” of hell. Even the references to Jesus’ passion and death have huge hammer-stroke string chords in the Italian manner. Writers have been perplexed and seemingly a little embarrassed by the Italianate vigor and extroversion of this aria. Its fiery rhetoric does not line up with most people’s idea of Pentecost. 
The beautiful chorale melody “Kommt her zu mir, spricht Gottes Sohn” appears here in a grave and quiet setting. Certainly there is a conscious effort to bring the cantata to an inward and quiet close. There is no Pentecost piece quite like Cantata BWV 74. Its relative obscurity clearly generates from confusion about the extraordinary variety of its various movements. The dramatic continuity is difficult to follow, but we have here one of the great visionary metaphysical cantatas in all of Bach. 
© Craig Smith
Today's performance is from a 2001 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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