Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Bach - Trinity 3

Bach wrote two cantatas for the third Sunday after Trinity, and today's choice is the masterpiece - BWV 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (I had much sorrow, Weimar 1714). There's such a variety of style here, as well as some firsts for Bach himself; this is early on in his career and he's feeling out what he'll be allowed to do. This is his only Weimar cantata that is divided in two parts, with the sermon being preached between the two. I think this may be the first time he used an instrumental sinfonia as a prelude, and it was definitely the first time he used the fugue form for the opening chorus; in fact, he was much criticized for doing so. Here's Michael Beattie of Emmanuel Music on this great cantata:
Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21 - in two parts - is the longest and grandest of all the cantatas. It has a complicated history. The first nine movements may have constituted a cantata per ogni tempo [for any occasion] written in Weimar as early as 1713. There were many subsequent revisions, culminating in today’s 1723 version (minus the trombones!) which includes two additional movements. 
Given the wide range of styles found in this cantata, it is a piece of remarkable dramatic cohesion. It moves progressively from darkness into light. The mysterious opening sinfonia is a dialogue between oboe and solo violin (accompanied by a halo of strings) which seems to lead directly into the first chorus.

Almost all of the choruses of BWV 21 are based on psalm texts. In Part I, the choral writing is very text specific. Like the great motet composers of the previous generation, Bach finds a striking new character for each line of text. In some cases even a single word is given its own special color (the freeze-frame moment on the word aber [but] in the first chorus is one example). Bach was mocked by his contemporaries for the stuttering repetition of the first word (Ich, ich, ich…); today it seems a moment of breathtaking drama.

The soprano aria “Seufzer, Tränen”, in spite of its overwrought text, is a marvel of stark simplicity, especially given the density of everything that surrounds it. The anguish of the text is mirrored in the tortured intervals found in the voice and oboe part. The tenor recitative and aria are on a different scale entirely. Bach’s response to this highly dramatic text is appropriately extravagant, with especially picturesque orchestra writing.

Part II opens with a dialogue between the bass and soprano (Jesus and the Soul). Craig Smith wrote: “These dialogues are often associated with the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs. A popular example of this genre [can be found] in the love duets in the cantata Wachet auf! Today’s cantata was one of the few Bach pieces in Baron von Swieten’s library in Vienna. Clearly Mozart saw the piece there, for the duet is inspiration both for “La ci darem”from Don Giovanni and the third act Susanna-Count duet from Le Nozze di Figaro.” 
The monumental choral prelude “Sei nun wieder zufrieden” moves in yet another stylistic direction. The interpolated chorale text appears first in the tenor section surrounded by complex counterpoint in the solo voices. Later it is taken over by the sopranos upon the entrance of full chorus and strings.

The intimate tenor aria that follows is scored only for continuo - its lightness and optimism providing a perfect bridge to the final brilliant chorus. The text of the closing chorus is the same as that which concludes Handel’s Messiah (‘Worthy is the Lamb’). The entrance of the trumpets and timpani is a thrilling moment. After a brief introduction, the piece concludes with one of the most viscerally exciting fugues that Bach ever wrote. It cranks along at an almost hyperventilating pace before exploding ecstatically heavenward.

© Michael Beattie
Today's performance is by La Chapelle Royale and the Collegium Vocale Gent under the direction of Phillipe Herreweghe. Enjoy!

Photo © 2012 by A. Roy Hilbinger 

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