Ton Koopman & Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Complete Cantatas - Vol. 1
Koopman - Vol.1Steve Schwartz wrote (July 11, 1997):
Cantata BWV 31 "Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubilieret" ("Heaven laughs! Earth rejoices"): The "pretty Bach" approach suits this festive Easter cantata, a bit unusual in that it is both festive and Passion cantata. It opens with an instrumental "sonata" before the first chorus. I can't fault the sheer playing or singing in any of this set, and Koopman, instead of emphasizing the fanfare motives (the usual option), stresses a suspension idea - that is, a dissonance by a "wrong" or non-harmonic tone that becomes a consonance, usually by moving down a half-step against held notes of the destination chord. It turns out that this decision adds to the brilliance of the work, since the fanfares get to be heard in any case.
The first chorus, a honey which fully lives up to its title, shows, among other things, the typical binary thought processes of Bach's and the Renaissance and Baroque mind in general. The text splits between rejoicing in God the creator and the solemnity of Christ rising from the grave. The movement shares mood and musical imagery with the opening chorus of Bach's Magnificat, except for the composer applying the brakes at the words "Der sich das Grab zur Ruh erlesen" (roughly: He who triumphed over the grave). The contrasts also apply to the setting of the first line. The chorus laughs through the melismata on the word "lacht," while they dance an incisive rhythm on the word "jubilieret." Bach isn't as rhythmically giddy as in the Magnificat here, but the music still goes straight to the feet. The choir soars on the runs of eighths and sixteenths and switch to dignity at Bach's signal.
A recitative with a very odd text (some of the imagery taken from the Gospel of John) follows:
Erwuenschter Tag! sei, Seele, wieder froh!
Das A und O,
Der erst und auch der letze,
Den unsre schwere Schuld in Todeskerker setzte,
Ist nun gerissen aus der Not!
Der Herr war tot,
Und sieh, er lebet wieder;
Lebt unser Haupt, so leben auch die Glieder.
Der Herr hat in der Hand
Des Todes und der Hoelle Schluessel!
Der sein gewand
Blutrot bespritzt in seinem bittern Leiden,
Will heute sich mit Schmuck un Ehren kleiden.
Longed-for day! Soul, again be happy!
The Alpha and Omega,
The first and the last,
Who sat in Death's prison for our heavy guilt,
Has now burst forth from His plight.
The Lord was dead,
and, behold, He lives again.
If the head lives, so live the members.
The Lord has in His hand
The key to death and hell.
He whose robe was
Sprinkled blood-red in His bitter Passion,
Today is clothed in jewels and honor.
The imagery is sectional - Bach's librettist goes from one image to another without connecting. We see Christ as Lord of Eternity, prisoner, head of the body of the Church, warden, sufferer, and king. The music reflects the leaping nature of the imagery, running from a "speaking" recitative to brief Arioso sections. Some of the high spirits of the first movement break in here, especially at the words "Sei, Seele, wieder froh!" The following aria for bass, "Fuerst des Lebens, starker Streiter" (Prince of Life, mighty warrior), portrays Christ as king and knight. Bach sets to a purposeful, martial rhythm. All the majesty of the text and the music lies with the soloist Mertens. The accompaniment comes across as rather listless and pale.
Tenor Guy de Mey mails in the next recitative and aria. In fairness, however, I must point out that the recitative is musically rather conventional for Bach. The aria ("Adam muss in uns verwesen" - "The Adam in us must rot away") tells of the need to subject our nature to Christ, for the promised resurrection. De Mey negotiates the florid twists and turns of the melodic line lightly, but the aria comes across as dutiful. Koopman's stolid accompaniment doesn't help.
I find Barbara Schlick guilty of the same in her recitative, but there's very little in the text to take off from. The aria, however, ("Letzte Stunde, brich herein, Mir die Augen zuzudruecken!" - "Last hour, fall upon me, to shut my eyes") is probably one of the high points of the set, with (predictably) outstanding solo work from the oboist.
The final choral, "So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ," was one of the most popular melodies and texts of the early Lutheran era. Many composers set it. Bach's is elaborate in orchestration (with trumpets and oboes, among other instruments) but fairly straightforward in harmony and part-writing. However, Bach does incorporate syncopated suspensions in the high instruments, leaving the sensation of yearning for, a pilgrimage to a distant heaven. Again, one gets pleasure from the sheer beauty of the players' and singers' performance.
Cantata BWV 185 "Barmherziges Herze der ewigen Liebe" ("Compassionate heart of eternal life"): Most of the cantatas so far have been "writ large." This is the first in Koopman's set at a truly intimate, chamber scale. Instead of an elaborate opening chorus, Bach gives us essentially a duet between soprano and tenor in a "pastoral" triple time. Bach even pares down his counterpoint from fugal texture to "call and response," like r & b's Sam and Dave or the final movement of Franck's violin sonata. The cantata presents a musical lesson that illuminates Matthew's "Judge not, that ye be not judged" and "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." The chorus pleas that its heart be softened to goodness and mercy; the relatively simple musical means illustrate this. However, the plea for a soft heart generally implies the supplicant hasn't got one, and the insight provides Bach the opportunity for a master stroke. Against the soloists, the choral sopranos enter with the chorale "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" (I call to you, Lord Jesus Christ"), a phrase at a time, also in triple meter. The chorale text equates the love of one's neighbor with the love for Christ, and the soloists' duet itself starts to take off musically from the chorale phrases, so that the disparts of the texture itself begin to move toward concord and sympathy. Despite incomprehensible diction, Koopman's sopranos electrify at each phrase, as the soul begs Christ to hear its prayer. I have no idea whether this is a balance problem due to Koopman or to his engineers: the sopranos are simply too distant.
The alto recitative which follows, continues the message in an exhortation that "hearts perverted to stone and granite" soften. Kai Wessel, the male alto soloist, just doesn't have the power to suggest the heart of stone (Bach roughens the harmonies here). It's as if there's a big hole in the voice through which breath escapes, and he tends to hoot. Nevertheless, he redeems himself in the aria "Sei bemueht in dieser Zeit / Seele, reichlich auszustreuen" ("Strive, O soul, to strew generously"), where the lightness and agility of his voice on the word "auszustreuen" conjure up little seeds scattered on the wind.
Mertens comes in once again like a young Fischer-Dieskau with the recitative "Das Eigenliebe schmeichelt sich!" ("Our vanity flatters itself"), particularly in the shadings he gives to the text. In the first line, for example, he manages to convey both anxiety and the sternness of a sermon. This is the didactic nub of the cantata. The recitative makes the lesson clear and directly communicative. Bach makes it difficult for the listener to lose himself in counterpoint or melody. Mertens sings it as if it were indeed the most important part of the cantata. He follows this with the aria "Das ist der Christen Kunst" ("This is the Christians' goal . . . not to forget one's neighbor"), at once exhortative and intimate.
The final chorale "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" presents the chorale tune whole, rather than, as in the opening duet, in fragments. The soul is now ready and composed to ask Christ to melt the heart. Koopman brings out a tasty violin obbligato I hadn't ever noticed before, syncopated against the four-square chorale rhythm. All things considered, a superior effort.
Cantata BWV 4 "Christ lag in Todesbanden" ("Christ lay in the bonds of death"): I don't presume to rate Bach, especially against himself, but this has long been a favorite of mine, since I first heard the Roger Wagner Chorale on an old EMI LP, sadly never transferred to compact disc. The Wagner sound, slightly bottom-heavy, especially in the altos, suits the darkness of this Passion cantata. After all these years, Wagner's remains the performance by which I judge others.
Bach constructs each movement as a variation on the chorale of the same name, so that by the time of the last movement - the chorale in its "archetypal" form - we know the tune. Indeed, the tune shapes the structure of every movement, and yet every movement differs from its siblings. Each vocal movement takes a stanza of the chorale for its text. It reminds me of a great jazz soloist pulling out one surprising chorus after another. Yet another interesting feature of Bach's treatment of the tune is his separate handling of the last word of each verse - "Alleluia." Essentially, this creates variations within variations.
Barring the prelude of the opening instrumental Sinfonia, Bach structures the cantata's seven movements chiasmically around the chorale's Versus IV:
The Sinfonia itself takes its musical matter from the chorale tune, although Bach greatly varies the rhythm. The tune's main feature Bach exploits is an opening descending half step, often for him the musical symbol of suffering. Koopman takes the Sinfonia much faster than I'm used to, but in so doing he brilliantly brings out the chorale, unlike any other version I've heard.
The opening chorus is one of Bach's greatest. In concept, it takes off from organ preludes based on chorale tunes, where one hears an independent musical argument fitted against the tune in long notes, much like Bach's fairly well-known prelude to "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." In these, Bach usually establishes the argument and then brings in the chorale tune as an emotional lift, or the sudden revelation of the hand of God in the busy-ness of human affairs. In this chorus, however, he begins with the tune - long notes in the soprano, as opposed to his normal practice of burying the melody in the alto or tenor. Immediately, the tune fragments and bends to new shapes in the other parts, and Bach places all of it into highly independent - each voice has a different rhythm - four-part counterpoint. "Christ lay in the bonds of Death, given over for our sin. He is risen again and has brought us eternal life." It is as if the Passion and resurrection of Christ informs the world. Typically (as we have seen), Bach splits the movement in half, at the words "Therefore, let us be joyful, praise God and be thankful to Him, and sing hallelujah." At this point, the entrances reverse, with the three lower voices coming in first with adumbrations of the chorale and the sopranos finally capping the phrase. Bach somehow pulls off a "change in direction" in the music. In the first half, the music tends to "sink" down. In the second, it seems to rise. At the final phrase - "und singen Halleluja" - Bach brings off another master stroke. The tenor begins, as usual, with a variant of the relevant chorale phrase, as the bass accompanies in what seems to be strictly functional "note-filling." However, it is the bass material, on the word "Halleluja," that increasingly dominates the musical argument. Furthermore, the counterpoint radically simplifies, until all voices, including the soprano, sing "Halleluja" in rhythmic concord - to me a musical image of all creation praising God.
Bach contrapuntally riffs on the "Hallelujas," as one after another breathlessly tumbles out, syncopated, alla breve in all the voices. This section by itself would test most choirs. How well does Koopman do? It's another mixed bag. The choir's diction occasionally goes south and parts of the choral texture temporarily disappear. On the other hand, the choral sound is wonderful, and basically clear and bright, and Koopman brings off beautifully the ascent to the climax at "und singen Halleluja." The alla breve Hallelujas have the dangerous excitement of high speed and the "off-balance" syncopation. I can't imagine anybody bettering Koopman here.
"No one in all mankind could overcome Death. Our sin caused everything; no innocence could be found. Death came so soon and took power over us, held us prisoner in his kingdom. Alleluia." Bach sets this to a moody, freely imitative duet (based, naturally, on the chorale) between soprano and alto over what seems to be a typical Bach "walking bass," but which I realized (after nearly forty years of knowing this work) is actually a variant of the chorale's "Halleluja." Again, Bach splits the stanza in half, with the soprano beginning in the first and the alto kicking off the second. Bach keeps the voices close and even has them cross, so that the soprano sometimes sings below the alto. I infer from this that Bach wants the voices to "match," so that you can't tell one voice from the other. Schlick and Wessel don't even come close, although they are extremely well-tuned. I don't particularly care for the vocal color of either in this movement - too bright. A traditional solution uses the choral women, which softens the "edge" of the sound and contributes to the anonymity of lines.
Bach illustrates the third stanza with an heroic tenor aria, depicting Christ as warrior-knight defeating the dragon of death. Bach sets against the tenor, which takes the chorale tune, an energetic violin solo, one of those Baroque "perpetual motion" machines. The soloist, de Mey, doesn't really have the voice for this. His forte is agility, rather than ringing heroism, and, indeed, he sounds languid and drooping. All the vigor in this movement comes from the violin.
We have reached the cantata's pivotal movement, telling us of the war in Hell. It begins as a double fugue in three parts, with the first half of the opening chorale line simultaneously set against the sechalf. However, Bach soon drops this and settles into a relatively straightforward fugue, with interjections of the chorale from the altos. "It was a miraculous war, where Death and Life wrestled. Life took the victory. It has swallowed up Death. Scripture has announced to us how one death devoured the other. A mockery has been made of Death." Bach carries the martial vitality of the tenor aria to the fugue. At the words "Wie ein Tod den andern frass" ("how one death devoured the other"), the imitative entrances of a single phrase quickly overlap, so that we get the impression of the snake who eats his own tail. Cutting through all this intense activity, however, is the chorale tune in the altos. All this is duck soup to Koopman's choir. One hears just about everything in an extremely complicated texture and in the right balance.
Now retracing our steps on the mirror path, we come to another aria, this time for bass. "Hier ist das rechte Osterlamm" ("Here is the righteous Easter Lamb") shows Christ not only as the Lamb on the cross, but a roasted ("gebraten") lamb at that, seared by the flames of love. Compare the daring vulgarity of this with the bland "sensitivity" of today's Christian pop. To me, it shows a powerful movement in decline, if only because the culture at large has embraced the bland, broad path, rather than the hard, narrow one - narrow and hard like a knife, and just as strong and just as dangerous. Anyway, Bach treats the tune this time as an Italianate aria, with lots of note-runs on single syllables (technically, "melismata"). For me, this is the emotional deep of the entire cantata, with the dark e-minor color perfectly incarnate in the bass voice. The violins comment on the melody in free imitation of the bass. The "alleluias" are noteworthy, in that the entrances between bass and strings come quickly and even overlap (a contrapuntal device called "stretto"). The general effect is to increase the listener's emotional pulse, and Bach uses stretto here to exactly that end. I've sung this aria myself, and the main difficulty for the singer (or, in traditional performances, choral bass section) is the length of the phrases. It's very easy to run out of breath. Of course, Mertens has no problems at all, not even snatching a breath for the next phrase. In fact, unless I really listen, he never makes me aware of the vocal difficulty. The interpretation is immaculate, with an elegant, subtly propulsive legato line.
The duet this time features soprano and tenor. The chorale tune - to "So feiern wir das hohe Fest" ("So we celebrate the high feast") - becomes one of Bach's contrapuntal gigues. The soprano and tenor trade off going first with each phrase, and Bach often employs invertible counterpoint (the upper line becomes the lower line next time around). The aria is freely imitative, but it often feels like canon - at the fifth, third, and unison. Despite the learning, it's still a dance, and both de Mey and Schlick dance lightly - basically, what they do best.
The final chorus presents the chorale tune in chorale style at last. Most traditional performers treat it as a magnificent summing up, but, compared to Koopman, they seem almost kitschy. Under Koopman, the chorale is much more modest, as if the congregations were joining in. From the depths of the bass, we move to the dance of the duet and then to a quiet farewell with this chorale. Koopman scores one of his finest successes here.
Ton Koopman: Short Biography | Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir
Recordings: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
General Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Koopman’s Petition | Newsletters
Vocal Works: Koopman on TV | Cantatas Vol. 1 | Cantatas Vol. 6 | Cantatas Vol. 9 | Cantatas Vol. 10 | Cantatas Vol. 13 | Cantatas Vol. 14 | Cantatas Vol. 17 | BWV 247 – Koopman
Instrumental Works: Ton Koopman’s Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 | Bach Sonatas for Gamba and Harpsichord | Review: Bach Orchestral Suites DVD
Article: Bach’s Choir and Orchestra [by Ton Koopman]
Table of recordings by BWV Number