Saturday, May 27, 2017

A New Album of Bach’s “Chamber Music” Cantatas

We generally associate the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach with the last quarter-century of his life spent in Leipzig as Thomaskantor at the Thomasschule associated with the St. Thomas Church. The Thomasschule provided music for all four Lutheran churches in Leipzig; and, during Bach’s tenure, the cantatas he composed constituted a major portion of that music. Nevertheless, Bach was composing cantatas earlier in his career; and a new album from harmonia mundi focuses in his time in Weimar between 1708 and 1717, when he served first as organist and then, in 1714, as Konzertmeister (director of music) at the court of Ernest Augustus I, Duke of Saxe-Weimar.

The album is entitled simply Cantatas for soprano, and the featured soprano is Carolyn Sampson. She sings with the Freiburger Barockorchester under the direction of Petra Müllejans, and the music combines the secular with the sacred. The opening selection is BWV 202, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (which I like to translate as “chill out now, bummer shadows”), which is usually known as the “Wedding” cantata. The two sacred cantatas are BWV 152, Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn (tread the path of faith), and BWV 199, Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut (my heart swims in blood). BWV 152 has solos and a duet for for soprano and bass-baritone; and Sampson is joined by Andreas Wolf for this performance.

Ernest Augustus I was profligate enough to bring about the financial ruin of his duchy; and, as might be expected, his tastes ran to worldly pleasures. There is thus a good chance that religious services were held in relatively modest settings. This may explain why these three cantatas are basically chamber music compositions. There are no choruses; and the strings would have been significantly reduced, if not played one-to-a-part. As a result there is a prevailing rhetoric of intimacy in the two sacred cantatas, as well BWV 202, which may well have been performed at a wedding ceremony with only a limited number of guests.

Sampson has built her reputation primarily on the early music repertoire. However, her opera résumé includes the role of Adina in Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore; and her last recital in my home town of San Francisco was based on her 2015 album Fleurs (flowers), almost all of whose selections came from the nineteenth or twentieth centuries. (Even the song by Henry Purcell was performed with figured bass realization by Benjamin Britten.) However, whatever the “temporal vintage” of the music she sings, the clarity of her voice is endowed with a light touch that well suits that aforementioned rhetoric of intimacy.

The result is an album of Bach at his most personable. We tend not to associate that adjective with him, particularly when we read books that apotheosize him to a place “in the castle of heaven.” Of course we know from the accounts of his jamming at Gottfried Zimmermann’s coffee house in Leipzig that Bach had a worldly side; and, given the worldliness of Ernest Augustus’ court, it is no surprise that the music on this album tends not to wallow in tedious solemnity, even with a title as serious as that of BWV 199. This is the music of a Bach that was perfectly happy to be on earth with family and friends; and both Sampson and Müllejans offer the attentive listener just the right down-to-earth approach to this music.