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Bach: Secular Cantatas, Vol 02 - Suzuki

Bach: Secular Cantatas, Vol 02 - Suzuki

BIS  BIS-SACD-1971

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Johann Sebastian Bach:
Sinfonia in F major BWV 1046a/1
"Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd" BWV 208 (Hunt Cantata)
"Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht" BWV 134a (Serenata)

Sophie Junker (soprano)
Joanne Lunn (soprano)
Makoto Sakurada (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Damien Guillon (alto)
Makoto Sakurada (tenor)
Bach Collegium Japan
Masaaki Suzuki (conductor)


Compared with J.S. Bach’s production of church music his secular vocal works occupy a modest place in his output: today we know of the existence of some fifty secular cantatas, but only about half of these have survived in performable condition. They were occasional pieces, tailored especially to the situation that engendered them. Unlike the church cantatas they could therefore not be performed again in unaltered form, and were thus of little practical interest for Bach’s heirs.

The earliest surviving secular cantata is the ‘Hunt’ Cantata, composed in 1713 in Weimar for the birthday of Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weißenfels. The Duke was a passionate huntsman and Bach’s work was performed during a birthday banquet held at the Prince’s hunting lodge. The libretto includes a modest dramatic plot in which four divinities from ancient mythology appear, and to which Bach’s music adds variety and colour through the use, in various movements, of two hunting horns, a trio of oboes and a pair of recorders. Bach must have valued the work highly: he adjusted it at least twice for performances in honour of other people, and also used ‘parody’ versions of various movements in sacred cantatas.

Intended for the 1719 New Year’s celebrations in Köthen, Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht would also be recycled by Bach, who five years later transformed it into a cantata for Easter Sunday. Of a more philosophical cast than its companion piece, the cantata is set as a dialogue between Time (tenor) and Divine Providence (alto), who in the final movement are joined by a chorus wishing ‘glückseligen Zeiten’ (‘joyous times’) to the princely house of Anhalt-Köthen.

Bach Collegium Japan and Masaaki Suzuki have previously recorded one disc of secular cantatas (BIS-CD-1411), with the Coffee Cantata and the wedding cantata O Holder Tag, Erwünschte Zeit. With this second volume, the team now picks up the thread of this series which runs parallel to the traversal of the church cantatas.

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Review by John Miller - December 11, 2012

Bach's secular cantatas are gems of occasional music which take us back through time for a view of his place in social history. Employees of wealthy aristocrats were expected to celebrate their master on his name-day, or other such ceremonial goings-on. Bach certainly was no stranger to this; during his career he had many overlords, but we don't quite know how sincere he was in his often flowery and obsequious compliments to them. Only 50 or so of his secular cantatas survive (only half of which are performable), probably only a fraction of the number he must have written.

In Bach's time, hunting was a popular topic, even in cities, because it produced much of a community's meat. Aristocrats, both high and low, often displayed their wealth and position by ostentatiously leading hunts, so it isn't surprising that hunting themes and hunting horns appear often in Bach's music, even in the sacred cantatas. Another frequent theme applied to celebratory entertainments and employer-praise was mythology, partly because even the lowliest of employees had heard some of Greek mythology's best stories.

The earliest of Bach's extant secular cantatas, the Hunt Cantata BWV208, can be pinned down to its first performance, when Bach was court organist in Weimar. In 1713, he celebrated the 31st Birthday of Christian, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels by performing the cantata in the Duke's hunting lodge after a morning of what we might call "demonstration hunting with contests". Salomo Franck, poet at the Weimar Court, wrote the libretto, a dramatic plot in which four mythological deities appear and tender their congratulations. Diana, Goddess of Hunting, of course opens the cantata. She flatters the Duke's hunting prowess; Endymion, her lover, brings a gift of eternal youth. Pan, goat-footed God of woods and forest, bows down before the Duke and places his staff at the Duke's feet. Pales, Goddess of shepherds and meadows, offers a piece of political advice in sheep's clothing - by singing the ever-popular "Sheep may safely graze" aria, which suggests that "where monarchs govern well one can discern calm and peace, and that makes countries happy". Quite so.

Suzuki follows tradition by heading the cantata with a Sinfonia in F major, BWV 1046a/1, which many will recognise also as a horn-led Brandenburg Concerto movement. Sadly, the pair of valveless hunting horns of the Bach Collegium were not having an entirely good day, as the playing is sometimes rough, several times slipping away from the orchestral pitch quite painfully. Fortunately, they recover for the rest of the Cantata and play well or very well. Tricky though this Sinfonia is, the natural hornists of Roy Goodman's The Parley of Instruments deal with the score's precipices without fault, although it has to be said that they are more reticently placed than with Suzuki.

Sophie Junker as Diana is bright and enthusiastic, gilding her da capo aria repeats with pretty ornamentations. Tenor Makato Sakurada sings well but his approach to the text is somewhat bland. The indefatigable Roderick Williams as Pan bestrides his deified companions with a polished and characterful performance, especially in his aria 'Ein furst ist seines Landes Pan!', where he has to cope with Bach's jolly but elephantine continuo bass line. Joanne Lunn (soprano II) also spices her da capo sheep's aria with some lovely embellishments, which sound quite spontaneous.

Die Zeit, die Tag und Jahre macht (Time, which day and year doth make), BWV 134a is the other cantata (or serenata) on Suzuki's disc. Its first performance was January 1, 1719 in Köthen, where Bach worked for, and became friends with, Prince Leopold. Being a Calvinist court where no instrumental music was allowed in church, his cantatas had to be performed at the Prince's residence.
Deference and respect for Prince Leopold was renewed for the New Year with a small chamber orchestra of strings and a pair of oboes. The tenor and alto, the first representing Time past and the second Time future (or, as some may like to think of it, Divine Providence) are used in discussion, painting the prosperity of the place and flattering its Prince.

Most likely, Bach would have used a boy alto, but here Suzuki has opted for a male alto (Damien Guillon, a pupil of Andreas Scholl). The performance of this cantata is quite delightful, with good forward impetus and many foot-tapping sections emphasising the general atmosphere of joy. Surakada seems to enjoy his duet with Guillon, and seems more immersed in this cantata.

Masaaki Suzuki is now regarded as a Bach specialist, and his extensive scholarly notes on both cantatas are excellent, as are his notes about the materials from which the performances are made, placing them in the context of the often difficult process of reconstruction. Notes are presented in English, French and German, and the cantata texts in German and English. I admired the apt use of Govaert's 'Still Life with Dead Game' as very appropriate cover art, although I doubt that some vegetarians would agree.

While one still might still hanker after the refulgent Hunt Cantata from Goodman on Hyperion (RBCD), these performances are lively and have impact. One may overlook the horns early on, who had rather too much impact. The BIS sound is very well focussed, and the Shirakawa Hall adds bloom; interestingly, in multichannel mode, the rear speakers produce a distant reverberation from the very back of the hall, so there isn't a very great difference between the stereo and multichannel modes.

If you want to get a feeling for how Bach treated his employers, then this disc provides an excellent example. Recommended.

Copyright © 2012 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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Also released as King International KKC-5796