J. S. Bach: “Birthday Cantatas”

Joanne Lunn, Robin Blaze, Makoto Sakurada, Dominik Wörner, Bach Collegium Japan chorus & orchestra, Masaaki Suzuki

One of the areas in which the high standards set by Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan have recently been upgraded is in the brass playing: Jean-François Madeuf has become a wonderfully expert player on both natural trumpet and horn, and on the former without the little vent holes that many players use to ‘correct’ the natural 11th and 13th overtones. The result is an increase in the singing quality of the sound and a richer fundamental tone generated by the natural harmonics.

These incremental improvements – audible too in the balance between voices in the concerted movements – combined with the dramatic presentations that these secular cantatas draw from the performers, especially in the recitatives, mark a step change in their performances. The secular birthday cantatas are the nearest Bach comes to writing opera, and the singers – Joanne Lunn, Robin Blaze, Makoto Sakurada and Dominik Wörner – respond with freer singing than we heard in the sacred cantatas.

I am most familiar with the majority of the music in these two celebratory birthday cantatas dated to 1733 from its substantial re-use in the Christmas Oratorio not much more than a year later, in 1734. As always, there is much to be learned from the way in which Bach altered his material, not just in adapting the music to new texts – he must have worked closely with his librettists – but in altering the pitch and adapting the scoring of many of the arias. For example, the duetto Ich bin deiner (BWV 213 xi) for alto and tenor with a pair of violas becomes a duet for soprano and bass with a pair of oboes d’amore in Part III of the Christmas Oratorio. It is a delight to hear the original of the echo aria from Part IV of the Christmas Oratorio, with an oboe d’amore and an alto singer here, so pitched in A not C. So much of the music in these two cantatas is parodied there, and indeed only one chorus (213.xiii) and one aria (214.iii) have no borrowings, and even that chorus might have become the opening movement of the Fifth part of the Christmas Oratorio.

But as well as being of interest to those who are preparing performances of the Christmas Oratorio this season, the cantatas – however implausible we may find them as drama – are fine performances in their own right. Not often publically performed in my experience, they are a dramatic and musical delight, and certainly up to Suzuki’s high standards. Only some of the string ensemble playing feels a little routine at times, but that is a very small cavil.

David Stancliffe