J. S. Bach: ‘Celebratory Cantatas’

[Hana Blažiková, Hiroya Aoki, Charles Daniels, Roderick Williams SCTTB], Bach Collegium Japan, Masaaki Suzuki
BWV206, 215

These two secular cantatas are closely linked. Bach was at work on BWV 206, a complex musical commentary on Augustus III’s role as both Elector of Saxony and King of Poland by describing the various claims to supremacy made by the four rivers that thread through his domains for his birthday in October, when it was suddenly announced that Augustus was coming to Leipzig for the Michaelmas fair in 1734 in person. So work on BWV 206 was shelved (it was eventually performed in 1736), and work hastily started on a grand celebratory cantata that must have been completed in about three days – Preise dein Glücke  (BWV 215) – that was performed in the open air on October 5th.

To meet the tight deadline, Bach re-used as the opening chorus a movement of a name-day cantata from 1732 that was eventually to become the Osanna in the B minor Mass, a couple of arias from existing cantatas for tenor (3) and bass (5), leaving himself the task of composing new recitatives, a soprano aria (7), later re-used in part V of the Christmas Oratorio, and the final chorus (9). Though clearly a great success, the occasion was marred by Bach’s trumpet player, Reiche, suffering a fatal stroke that night, said to have been brought on by inhaling the smoke from the six hundred wax tapers held by the University students.

The three soloists in 215 are all familiars at the top of their game, and the Suzuki machine works its magic, with the brass led by Jean-François Madeuf, so no fingerholes. The recitatives are by no means child’s-play, having decorative figures on pairs of oboes and flutes respectively in the Tenor and Soprano ones (2 and 6), and complex interplay with all three instrumental cori in the final one (8). Composing, copying and rehearsing just these new movements in three days would have been almost unimaginable, let alone re-setting, copying and rehearsing the other movements. This performance is particularly notable for the clarity and balance of the chorus work in the opening eight-part chorus, where each line is doubled and there is a fine central section which didn’t survive in the Osanna.

In Schleicht, spielende Wellen  (BWV 206), eventually performed in 1736 at the Café Zimmermann and again in 1740, the music is less generic and so was not subject to re-use in other contexts. This is a pity, as it is superb, and is, in consequence, less well known than its much-parodied companion pieces. Its inventive characterisation of the nationalities through their mighty rivers produces music from Bach unlike any other of his surviving compositions, including the soprano aria (9), which calls for three flutes. I particularly enjoyed the counter-tenor Hiroya Aoki in his aria with a pair of oboes d’amore (7), a complex imitative texture – vintage Bach.

Both these cantatas produce wonderful playing and singing from Suzuki’s forces and are a total delight. I cannot recommend this CD too highly, and am playing it frequently, discovering fresh nuances each time. Buy it at once and let it be your companion all summer long.

David Stancliffe