Bach: “Trauerode”

Joanne Lunn, Carolyn Sampson, Robin Blaze, Gerd Türk, Dominik Wörner SSATB, Bach Collegium Japan chorus & orchestra, Masaaki Suzuki
+ Tilge Höchster meine Sünden BWV1083 (after Pergolesi), Schlage doch gewünschte Stunde BWV53 (Hofmann?)

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he chief work in Vol. 6 of Bach’s Secular Cantatas by Suzuki’s forces is Cantata 198, the Trauerode, given a poised and colourful performance, where only the string band seems a little below par. The vocal contributions are bright and focused in the choruses as well as in the solo arias, and none of Suzuki’s regulars disappoints. Perhaps we are so used to hearing Peter Kooij that only Dominik Wörner doesn’t seem to me quite such a natural interpreter of this extraordinary music.

The Trauerode  was a private commission by a young, aristocratic and presumably wealthy student to commemorate the death of Christine Ebehardine, the wife of Augustus, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland in a secular memorial event in Leipzig two months after her death, on 17th October 1727. She was revered all over Saxony for not having followed her husband in converting to Catholicism, which he did in order to gain the crown of Poland. The university tried to intervene, and hijack the commission for their man, Görner, but Bach’s rich and inventive score triumphed. It is unusual for having not only pairs of flutes and oboes d’amore, but also of violas da gamba and lutes. The concerto-like first movement displays these different groups within the score, the fourth (an alto recitativo) displays the flutes imitating the funeral bells supported by the wiry strumming of the lutes below and, after a wonderful aria for alto with an obbligato pair of violas da gamba, the choral fugue that is the seventh movement has an instrumental episode reminiscent of a trio section in the Presto of the Fourth Brandenburg in the middle. The aria for tenor that followed the oration is especially interesting as it gives us an idea (in the written-out ‘improvised’ part for gambas and lutes) of how Bach might have elaborated his continuo parts. In the recitative that follows the lutenists show how they improvise a free part to enrich the short organ and ’cello chords, and I find it both instructive and convincing in heightening the rather operatic nature of the recit. This a gracious and engaging performance.

The other pieces on this CD are rather loosely connected: first there is a fine performance by Robin Blaze of the single aria movement Schlage doch, once named as BWV53, but now believed to be by Georg Melchior Hoffmann, with its strings and campanelli; and second, the arrangement by Bach in 1746/7 of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater  to words of the penitential Psalm 51, Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden  (BWV 1083), which is not really a cantata at all.

This performance was recorded in 2005, so predates the other recordings by ten years. The soprano then was Carolyn Sampson, singing with a younger Robin Blaze. And the very Italianate music by the young Pergolesi, who died in 1736 at the age of 26, sounds an odd accompaniment to the Lutheran Miserere, especially the jaunty and operatic verse 4. The contrapuntal verse 9 fares better in Bach’s hands, and this and the concluding Amen are the only two sections that required no modifications to fit them to the new words. In the interests of completeness in Suzuki’s great project, it is good to have this piece available. But there is no history of a liturgical context for the arrangement or surviving commission.

The string parts are elegantly phrased, and, as far as I can judge, the performance is all that we might wish for vocally as well. But it is a very odd piece without any known context – unlike some of Bach’s adaptations of certain other Italianate mass movements – to make sense of an arrangement in a style so foreign to his.

David Stancliffe

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