Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Komm, du süße Todesstunde, BWV 161
Aria. Komm, du süße Todesstunde
Angharad Rowlands alto
Recitative. Welt, deine Lust ist Last
Aria. Mein Verlangen ist, den Heiland zu umfangen
Toshimichi Ogita tenor
Recitative. Der Schluß ist schon gemacht
Angharad Rowlands alto
Chorus. Wenn es meines Gottes Wille
Chorale. Der Leib zwar in der Erden
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565
Ophélia Amar organ
Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182
Chorus. Himmelskönig, sei willkommen
Recitative. Siehe, ich komme, im Buch ist von mir geschrieben
Aria. Starkes Lieben
Marcus Dawson bass
Aria. Leget euch dem Heiland unter
Angharad Rowlands alto
Aria. Jesu, laß durch Wohl und Weh
Toshimichi Ogita tenor
Chorale. Jesu, deine Passion ist mir lauter Freude
Chorus. So lasset uns gehen in Salem der Freuden
Rachel Podger director
Academy Baroque Soloists
Rodrigo Checa Lorite
Academy Bach Consort
The cantata Komm, du süße Todesstunde, BWV 161, was probably first performed on 27 September 1716. Though the libretto was taken from the Weimar court poet Salomon Franck’s collection Evangelisches Andachts-Opffer, published in 1715, the cantata’s performance had to wait due to a six-month period of public mourning in the Duchy of Weimar. Bach re-performed the cantata in Leipzig between 1737 and 1746 with minor, but fascinating, changes.
Timbre, what the Bach scholar Isabella Van Elferen calls 'perhaps the most powerful agent in musical aesthetics', immediately takes us into a special soundworld. In the opening aria, the alto soloist is caressed by a pair of recorders (which, in the Leipzig version, Bach recast for transverse flutes and violins). It’s a soundworld that might remind listeners of Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106. According to Van Elferen, while the two alto recorders and two violas da gamba have 'nothing to do with theology', they evoked religious connotations 'which became timbral metaphors; and these in turn lead to the use of alto recorder and viola da gamba as symbols for eschatological bliss and sorrow'. The pair of recorders here in BWV 161 conjure that similar fragility for the 'sweet hour of death'. The chorale melody – a verse from the 1611 hymn Herzlich tut mich verlangen by Christoph Knoll – is played by the organ (though at the Leipzig performances of the cantata, the chorale was probably sung by a soprano). When the following tenor recitative unexpectedly blossoms, with rolling cello patterns that unlock our feet from stable ground, we understand the eschatological green pastures as the transformation of recitative into desiring arioso. The aria continues in this vein of longing: strings, indeed the very harmonic pattern, seem to play out this yearning exploration.
The pair of recorders return for the alto recitative, the tropes of which seem clear at first: this is some kind of lullaby, albeit one in declamatory tones, to say 'goodnight' to the world ('Welt, gute Nacht!'). But then the recorders take us, God’s sheep, through the pastoral landscape to become the ticking of time. So what happens in such a transition? Through lullaby, Lutherans prepared for earthly departure, and through the recorders’ repetitive tolling of time itself this is made urgent. Bach creates music that does not simply represent text or set the narrative scene; it itself morphs to create what for a Lutheran listener would have been a tangible eschatological reality.
The Toccata and Fugue in D minor is exactly what it says on the tin: a piece of organ music that opens with a toccata section which is then followed by a fugue. But is it really that simple? Of course not, and scholars still debate whether the work is by Bach at all. Indeed, it may not even be a work for organ! Peter Williams wonders whether the Toccata and Fugue is an arrangement of a work for solo violin. Perhaps this report by Johann Nikolaus Forkel, the early 19th-century biographer of Bach, might help us make up our mind:
'When Bach seated himself at the organ when there was no divine service, which he was often requested to do by strangers, he used to choose some subject and to execute it in all the various forms of organ composition so that the subject constantly remained his material, even if he had played without intermission for two hours or more […] First he used this theme for a prelude and a fugue, with the full organ.'
With this picture in mind, BWV 565 not only demonstrates a stylistic synthesis of the north German-Buxtehude and south German-Pachelbel organ schools, but also reinforces its improvisatory nature. It is for this reason scholars have found the work difficult to date (as well as that its oldest extant source is an undated single manuscript by Johannes Ringk). Is it a work written by Bach circa 1704 as he was experimenting with finding a musical language that combined bombastic flourishes with counterpoint? Or was it a late work from the 1740s in which Bach was consolidating the status of organ playing and improvisational technique in Germany? We may never know.
Uncertainty also surrounds Bach’s cantata Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, BWV 182. The Neue Bach-Ausgabe indicates how different parts and different arrangement of movements resulted in at least six different performances – three in Weimar and three in Leipzig – during Bach’s lifetime. The first performance is likely to have taken place in Weimar on 25 March 1714, three weeks after the appointment of Bach as Konzertmeister was announced. The rest is muddy. Most scholars agree that the cantata was re-performed in Leipzig on 25 March 1724, which was the Feast of Annunciation. The work thus also represents a process: Bach gradually transformed the chamber music-like conception of BWV 182 into a richly scored work. Eventually, ripieno violins took over the entire violin part. Bach would also have an oboe double the violins, a new violin part double the recorder, and the continuo group be bolstered by violone (as well as the oboe substituting the concertante violin in the instrumental Sonata).
Whatever the version, the cantata begins in a kind of secrecy. Against a pizzicato backdrop, the soloists trade short melodic figures, a dialogue that conjures a sense of inquisitiveness. The rhythmic profile of the writing gestures towards the French overture, yet this has none of the usual pomp or grandeur. Indeed, in all versions of the Sonata, Bach employs the quietest instrument in the orchestra: the recorder. Are we to think of the dove, that image of the Holy Spirit, as it descended on Mary at the Annunciation? Is this the soundtrack to miraculous conception? The text of the first chorus describes a welcome to the King of Heaven and implores him to 'come within' and dwell in their hearts. Yet it sounds more like we have been welcomed to heaven! Canonic imitation between the voices, embroidered by the violins and recorder in flutterings of semiquavers, create a splendid soundworld.
After a short recitative – which borders on arioso – there follows an unbroken sequence of three arias. First, the bass soloist describes the power of divine love, accompanied by flickering strings (are these trills the flames of Jesus’ love?). Then an alto aria with obbligato recorder; strange intervallic leaps and deceptive ends of phrases encourage us to listen closer (and even more so when the basso continuo drops out for four and a half beats, what seems like a tiny eternity). An aria for tenor bolstered only by basso continuo, which Alfred Dürr praised for its 'expressive gestures', takes us through the via crucis. Then, somewhat unexpectedly, a fugal chorale fantasia which recalls the 17th-century motet style. The sopranos in cantus firmus, supported by recorder and violin, quote a 1609 melody by Melchior Vulpius. The overall effect is of glowing warmth. The short da capo chorus that closes this 'welcoming' cantata foregrounds joyful dance in spiralling phrases and smiling counterpoint that loop through the cycle of fifths.