Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54
Bernadette Johns mezzo-soprano
Johann Sebastian Bach
Brandenburg Concerto No 5 in D, BWV 1050
Laurence Cummings harpsichord
Eriko Oi flute
Performed on historical instruments.
All performers at this event are conforming to our safety requirements of being at least two metres apart.
Not all is as it seems in Bach’s cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54, either. Appearances are deceiving – in the words of librettist Georg Christian Lehms, ‘if one looks more closely, we see it is but an empty shadow’. Bach launches us in media res into dissonance: a dominant seventh chord. Moreover, this chord is presented against a tonic pedal in the basso continuo. In this strange turn of events, it is difficult to determine what exactly is the dissonance: is it the upper strings that form a traditionally dissonant seventh chord, or is it the cello and double bass for not conforming to this harmony? In other words, the text, which urges the Christian to ‘stand firm against all sinning’ is enacted by the harmonic material. Appoggiaturas, large gestural leaps and chains of suspensions all function to muddy consonance.
This discomfort is not only manifest on the musical page as vertical structures that create harmonic tension. The string texture precariously wriggles horizontally too. It is as if fear has entered the string players themselves: the writing for violas almost entirely consists of repeated quaver patterns – a tremolando figure or ‘bow vibrato’ – and just as the text describes a ‘poison [that] will possess you’, the viola players are infected by this rhythm. How Bach’s instrumentalists were to ‘stand firm’ with their bows trembling across the gut is exactly the point – we are given an insight into a Lutheran understanding of sin through the playing out of Bach’s music in real time.
Cantata 54 was the first Bach composed for solo voice and is thought to have been premiered on 4 March 1714. Even as his first exercise in the genre, Bach’s exploration of the human condition through music is masterful. The singer and the instrumentalists, particularly in the central section of the first movement, inflect each other in most delightful detail. Both phrases of the alto melody are punctuated by an interrupted cadence – or perhaps the American term ‘deceptive cadence’ is more telling in this instance. The strings interrupt the singer, as if to remind them to stay alert to duplicity. The final movement – a lively fugue wrought in playful counterpoint – again, is not quite what it seems. At the text ‘Denn dieser hat sie aufgebracht’, the seemingly unthematic continuo part of the opening is sung by the alto soloist – as the devil is described to invent sin, Bach deceives us with contrapuntal invention. The message of Lehms’s text is embedded deep beneath the foreground details of the music at a structural level. It is as if from the very first chord to the final fugal statements, Bach constructs this cantata with the notion of trickery at its core – even if this means deceiving us, his ever-loyal listeners.
Drawing his listeners into what seems like normality to test just where the boundaries lie is central to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 5. From 1717 until 1723, Bach was employed by Prince Leopold of Cöthen. The Brandenburg concertos originate from this period: the full score bears the date 24 March 1721 in Bach’s hand, and the collection was dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg, Christian Ludwig. With its clearly defined ritornello, this is the closest in the set to resemble an archetypal Vivaldian concerto. But when the solo instruments enter, it is uncertain who actually is ‘the soloist’. Initially it sounds as if the transverse flute (a newly fashionable instrument) and the violin are contenders; the harpsichord provides a more or less accompanimental role. Gradually this paradigm shifts until the entire ensemble drops silent for a virtuosic keyboard cadenza. Upon the final pedal point, the keyboardist tests this to the uppermost limits: a peroration farcically disproportionate to the scale of the movement thus far spills out in sheer opulence.
While the following movements seem to return to a world of normality, one is left in somewhat shellshocked wonderment. The central movement, an Affettuoso, features only the three soloists. It moves in languid shapes as gentle imitation passes between the instrumentalists. The final movement is a gigue that synthesises the French dance style with a more Italianate forwards direction. This is captured within the learned style of fugue.
ACADEMY BAROQUE SOLOISTS
Rodrigo Checa Lorite
Bernadette Johns is a prizewinning mezzo-soprano studying at Royal Academy Opera (RAO). She is a Sybil Tutton Opera Award holder.
Bernadette was a Bach Scholar for the 2019 ‘Bach the European’ concert series. Solo Bach performances include the St Matthew Passion with Trevor Pinnock, Mass in B minor under Masaaki Suzuki, Actus Tragicus with Philippe Herreweghe, and assorted cantatas with John Butt and Iain Ledingham.
A member of the Academy Song Circle, Bernadette won the Richard Lewis/Jean Shanks Award in 2019 and was selected as a 2020 Leeds Lieder Young Artist. Operatic roles include Octavian in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Giovanna Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Idamante in Mozart’s Idomeneo. In Autumn 2020 she will sing Hippolyta in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Isabella in Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri (scenes) for RAO.
Bernadette holds a Master of Arts with Distinction from the Royal Academy of Music, and previously studied at the University of Oxford. Her opera studies are supported by the Clive and Sylvia Richards Charity and Help Musicians UK.
Eriko Oi was born in Japan and studied modern flute at Tokyo University of the Arts. She continued her studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater ‘Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’ Leipzig with Professor Irmela Boßler, where she successfully completed her Master's degree.
Eriko has received a number of awards, including first prize in the flute category of the 28th Kanagawa Classical Music Competition, and was a finalist at the 15th Biwako International Flute Competition. She was a Live Music Now Leipzig scholar from 2016 to 2018 and received the Bach Box Scholarship in 2018.
As a soloist, Eriko has performed with the Leipziger Lehrerorchester at Gewandhaus Leipzig, and with Port Strings Yokohama and the Kanagawa Philharmonic Orchestra. She has also had the opportunity to perform with the JSB Ensemble at the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, Capriccio Barockorchester in Basel, and with Bach Ensemble Zürich and the Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra.
She is currently studying historical flute at the Royal Academy of Music with Lisa Beznosiuk as an exchange student from the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Leipzig.