Wednesday, May 16, 2012

J. S. Bach – Motett BWV 227 & Cantate BWV 4 – Robert Shaw

In the collection of cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach there is quite a challenge to find weaker or just poor works. Of course it’s possible to find some which are not as good as the best ones. It is even not possible to determine what was the real number of cantatas Bach composed. In Wolfgang Schmieder’s catalogue (Bach Werke Verzeichnis - BWV) first 200 numbers are sacred cantatas, numbers 201-216 are secular cantatas and 217-224 are cantatas of doubtful authorship. Religious compositions are quantitative and qualitative dominant of this set. Among many church cantatas only ten are following the texts of church hymns without changes. One of them is Cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4, based on short instrumental introduction and seven verses following original hymn by Martin Luther. It is also a unique work for it is perfectly implementing some ideas of musical semantics in young composers work.
The assignment of Cantata No 4 was the Easter Sunday and considering its style it was composed in period 1707-1713. It is also possible Bach composed this cantata as a part of his application for the post of organist in Mühlhausen. In this case the year would be 1707 and this could explain the reasons for radical aspirations, ambitious artistic assumptions, as well as following framework of some previous compositions, particularly Pachelbel’s cantata based on the same chant. Luther’s choral based on melody of mediaeval sequence Victimae paschali laudes became one of most popular chants in protestant church long before Johnn Sebastian Bach was born. Moving around the circle of German barock church and organ composers it’s realy hard to find the one who didn’t set up or at least cite Christ lag in Todes Banden choral melody. It is present rarely in vocal music, more likely in organ music and instrumental compositions, for examples in choral preludes.

Robert Shaw - Bach's Cantate BWV 4 and Motette No. 3 (1958)

What is specially meaningful, all instrumental citations or musical setups were always associated directly to the words of Luther’s religious poetry. This fact is widely known and understood in Germany and in Lutherans communities anywhere. This gives Cantata BWV 4 special position. Outstanding composers work and perfectly known choral give this music special attention. This resulted with dozens of great recordings. The oldest one is in arrangement by Francesco Pujol was recorded in Catalan in March 20 & 22, 1931 in Barcelona Palau de la Musica Catalana. Then in 1937 in Paris and in 1938 in Boston two recordings of this cantata made Nadia Boulanger. First recording after the war has been done in 1946 by Robert Shaw with RCA Victor Chorale and Orchestra. Published 3 years later started whole series of performances in fifties.
In 1958 Robert Shaw repeated recording sessions aiming the edition of better technical conditions. He conducted Robert-Shaw-Chor and RCA-Victor-Orchestra. This recordings were published one year later in RCA Red Seal series (LM-2273) and Living Stereo series (LSC-2273). Programm of this album featured two works by Johann Sebastian Bach: Motette No. 3 Jesu, meine Freunde BWV 227 and Cantate Christ lag in Todesbanden BWV 4. Some editions list countertenor Russell Oberlin while others say cantata was performed by choir. On cover and on record label were the names of basso continuo players Hugh Porter – organ, Harvey Shapiro – cello, Alvin Brehm – double bass. This album is very interesting document of past sensibility. And of course the performance is determined by the historical aesthetic criteria. The Robert-Shaw-Chor sounds perfectly, performing this cantata with concentration and tonal precision. Profound emotionalism kept under control gives effect of great powers and then metaphysical tranquility.

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