JS BACH Celebratory Cantatas VIII
As Masaaki Suzuki and his experienced Japanese colleagues traverse the remaining secular cantatas in the series, the question arises as to why Bach’s occasional pieces sound distinctly ‘unsacred’. History tells us that the musical texts are largely interchangeable – Bachians won’t be surprised to hear the opening trumpet-led chorus of No 206 as the prototype to the ‘Osanna’ of the Mass in B minor – and yet these two wonderful celebratory works seem to impart layers of worldly delights which fall squarely outside the liturgical rhetoric. Bach certainly draws on refined, balletic elegance in his later works – the 1730s and ’40s, when the majority of his secular cantatas were composed.
Richly detailed nuances in scoring and melodic character emerge in these dedicatory works, in this case a panegyric for Elector August II, where investment of creative energy and resources might still bring the composer reputational dividends. So Bach brings, as ever, a loftier meaning to the usual insipid commissioned texts. Schleicht, spielende Wellen (‘Flow, playful waves and murmur’) follows the dramma per musica template of allegory – this time with four competing rivers yearning for the primacy of the monarch’s affections. However ludicrous, Bach constructs a very significant work which Suzuki treats as an undertaking of serious critical engagement.
Both the gentleness and ecstatic immediacy of Bach’s rich imagery become apparent at the outset and each movement is performed at a compellingly high level. The liquid and brilliantly projected bass-singing of Roderick Williams is simply majestic in ‘Schleuss des Janustempels Türen’. The pure gold lies at the end when the River Pleisse, sung by the bright but deeply responsive soprano Hana Blažíková, requests each river to act its age ‘with undivided concord and sweet harmony’. The ‘choir’ of three flutes, each with their dovetailing and courtly roulades, does the trick. The voicing of this late Bach canvas is simply exquisite.
Preise dein Glücke is no less strikingly delivered, again an Augustian homage but with more of a consistently extrovert swagger. There’s a grand ‘rage’ aria – Williams again in his element – but the pièce de résistance is Bach’s party piece of unalloyed sycophancy, the tenor aria ‘Freilich trotzt Augustus’ Name’ (whose name speaks of noble lines of gods and defying mortality, no less!). Tenor Charles Daniels may not have the glorious bounce or spontaneous timbral gear-shifts of the young Ian Partridge for Ernst Ansermet but his reading is full of delights and the coloratura as exemplary as ever. After 22 years of intensive Bach recording, Suzuki and his forces just seem to get better.