JS BACH Secular Cantatas, Vol 9
Scant documentation on Bach’s personal motivation and experiences encourages us to look more deeply into why particular works exist. In the case of the opulent secular cantata Phoebus and Pan, Bach’s new role from 1729 as director of the Leipzig concert club, Collegium Musicum, may have been the inspiration rather than the usual commission to honour a worthy. No 201 is indeed a piece of mesmerising ambition and scale, at nearly 50 minutes. The habitual congratulatory text is jettisoned for a political quarrel with genuine ‘dramatis personae’: Bach advocating proper musical art (essentially, his) over all the superficial flummery of the new generation, while at the same time having a dig at his employers.
Masaaki Suzuki has shown in his secular cantata series that he has the complete measure of how comic sensibility, dramatic moment and lightness pepper these scores with galant refinement. Here Suzuki and Bach Collegium Japan alight on the swirling gusts clearing the ground in the spectacular imagery of the opening chorus, piquant winds providing gracious commentary to the alluring sensuality of Phoebus’s apologia for urbanity in ‘Mit verlangen’, before Pan’s subsequent agitated protestations. Both roles are strikingly well acted out by Christian Immler and Dominik Wörner and the subsidiary figures are equally pleasing.
One of the characteristics of recent Suzuki releases is the use of natural trumpets without modern tuning holes. This added ‘authenticity’, with its imposed limitations, provides an affectingly gamy intonation, a clucking timbre and generally more vocalised articulation. Be prepared for a degree of aural adaptation, as in the opening chorus of No 207a (ingeniously reworked from the first Brandenburg Concerto after an earlier secular work for a professor of law at Leipzig University) and in the framing movements of No 201. The concluding ceremonial march of the former has a particular tanginess which may bring us closer to a sense of what Bach would have heard.
This cantata is less evenly performed than Phobeus and Pan, although the tenor Nicholas Phan really comes of age in ‘Augustus’ Namenstages Schimmer’. Overall, this is another distinguished release though not quite in the class of Vol 8 (A/17) – my Critics’ Choice favourite for 2017. J