The inexhaustible and compelling journey of exploring Bach’s cantatas and the great choruses which define the heart of their message – lies primarily in the depth, richness and variety of Bach’s response to the seamless rhythm of the liturgical year. Particular events in the Lutheran calendar are associated with the contemplative or the celebratory and yet, within these seasonal expectations, Bach departs radically from convention in his nearly-200 surviving church cantatas written between about 1703 and the late 1740s.
The Ensemble Pygmalion directed by Raphaël Pichon commences its collaboration with Harmonia Mundi with this new recording of J.S. Bach’s lost music to the Köthener Trauermusik (Cöthen funeral music), BWV 244a. Founded in 2006 at the European Bach Festival, Ensemble Pygmalion is a combination of choir and orchestra - all young performers with experience of authentic instruments and period-informed performance. Its repertoire concentrates primarily on Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean-Philippe Rameau.
After a Mozart release with the Quatuor Voce, Juliette Hurel has devised a programme focusing on Bach, featuring two staples of the flute repertoire: the Suite for Orchestra No.2 with its famous Badinerie and the Partita for Solo Flute, his only work for the unaccompanied instrument. To complement this, she has chosen to assemble the most celebrated arias with a prominent part for solo flute, very rarely played outside the works for which they were written: the Easter Oratorio (‘Seele, deine Spezereien’), the St Matthew Passion (‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’), the Coffee Cantata (‘Ei wie schmeckt’) and the Cantata ‘Ich habe genug’. For this recording, she plays a modern wooden flute and was keen to work with a Baroque ensemble performing on period instruments and a soprano well versed in this music, Maïlys de Villoutreys, a rising vocal star of French scene. The magnificent Trio Sonata BWV 1038 completes the programme in the spirit of chamber music.
The two works on this disc perfectly illustrate a particular type of secular cantata, the so-called ‘dramma per musica’. In such works the libretto is constructed dramatically, and the singers embody various roles, such as gods and other characters from antiquity, and allegorical figures. The parallel with opera is apparent, although the ‘drammi per musica’ do without any scenic element. Bach primarily used the form in works intended for princely tributes or academic festivities: educated audiences could be expected to recognize the characters and literary traditions involved. Both cantatas recorded here are ‘academic’ cantatas, composed in honour of eminent members of the faculty at the University of Leipzig.
Although two of the works on this disc were composed for weddings, they are completely different in character. Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten is a charming and gracious garland of recitatives and arias for soprano solo in which Spring, Flora, Apollo and Amor are all invoked in a blessing of the newly wedded couple and their union.
The Quodlibet (Latin for ‘what pleases’) on the other hand, is an altogether unceremonious composition which was probably intended for a private function in Bach’s own circle or family. All we have is a fragment of the work – in Bach’s own hand – and the beginning and ending of the piece, including the title page, are missing.
Compared with J.S. Bach’s production of church music his secular vocal works occupy a modest place in his output: today we know of the existence of some fifty secular cantatas, but only about half of these have survived in performable condition. They were occasional pieces, tailored especially to the situation that engendered them. Unlike the church cantatas they could therefore not be performed again in unaltered form, and were thus of little practical interest for Bach’s heirs. The earliest surviving secular cantata is the ‘Hunt’ Cantata, composed in 1713 in Weimar for the birthday of Duke Christian of Sachsen-Weißenfels.