New Vision: Bach at Noon, 8 March 2011

The texts upon which Bach’s Cantata No. 23, “You true God and David’s Son,” is based are from the lectionary for Estomihi, or the last Sunday before Lent.  In  a bit of witty programming, Artist Director and Conductor Greg Funfgeld scheduled this cantata for what we in the 21st century refer to as Fat Tuesday, or the last day before the imposition of ashes and the season of Lent.  This cantata also bears the distinction of being one of the cantatas with which Bach auditioned for his post as the Thomaskantor, or the director of music at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, the principal post of his career. On that particular Sunday, the congregation would hear the last concerted or choral/orchestral before a hiatus during the season of Lent.  English conductor John Eliot Gardiner remarks that Bach wanted to leave them with “cantatas they weren’t likely to forget,” including Cantata No. 23.  Greg has paired this wonderful cantata, in a typical embarrassment of riches, with Beethoven’s second sonata for cello and piano, which he will play with our principal ‘cellist, Loretta O’Sullivan.  I’m going to let Greg’s commentary and his performance with Loretta speak for themselves, only adding that an opportunity to hear this collaboration is one lovers of music shouldn’t miss.  This is impossibly beautiful and rich music, and I can think of no better way to spend a Tuesday afternoon!

A few words about the Bach:  The appointed lections for Estomihi include Matthew’s account of Jesus meeting and healing two blind men after a visit to Jerico.  Bach was apparently moved by this story, and throughout the cantata we experience pairings of instruments and voices, possibly to echo the two blind men.  The piece begins with a duet of oboes, who are then joined by two voices, the soprano and alto (in our case, soprano Rosa Lamoreaux and and alto Barbara Hollinshead – two Bethlehem favorites!).  The libretto for this movement fuses the greeting of the blind men with a prayer of thanksgiving for Jesus’ intervention in the lives of sinners.  This is florid music, with long interpolations from the duetting oboes that surely left an effect on the memory of Bach’s first listeners.

The second movement, a recitative for tenor (local talent and favorite, Greg Oaten), takes up the voice of a lone blind man (Luke’s account of the same story has only one blind person), who implores Jesus’ intervention in the lives of those with physical affirmaties, while undergirded by strings and basso continuo (in our case, the small continuo organ), with the first violins and oboes playing the chorale tune (or hymn tune) of the German Agnus Dei underneath (listen carefully for this melody, as it will return in the last movement).

In the next movement, the text continues with the imagery of restored sight, declaiming:  All eyes wait, Lord, O all-powerful God, for you. Interpolated in the four voice chorus are duets between the tenor and bass sections, again recalling the two blind men.  As those two sections duet, the pair of oboes joins in, creating two pairs of two.

Bach concludes this piece with an accompanied chorale of the German Agnus Dei, this time appearing in the four voices of the choir.  This movement has the kind of gravity that recalls Bach’s music for the Passions – there are two angst-ridden cries for mercy at the beginning of the piece, and then the mood begins to change to a more buoyant (though no less vigorous) setting of the text, before a final amen.

One wonders how the people in the pew reacted to this music, which cemented his place in a long line of Thomaskantors. John Eliot Gardiner, writing about the audition, shares the following:

A press report by a ‘special correspondent,’ appeared in the Hamburg Relationscourier: ‘On the past Sunday in the fornoon the prince-appointed Capellmeister of Cöthen, Mr. Bach, gave an audition here in the Church of St. Thomas in respect of the still vacant post of the Cantor, and the music he made on that occasion was highly praised by all those who judge such things.’ (Bach scholar) Peter Williams has made the spicy suggestion that the ‘special correspondent’ could have been Bach himself – an early example of ‘spin’ and self-aggrandizement.

To those familiar with Bach’s machinations with  his employers, this bit of benign craftiness might appear familiar, though we can never know for sure – the records from this time period are, at best, frustratingly spotty.   We do know the end result, however:  St. Thomas had a new Cantor, and Bach began one of his most prolific and fertile periods of musical composition.   Please join us for for what will surely be a great afternoon of beautiful music (the doors at Central Moravian open at 11:30 am  – come early to get a good seat!).

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