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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Easter & Ascension Oratorios

Retrospect Ensemble, Matthew Halls (conductor)
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Recording details: February 2010
St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Ben Turner
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: April 2011
Total duration: 70 minutes 4 seconds

Presented here are two of Bach's largest creations, conducted by Matthew Halls and featuring Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), James Gilchrist (tenor) and Peter Harvey (bass), along with the Retrospect Ensemble. The Oratorio is a unique genre which is known for its enormous structure and epic tales, often including biblical references. The Easter Oratorio and the Ascension Oratorio featured here, tell stories through four characters: Mary Mother of James, Mary Magdalene, Peter and John, which celebrates the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. This recording brings to life the stories of the four main characters through the talented and inspired story telling of the soloists and the passion and force of the Retrospect Ensemble. The skill and brilliance of Bach's writing of these oratorios is brought out with this dynamic recording and shouldn't be missed!

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'Matthew Halls neatly juxtaposes bustling vitality and an unforced conversational quality in the first part of the Sinfonia [of the Easter Oratorio], with the three natural trumpets sounding particularly shapely and relaxed. The chorus is impressively disciplined and radiant in the opening chorus, during which rapid duet passages are delivered impeccably by James Gilchrist and Peter Harvey. Rachel Brown's flawless flute is an eloquent counterpart to Carolyn Sampson's enchanting gentleness in the aria 'Seele, deine Spezereien', and Halls controls its pizzicato bass-line with benevolent finesse. Gilchrist almost whispers the yearningly beautiful tenor part of 'Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer' and the aria is all the more special because of Halls's expressive handling of the delicate pastoral accompaniment of recorders and muted strings; I've heard many lovely performances of this aria but do not recall hearing the text communicated with such heart-rending consolation as this' (Gramophone)» More

'In the 1730s Bach drew together elements of his sacred music, most famously in the six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio. His two works for the present period of the church year are equally fascinating. That for Ascension has always been popular, with its trumpet-dominated choruses and exquisite alto and soprano solos (Carolyn Sampson is outstanding here). The Easter Oratorio, with its strong narrative structure, has found less favour, but is so well done here as to quell all doubts about the libretto. Matthew Halls directs sprightly singers and accomplished players' (The Observer)

'Linn has given us a roster of the Retrospect Ensemble's participants in the present recording … Halls observes the distinction between soli and ripieno textures in the choral movements, calling on soloists from the choir for appropriate passages. Halls' interpretations are above reproach, and his musicians respond at a very high level. What's not to like? Heartily recommended' (Fanfare, USA)» More

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Seemingly employed to celebrate the central religious festivals in Leipzig’s chief churches during 1734-5, Bach’s three oratorios fulfil the same role within the Lutheran liturgy as a cantata. Numerous attempts have been made to explain their position within the Oratorio genre, but in actual fact they are each unique works of varying magnitude and structure, and do not conform to a set model or blueprint. The Christmas Oratorio is undoubtedly Bach’s best-known Oratorio—it is more often recorded, performed and written about than either the Easter or Ascension Oratorio—and is a monumental work consisting of six individual cantatas, each celebrating different feast-days of the Christmas calendar. The Easter Oratorio was Bach’s first foray into this genre; it is likely that the work was performed on Easter Sunday, 1735, and it comprises a two-movement instrumental Sinfonia, followed by alternating choruses, recitatives and arias. This Oratorio was most closely created in the image of the Italianate oratorios of the eighteenth century: it is without an evangelist figure, biblical passages, or chorales. Instead it utilises an entirely poetic text (often attributed to Picander) which is organised in rhyming verse, and is delivered by four characters, Mary Mother of James, Mary Magdalene, Peter and John. The Ascension Oratorio is one of the many works that Bach composed in honour of this part of the Easter cycle; probably performed on 19 May 1735, it was incorrectly listed as a ‘sacred cantata’ in the (1852) Bach-Gesellschaft (most likely due to its brevity). In contrast with the Easter Oratorio, biblical passages (Luke 24: 50-2 Mark 16: 19 and Acts 1: 9-12) delivered by the tenor Evangelist create a narrative sequence, strongly connecting this work with the Lutheran historia tradition, an important predecessor of passions and oratorios. Original poetic verses are presented as choruses, accompanied recitative and arias, and two chorales take prominent positions as the central and final movements of the work. While these three works are disparate in style and structure, they nevertheless conform with Johann Gottfried Walther’s broad definition of the Oratorio as ‘the musical conception of a sacred history’. Bach’s treatment of the genre has also been allied to postulations made by Erdmann Neumeister during his lectures at Leipzig University in 1695, that the Oratorio is ‘a literary genre mixing Biblical verses, aria texts and chorales’.

A common feature of all three oratorios is that they are parodies of earlier works, adapting music that Bach used previously in other contexts. The Easter Oratorio has a particularly complex genesis; in its first guise, the chorus and aria material appeared as a congratulatory cantata (Entfliehet, verschwindet, entweichet, ihr Sorgen, BWV249a) celebrating the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxony-Weißenfels on 23 February 1725. On 1 April of the same year, and with a new text and additional recitatives, the work was performed as an Easter Cantata. Subsequently, on 25 August 1726, it was revived in honour of another birthday, this time that of Count Joachim Friedrich von Flemming (Die Feier des Genius, BWV249b). It was only upon a revision of the score, sometime in the early-mid 1730s, that the work was entitled ‘Oratorium’. Christoph Wolff suggests that further minor changes to the Easter Oratorio were made in either 1749 or 1750; this was some of the last work carried out by Bach.

The parody material comprising the Ascension Oratorio is more of a patchwork: the outer choruses and arias No 4 and No 10 all draw upon pre-existing material, primarily taken from the lost cantata, Froher Tag, verlangte Stunden (BWV Anh.18, 1732). Most famously, the alto aria No 4, ‘Ach, bleibe doch’, is based on ‘Entfernet euch, ihr kalten Herzen’ from the lost wedding cantata Auf! süß-entzückende Gewalt (1725, text by Johann Christoph Gottsched). The Agnus Dei from Bach’s B minor Mass is also a parody of this same work, although numerous scholars have exhaustively demonstrated that this movement has been significantly re-composed, rather than being a direct parody of the original aria.

It is Georg Friedrich Handel who has become most famed for this type of self-borrowing, but parody is also common in the music of Bach, and questions have been raised concerning the artistic and practical motivations behind his use of this compositional technique. A possible explanation is the issue of time-management; in order to fulfil the remit of his position as Kantor, even Bach may have had to take short cuts. Perhaps the quick turn-around between the birthday cantata BWV249a and the reworked Easter Cantata, which appeared just a few weeks later, would support this. J C Bach later alluded to such harsh realities in his own life, stating that ‘my brother [C P E Bach] lives to compose, I compose to live’. Malcolm Boyd has also suggested that Bach may have hoped to ‘give greater permanence to an occasional composition, and for this reason the ephemeral homage and birthday cantatas for the nobility were frequently fitted out with fresh texts’. It is certainly clear that Bach sought to eke out the full range of compositional possibilities offered by both his own music and that of others; he devoted energies to arranging and transcribing the music of great composers (including, for example, Antonio Vivaldi) and was famous for his gift for extemporising on fugal themes, extracting the full range of potential offered by any given material. Bach’s parody works can be viewed in this same light, as examples of his ingenuity and inventiveness; C P E Bach reflected on this aspect of his father’s music when he wrote that ‘those who have a concept of what is possible in art and who desire original thought and its special, unusual elaboration will receive from it full satisfaction’.

Embedded in the scholarship that surrounds Bach’s parodies is the issue of whether works which began life with a secular subject can truly be adapted to express the central tenants of a sacred text. In 1946 Leo Schrade described ‘a conflict between the sacred and the secular’ in Bach’s music, and this has subsequently been a hotly contested aspect of his output. Bach has been lauded as ‘The Fifth Evangelist’, and it has been strongly argued by the nineteenth-century scholar Philipp Spitta that his ‘secular occasional compositions were not genuinely secular; as such they scarcely fulfilled their aim, and the composer only restored them to their native home when he applied them to church uses’. As a counter to this, Jaroslav Pelikan postulates that Bach could be seen in another light: ‘would it be more accurate to demythologize this legend and to see in him a secular modern man who did what he had to do, or more precisely what he was paid to do, including chorales and church cantatas, but for whom the music was the thing and the text was incidental?’.

In fact, the text is never incidental; how could it be, during a period when works with text were heralded as the most communicative form of music, and instrumentalists were expected to imitate the expressive power of the human voice? Throughout the recording of these works, aspects of rhetoric were called upon in order to shape their interpretation; the art of persuasive speech was one that was repeatedly compared with the composition and performance of music throughout the Baroque period, and a recurring aim was the desire to move the passions of listeners through ‘Affektive’ (or expressive) composition and delivery. C P E Bach wrote that ‘a stirring performance depends on an alert mind which is willing to follow reasonable precepts in order to reveal the content of compositions’, and an organ pupil of Bach was reportedly instructed that a chorale should be played ‘not just offhand but in accordance with the Affekt of the words’. Nikolaus Harnoncourt has stated that ‘in Bach’s hands the rhetorical components are particularly clearly expressed’, and although Bach himself left us little in the way of theoretical writings, enough can be garnered from those who surrounded him and who were taught by him to set parameters for the understanding of his music in rhetorical terms; in this way, we can fully appreciate the ease with which Bach’s eloquent compositional language expresses secular and sacred music alike.

Upon comparing the texts of BWV249a and the Easter Oratorio, BWV249, the issue of any ‘conflict’ between the religious or profane subject matter becomes subsidiary to the Affekt of the text itself. The two texts regularly share very similar themes, which Bach sets persuasively; this is perhaps most clearly apparent in the central movement of the Easter Oratorio, the tenor aria ‘Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer’, accompanied by a delicate texture of ebbing recorders, muted violins, and throbbing bass line. Albert Schweitzer praises this movement as ‘one of the most beautiful sacred lullabies that Bach ever wrote’. Of course, in its original guise it was a secular lullaby, using a text that likewise draws upon images of sleep; in both settings of the text the word ‘slumber’ or ‘sleep’ comes to rest on a long pedal note. Marcus Fabius Quintilian, the Roman rhetorician who most exhaustively drew parallels between the arts of speech and music, writes that a thought can be ‘expressed through the oration in such fashion that it is perceived as though it were seen rather than heard’, by using the rhetorical figure hypotyposis; here, we are made to experience the stasis of slumber through Bach’s setting of the word.

Similarly, in the fifth movement of the two works, an aria for soprano and obbligato flute, images of circles are conveyed by Bach’s setting of the text; in BWV249a the text describes ‘welling’ emotions, while in the Easter Oratorio, Mary Mother of James refers to ‘laurel wreaths’. The rhapsodic and sinuous flute melody predominantly consists of eddying cirulatio figures, whereby the theme rises and falls in a sine-wave pattern; throughout the Baroque era this rhetorical figure was a symbol of perfection, representing—in a literal sense—circular concepts. But most pertinently in the case of Mary’s aria, this figure symbolises eternity, infinity, and ultimately, God.

Another feature that pervades the Easter Oratorio is the influence of dance models on many of the movements; it has previously been suggested that the first three movements of this work could originally have been composed as a concerto. Konrad Küster has further proposed that these movements are part of a multi-movement orchestral suite. In this context, No 5 could be interpreted as a minuet, No 7 as a bourrée, No 9 a gavotte, and the final chorus, No 11, a gigue. The appropriateness of using dance movements within a religious work has been questioned in the past; Spitta, for example, wrote that while the first aria of BWV176, in the style of a gavotte, is ‘charming as a piece of music’, it is nevertheless ‘quite unsuited to its text’. However, dance forms, like the various figures of rhetoric employed by Bach, actually enhance the Affekt throughout this work. Johann Mattheson’s Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739) gives a full account of the Affekt created by the metrical hierarchies of each dance-type: the fast-slow-fast structure of the opening three movements captures the contrast that can be achieved by employing different dance forms. Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne, in their study of Bach’s use of dance music, describe the first and third movements of this work as Gigues: Mattheson writes that the ‘English gigue’ is ‘characterized by an ardent and fleeting zeal’ and that the ‘Italian Gige’ proceeds ‘in a flowing and uninterrupted manner: perhaps like the smooth arrow-swift flow of a stream’. Flanked by the exuberant energy of No 1 and No 3, the second movement is a plaintive Adagio—a performance direction which for Mattheson indicates distress—for oboe accompanied by strings. Reminiscent of his Keyboard Partitas BWV825-30, also written in Leipzig, Bach adopts the dotted rhythms of a French sarabande to complement the free and ornamental solo melody. Patricia Ranum has unearthed an account of a dancer, who ‘became to express the emotions of his soul through the motions of his body’ during a sarabande: ‘Sometimes he would cast languid and passionate glances throughout a slow and languid rhythmic unit, and then, as though weary of being obliging, he would avert his eyes, and if he wished to hide his passion and, with a more precipitous motion, would snatch away the gift he had tendered’.

Mattheson, in a description of the passions that can be raised by music, captures the overall Affekt that Bach creates with these opening three movements of the Easter Oratorio:

If I hear the first part of a good overture, then I feel a special elevation of soul … and if a serious [passage] follows, then everything is brought together to a normal restful conclusion. It seems to me that this is a pleasantly alternating movement which an orator could scarcely surpass. Whoever pays attention can see in the features of an attentive listener what he perceives in his heart … If I hear a solemn sinfonia in the church, then a prayerful trembling comes over me; if a powerful instrumental choir is also worked in, then great admiration is aroused in me by this … then if everything is closed by a joyous hallelujah, my heart jumps in my body; even if I should know neither the meaning of the word nor should otherwise understand anything else, on account of the distance or for other reasons; indeed, even if words were not used, merely the effort of instruments and expressive sounds.

Bach’s Ascension Oratorio begins with a jubilatory D major movement, scored for trumpets, timpani, flutes, oboes, strings and continuo: within the first two bars, Bach presents rhetorical figures which summarise the subject matter and Affekts that are dealt with by this work. Notably, this reflects the instructions given to an orator, whereby the opening passage of a speech (the Exordium), should contain the purpose and meaning of the discourse, which is subsequently elaborated on throughout the rest of the work. An energetic rising corta rhythm (a three-note figure, where one note equals the length of the other two notes combined, and which is often used to express joy) is announced by the trumpets; rising themes (known as the rhetorical figure anabasis) such as this are associated with elevated passions, and Johann Gottfried Walther wrote in 1732 that they are used ‘for example on the words: He is risen; God has ascended; and similar texts’. Immediately, however, this rising gesture which is so appropriate to the subject of Jesus’ ascension, is countered by a descending scale emphatically presented by the strings in unison: although the key is D major—described by Bach’s pupil Johann Philipp Kirnberger as a ‘class 1’ major key, and therefore expressive of joy – descending figures (or catabasis) are associated with negative Affekts.

This duality represents the crux of the work: Christ is risen up, but throughout the Oratorio we are witness to characters who implore him to return to Earth. The juxtaposition of literal rising and descending is also mirrored by the internal struggle of the characters: while the glory of the ascension is played out in some movements (notably Nos 6, 10 and 11), the loss, pain and suffering induced by Jesus’ departure is also explored (Nos 3 and 4). The expression of opposing Affekts in this way is the rhetorical figure antithesis.

These simple musical-rhetorical figures resonate throughout the rest of the work; in the Evangelist’s first recitative (No 2), the text ‘the Lord Jesus lifted up His hands and blessed His disciples’ is punctuated by a rising scale, and the sorrow accompanying ‘while He blessed them, He was parted from them’ is represented by a descending scale. Even more vividly, the ‘two men in white apparel’ who appear in No 7 sing the words ‘which is taken up from you into Heaven’ with an anabasis figure, while the prediction that Jesus shall come to Earth again is represented by a catabasis figure. The final movement—a glorious concerted chorale which recalls the scoring of the opening movement—impatiently implores, ‘But when shall it come to pass … O day, when will you dawn, That we may greet the Saviour … Come, then, and appear!’, all the while accompanied by tumbling and emphatically repeated descending scales.

No 3, a bass recitative accompanied by flutes, and No 4, the alto aria which is famously a parody of ‘Entfernet euch, ihr kalten Herzen’, present the most unambiguous expression of suffering in this work. Descending sobbing figures pervade the bass recitative, illustrating rolling tears and the sorrow induced by Jesus’ departure. In both the recitative and subsequent aria, the difficult sounding interval leaps in the melody line (known in rhetorical terminology as saltus duriusculus) are described by Kirnberger as representing ‘sad, intense, tender, melancholy, imploring and caressing’ Affekts. Joachim Burmeister, the first German author to produce a full compendium of musical-rhetorical figures, wrote that ‘pathopoeia [the use of chromaticism in music] occurs when the text is expressed through semitones in such fashion that no one appears to remain unmoved by the created affection’. The portrayal of pain and suffering is the main feature that is shared by both the ‘Entfernet euch, ihr kalten Herzen’ and Agnus Dei versions of this movement, and although compositionally there are structural and thematic differences between this aria and the Agnus Dei, they are both dominated by a combination of angular and crawling melodic lines. A striking addition to the Ascension Oration is the descending corta rhythm in the second bar (accompanying the word ‘doch’ in the vocal entry): here, the rising trumpet figure that was presented at the start of the work is inverted. This transforms its Affekt, and rather than portraying joy, it represents the agitation of this text.

In stark contrast, the soprano aria ‘Jesu, deine Gnadenblicke’, depicts the Heavenly exultance of Jesus’ Ascension. Malcolm Boyd has postulated that ‘Christ’s departure from Earth is suggested by the absence of a continuo part, but the power of his loving spirit remains and is reflected in the hovering accompaniment for upper instruments’. This ethereal aria opens with a mirror rhythm (crotchet-quaver-quaver-crotchet, which is created by Bach’s use of slurs) similar to that at the start of ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ of the St John Passion: this feature is related to the chiasmic figures which symbolise the cross, and are prevalent in Bach’s music. A three-part (trinity) texture pervades much of the movement; during instrumental interludes, the flutes, oboe and strings engage in an interlocking trio. Furthermore, the movement is written in triple time—as is, relatively unusually, the chorale which is at the centre of this Oratorio—and a predominant feature of the melody is the repeated three-note rising figure (anabasis) which is associated with the text ‘I can continually see’. The contrary motion which is so often featured between the melody lines perhaps summarises and resolves the conflict between the rising and falling figures which persist throughout the work.

Regardless of profane origin of much of the music that constitutes these two works, Bach sets the text of his oratorios with all the skill of a great orator. He must surely have been aware of the plaudits offered to the power of music by Luther himself: ‘I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone … even that transcends the greatest eloquence of the most eloquent, because of the infinite variety of its forms and benefits. We can mention only one point (which experience confirms), namely, that next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise’. Perhaps most significant, though, are Bach’s own notes in the margin of his Abraham Calov Bible, whereupon reading 2 Chronicles 5:11-15, ‘How the Glory of the Lord appeared After Beautiful Music’, he added ‘NB. Where there is devotional music, God with his Grace is always present’.

Dr Nia Lewis 2010

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