Bach, as Reinhard Goebel notes trenchantly in his commentary on the Secular Cantatas recording, ‘was rather more than the pious composer of sacred cantatas’. Yet the daunting image of Bach as ‘the fifth evangelist’ (as enthusiasts dubbed him) continues to exert a baleful image, scaring off prospective listeners and, Goebel argues, persuading numerous critics to undervalue the cantatas he wrote in honour of royal patrons and local dignitaries. This critical disdain has extended even to sacred ‘parodies’ such as the Christmas Oratorio and the Advent cantata BWV 36: that is, sacred works for which Bach reused music he had composed originally for secular contexts.
However, just as the period-instrument movement scraped away the ‘heaviness’ of traditional Bach performance practice, so recent historical research has freed us of this critical baggage, which, to quote Malcolm Boyd, derived ‘from a 19th-century confusion of religious aspiration with artistic merit’. It is now thought highly unlikely that Bach himself ever made such a clear-cut distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ categories of music – for him, God was immanent in all music – and he would have seen nothing contentious in, for example, recycling music first used to celebrate a prince’s birthday (BWV 213) as a lullaby for the infant Christ in the Christmas Oratorio.
Whatever one’s view of parody, it seems undeniable that the Christmas Oratorio is greater than the sum of its original parts, if only because of Bach’s skill in imposing musical coherence on his disparate sources, which included three secular cantatas, BWV 213-15, and the now-lost church cantata BWV 248a. This narration of the Nativity comprises six linked yet self-contained cantatas that were each performed in Leipzig on a different day between Christmas 1734 and Epiphany 1735. In compiling the oratorio, Bach largely followed the model of his Passions, employing arias, choruses, secco and accompanied recitatives, and chorales based on hymn-stanzas; one inspired addition was the lovely pastoral ‘Sinfonia’ that opens the second cantata, cited provocatively by one writer as the work’s ‘crowning glory’.
René Jacobs’s treatment of the Sinfonia seems likely to provoke a further controversy: the often leisurely approach he takes on this new recording slows at that point to the virtually funereal. Elsewhere, his expansive tempi are more persuasive, thanks chiefly to superb, richly detailed performances set in a sumptuous acoustic. Though the Christmas Oratorio necessarily covers a smaller range of emotions than the Passions, Bach invested the music with such expressive variety – from the soul-searching ‘Schliesse, mein Herze’ to the trumpet-led jubilation of ‘Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen’ – that the best recent recordings have been able to explore different facets of the work. Gardiner (Archiv) treats it as compelling drama; Koopman (Erato) brings out a buoyant festive spirit; Christophers (Collins) opts for the focused intensity of religious devotion. Jacobs, for his part, highlights the work’s air of majesty, its role as a public ceremony of affirmation and joy. But, I wonder, does the emphasis he’s placed on the beauty and richness of the sound detract from the music’s spiritual message? Or am I making another false distinction between sacred and secular?
Philippe Herreweghe has always seemed well-attuned to the more mystical aspects of Bach’s music, an empathy clearly evident on his new CD of Advent cantatas. Though the opening chorus of BWV 36 seems a touch reserved, those of BWV 61 and 62 match precision with vigour, and Herreweghe’s team of soloists are in fine voice throughout. BWV 36 is a parody, based on an earlier tribute to a local teacher. Bach retained his original music for the arias, but replaced the recitatives with chorales, so the cantata alternates delightfully between dance movements and more formal hymn settings. (An even more dramatic juxtaposition occurs in the opening movement of BWV 61, a sacred cantata from the outset, where Bach sets the traditional chorale melody within a fashionable French overture.)
The original version of BWV 36, known as BWV 36c, is treated to a sprightly outing on Reinhard Goebel’s set of secular cantatas. But the major works here are two allegory cantatas, BWV 206 and 207, and the mythology- based BWV 201, ‘The Contest between Phoebus and Pan’, in which the critic Midas is given ass’s ears for preferring Pan’s cheery bluster to Phoebus’s ornate artistry in a singing contest. Goebel attacks these pieces with his customary gusto, to splendid effect in the noisier, more colourful movements, such as the March and Chorus that open BWV 207. At other times, his touch can seem abrasive and heavy-handed, so rhythms lurch instead of flow, instrumentalists dig hard into the parts and singers begin to sound strained. Both René Jacobs and Ton Koopman have also recorded BWV 201 (on Phoebus & Pan and Complete Cantatas, Vol. 4, respectively); in each case, to these very human ears, their versions are the Phoebus to Goebel’s Pan.