Sunday, 8 April 2012

Heaven laughs! The earth rejoices!

What better way to mark a rainy Easter Sunday than with a Bach cantata! Depending on how long I do this blog, I'll run out of cantatas for Easter Sunday after next year as Bach only ever wrote two of them. (There's also the Easter Oratorio, of course). Still, we have Cantatas 4 and 31, of which the latter is the subject of this year's post.

Cantata 31, Der Himmel lacht! die Erde jubilieret ('Heaven laughs! The earth rejoices!') is quite an early work and begins with a purely instrumental movement ('Sonata'), featuring trumpets and drums. Those instruments are usually a sign of festivity with Bach and this movement is as extrovert and cheerful as can be. It start like a fanfare (heralding the Resurrection?) with a strongly rhythmic theme based wholly on the notes of a C major triad and then dances off in a spirit of unbending jollity, expressing the laughter of Heaven and the rejoicing on earth through massed streams of semiquavers.

The lively chorus that follows is just as fine, if a little less unbuttoned! The choir is, unusually, divided into five parts with the sopranos being divided. The trumpets and drums continue to add their festive colouring (especially in the jubilant orchestral postlude). The movement mingles passages of homophony (shouts of collective joy) with imitative polyphony that includes word-painting, such as with the laughing runs of semiquavers on "lacht". 

There's a 'dry' but emotional bass recitative, Erwünschter Tag! sei, Seele ('Rejoice this day!'), which is followed by the cantata's first aria, also for the bass. Fürst des Lebens, starker Streiter ('Prince of life, great warrior'), accompanied by only by the continuo (including cello), makes a lot of use of dotted rhythms.

A 'dry' and gently exhortative tenor recitative, So stehe dann, du gottergebene Seele ('So then stand, you devout soul'), is then followed by a tenor aria, Adam muss in uns verwesen ('Adam must decay within us'). Against a rich flow of melody from the strings, the tenor sings his attractive melodic lines. 

With the soprano recitative, Weil dann das Haupt sein Glied ('For since the head'), Bach turns inward and the following aria, Letzte Stunde, brich herein ('Last hour, break now upon me') is the most intimate part of the cantata and, for me, its highlight. The soprano here is not so much accompanied as duetted with by a solo oboe whose endless melody lulls us throughout like a loving parent. The continuo is no bit player either, adding its lilt to the play of lines, and the upper strings later bring in the phrases of an old chorale, Nicolaus Herman's Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist, to add yet more interest to this beautiful movement. 

As usual, the cantata ends with a chorale, So fahr ich hin zu Jesu Christ ('In this way I shall journey towards Jesus Christ') - the same chorale as that introduced in the soprano aria. Here's its given a straightforward four-part setting with full orchestral accompaniment. 

(For those who aren't keen on period instrument performances, please try this as an alternative).

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