Claudio Abbado isn't a name one associates with early music, in light of his impressive career conducting the masterworks of the Romantic and modern eras. Indeed, he didn't conduct any music by J.S. Bach with the Berlin Philharmonic until as late as 1994. Yet when he's leading the talented Orchestra Mozart of Bologna in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, his ease with the music and his players is obvious, and the performances have almost as much Baroque style as many versions by period ensembles of greater longevity. Abbado led this ensemble in all six Brandenburgs in 2007 at the Teatro Municipale Romolo Valli in Reggio Emilio, and the live performances were recorded by Deutsche Grammophon with close attention to details, as befits chamber music.
No composer looms over modern jazz quite like Johann Sebastian Bach, whose harmonic rigour seems to have provided the basis for bebop and all that followed. Listen to the endlessly mutating semiquavers tumbling from Charlie Parker’s saxophone and it could be the top line of a Bach fantasia; the jolting cycle of chords in John Coltrane’s Giant Steps could come straight from a Bach fugue and Bach’s contrapuntal techniques crop up in countless jazz pianists, from Bill Evans to Nina Simone. Bach certainly casts a long shadow over US pianist Brad Mehldau: even when he’s gently mutilating pieces by Radiohead, Nick Drake or the Beatles, he sounds like Glenn Gould ripping into the Goldberg Variations. Which is why it comes as no surprise to see Mehldau recording an entire album inspired by Bach. However, this is not a jazz album. Instead of riffing on Bach themes, as the likes of Jacques Loussier or the Modern Jazz Quartet have done in the past, After Bach sees Mehldau using Bach’s methodology. Mehldau plays five of Bach’s canonic 48 Preludes and Fugues, each followed by his own modern 21st-century response.
Although Bach's sacred cantatas span a huge expressive range and display a striking stylistic diversity, they were all composed for performance during a church service. In the case of the secular cantatas, on the other hand, their respective purpose is as varied as their subject matter and emotional content. They were usually commissions intended for occasions such as weddings, funerals and birthdays. As such they were sometimes performed in churches, and some of them have religious texts, but as the works gathered here exemplify, they were not related to the particular theme of the church service on a certain day.
Continuing their exploration of Bach’s vocal music, Bach Collegium Japan and Masaaki Suzuki have now reached the fifth volume of secular cantatas, with the previous instalment being ‘urgently recommended’ by the reviewer in Fanfare, and its contents described as ‘unusually colourful and vivid performances, even by the standards so far set by Suzuki’s Collegium Japan’ (International Record Review). Both cantatas on the present disc were first performed in 1733 by Bach and his Collegium Musicum at public concerts in Leipzig.
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.