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Twelve Days of Christmas: 'Birthday Cantatas'

available at Amazon
J.S. Bach, Birthday Cantatas (BWV 213/214), J. Lunn, R. Blaze, M. Sakurada, D. Wörner, Bach Collegium Japan, M. Suzuki

(released on November 13, 2015)
BIS-2161 | 73'17"
Some people get a bicycle or a video game console for their eleventh birthday. In 1733, Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony got a Bach cantata for his, and his mother, Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland, got one for her 34th birthday in the same year. We took note of Masaaki Suzuki's set of Bach's secular cantatas with the fourth volume, released last year. The cycle continues with a disc that brings together these two birthday cantatas in a performance that has many pleasing qualities. Most listeners are likely to know this music in a different form, since Bach recycled most of the movements from these cantatas in his Christmas Oratorio the following year. That piece's famous opening chorus, Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage, was first composed as the first movement of Maria Josepha's birthday cantata, Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! (BWV 214), that line of text explaining the opening timpani strikes and heraldic tripled trumpet parts.

Bach did not compose any operas, but the secular cantatas, which are often composed of dramatic scenes involving allegorical characters, are the closest one is going to get to a guess at how a Bach opera might have sounded. For example, the young prince's birthday cantata, Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen (BWV 213), is also known as Hercules am Scheidewege (Hercules at the crossroads). Hercules, played by the alto soloist, is torn between Lust (soprano) and Virtue (tenor) until he decides on Virtue. At the end the bass, as Mercury, draws a parallel between the choice of Hercules and the princely dedicatee. Soprano Joanne Lunn is limpid at the high end, if just a whisper at the low, in the gorgeous aria Schlafe, mein Liebster, where Vice attempts to seduce Hercules, re-purposed somewhat curiously in the Christmas Oratorio as the Virgin Mary's cradle song to her newborn son. Hercules's aria Treues Echo dieser Orten, with its obbligato part for oboe d'amore and echo response ("Nein!" or "Ja!"), is just lovely, although countertenor Robin Blaze's stridency at the top of the range is one of the disc's disappointments. Makoto Sakurada has heroic strength and flexible agility in the big tenor aria, while the intonation of the natural horns in BWV 213 is a little hair-raising at times.

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