Saturday, 31 May 2014

Hakuna Matata- Cantata for the fifth Sunday after Easter (Wahrlich, wahrlich ich sage euch)

Sometimes the best music can be the simplest; sometimes the most profound theological message can be the most straightforwardly comforting. After weeks of post Easter angst, Bach's cantata for this week in 1724 gives us the equivalent of a hug and a Bob Marley-esque “Don't worry, be happy”.

As with last week, we start with the bass giving out a direct quote from St John's account of the Last Supper setting the tone for the whole cantata. And its so uncomplicated: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name will be given to you”. Really? Isn't there supposed to be some comforting conditionality here, some quid pro quo that can enable human transaction-obsessed minds to cope with divine generosity? Nope, apparently not. We are in the business of something that bends human concepts of fairness to its limits. And the music fits completely with this theme of simplicity and directness. It reminded me of the start of a Mozart mass; the descending major triad motif which keeps coming back could almost be something that Wolfgang Amadeus wrote for Salzburg Cathedral from the 1770s. (That was when Mozart was told by the Bishop of Salzburg that no Mass should ever last more than 40 minutes. The good old days..)
In terms of performances, there's a lovely clarity and lightness to Sigiswald Kuijken's approach with La Petite Bande here ( , with a light baritonal, comforting tone from Jan van der Crabben as the vox Christi. By contrast, Nicolas Harnoncourt's 1977 account ( emphasises the heartier side of comfort, with darker woodwind sounds coming through the texture and a jolly country-dance feel. Incidentally, this recording was apparently made in the Casino Zogernitz in Vienna; I was slightly disappointed to discover that this was a recording studio, rather than Harnoncourt's favourite venue for a flutter on the roulette table...

The alto aria that follows starts with a fascinating bit of hard work for the solo violinist- it's Vivaldi-esque in its virtuosity. It's an almost happy-go-lucky text: “Ich will doch wohl Rosen brechen, Wenn mich gleich die itzt Dornen stechen.”- “I will indeed pluck roses, even if thorns prick me at the same time”. There's a brief darker moment in the second section when suddenly some thick thorny textures from the strings underpin the words “Bitten und Flehen”- prayers and entreaties- but again it all gets so much simpler again almost immediately. It's a real Hakuna Matata moment; and even when the prickly thorny motif comes back right at the end, it now has a major-key underpinning. Again, I loved the Kuijken recording of this; Petra Noskaiova has a very boyish alto sound, which fits with Bach's likely performance practice; but her performance made me imagine an older boy going out to play in full knowledge of past sadness. Harnoncourt's countertenor, Paul Esswood has rather choppy phrasing; I found his account more thorny than rosy.

The next movement is something unusual again; the real musical interest isn't given to the soprano soloist , but to the busy oboe duet that bustles along under the chorale melody. It's an interesting shift in the usual balance of musical power, and it fits with the overarching message of the cantata: confidence in simplicity. Even over all the complications of the world, the words of the chorale ring out like a subconscious memory or a prayer uttered in sleep: “Und was der ewig gültig Gott In seinem Wort versprochen hat, Geschworn bei seinem Namen, Das hält und gibt er gwiß fürwahr.”- “What God, the eternally good, has promised in his word, and sworn by his name, that will he keep and fulfil for sure”. And the tenor's recitative and aria brings this message home; Bach gives him clear repetitions of “Gott hilft gewiss”- “God helps, for certain” and a clear singable melody (with only an exuberant leap up to a top B on the last word hilft to complicate things!). It almost has the feel of a country dance; Nicolas Harnoncourt's conducting helps things along with a jolly swing.

And finally all the voices together bring us to a cheerful end in the chorale, with only a tiny little dark moment on the words “und braucht an uns kein Argre List”- “He uses no cunning deceit with us”. Sometimes, life really is that simple. Hakuna matata!