BWV 18 - Cantata BWV 18 is an important transitional work in the Bach canon. Soon after arriving in Weimar in 1713 Bach discovered the Italian concerti that he was to arrange for keyboard solo. These Italian works were to be very influential in the development of his international style. The Sinfonia that opens our cantata is Bach’s first original foray into the Italian concerto form. The movement for the unusual combination of four violas and continuo shows complete mastery of the Italianate style that he had seen in the Vivaldi models that had so impressed him. The top two violas carry the weight of the argument with the third and fourth violas as well as the continuo instruments providing the accompaniment. The dark color of the massed tenor instruments provides a perfect illustration of the stormy weather at the beginning of the text. Bach’s recitative style is not so fully formed as we will find in the later Leipzig pieces. The first recitative in particular is reminiscent of the earlier 17th-century arioso style. The central body of the work is in an unusual form with extended recitative alternating with a rather fierce soprano Litany. The soprano aria with all of the violas in unison is a very simple, Italianate aria, one of the first of its type in Bach. The violas doubling of the voices in the chorale provide a darkly appropriate color to the final chorale, a setting of "Durch Adams Fall."
BWV 18 "Gleichwie der Regen un Schnee vom Himmel fällt" was written in 1713 for Sexigessima Sunday (the 2nd Sunday before Ash Wednesday). Its first performance in Weimar was uniquely scored for four violas and continuo (no violins!). The second performance in Leipzig, February 1724, Bach revised the orchestration by adding two recorders doubling the top two viola lines. It is this version we perform today.
The opening sinfonia presents three different motives, each depicting an image from the first recitative that quotes Isaiah 55: 10-11. The pounding quarter notes in the first two bars represent rain, the eighths notes outlining a fully diminished chord in measures three and four illustrate the falling snow, while the addition of the recorders with a sequential figure in the fifth bar characterizes growth and fertility. Isoyama describes the sinfonia as evoking the “feeling of longing for the blossoming of the Holy Scripture in the midst of desolation.” The bass recitative achieves great detail with care and attention to the text.
The third movement, an accompanied recitative in four sections is interrupted four times by portions of the Litany sung by the sopranos. The text comes from Luke 8: 4-15, the parable of the sower. Each of the four sections represents the different types of soil in the parable. The soprano aria that follows is a personal and intimate reflection. The waves of sound created by the undulating sixteenth notes in the recorders and violas suggest the numerous deceptions around us. The final chorale, although severe in text and mode, is lightened somewhat by the floating recorders.
© Ryan Turner