After the first Sunday in Advent in 1726, Bach’s fourth cycle of cantatas becomes very spotty. Either repeats of earlier pieces or the works of other composers were the norm with very few new pieces. Those pieces that were first performed at this time are, however, a great but small group. Along with today’s cantata BWV 58, the marvelous Purification solo cantata, “Ich habe genug,” and the great chamber- sized funeral cantata BWV 157, “Ich lasse dich nicht,” are prominent. All three of these works show a new inward, and very personal, side to Bach’s writing.
Today’s cantata BWV 58 is a jewel of a work showing a new and different attitude to chorale setting. The whole second year of Bach’s chorale cantatas shows a tendency to treat the text and the various verses as the structural backbone of the cantatas. Typically the first verse would be set as a large chorale fantasia and the succeeding verses were arranged as recitatives and arias, with the cantata closing with a simple four voice arrangement of the chorale. Today’s work has a more symmetrical structure. Arrangements of the chorale tune with a soprano singing the tune and the bass providing commentary are bookends to an interior and remarkably personal soprano aria. In addition, both sets of texts to this chorale tune are represented; the first verse of the text, ”Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” and the 2nd verse of the text “O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht” are the sources for the two outer movements.
The first movement is not only a work of mysterious, almost otherworldly beauty, but also a remarkable version of the text. Rich dotted-note rhythms are reminiscent of a French Overture but the work goes deeper and is more poetical than any French Overture. Oboes and English horn double the strings to make a particularly rich texture. The soprano, doubled by the English horn, rather high in its register, sings mournfully the gloomy text. What is curious about the diatonic melody is its ability to sustain (in the cracks, as it were) a very chromatic subtext. The baritone (Jesus) provides a harrowing and chromatic view of the harrowing times that we live in. While the liturgical source for this work is the Flight into Egypt, the real subject is the panicked Soul and Jesus’ ability to provide comfort and relief. The presentation of the chorale is stoic, almost Norn-like in its stasis.
The bass recitative describes the persecution of Herod and the angel’s visitation upon Joseph. There is a powerful sense that the soprano aria represents Mary. The eerie combination of sadness and calm in the vocal part combined with the expressive and sometimes contorted violin obbligato reminds us of the sadness to come into Mary’s life. The vivid and wonderful image of the bolt and seal that cannot even be broken by Hell is brilliantly folded into the continuous and expressive line of the piece. This is one of those arias that only become more impressive as you study them. The soprano recitative that follows breaks into a passionate longing for Eden, which ties up the Christmas story to its First Testament roots.
The final chorale setting is surprisingly brief. It is hard to believe that it is based on the same tune as the expansive first movement. Yet, even here Bach finds cracks in the harmony to introduce a chromatic richness unimagined by just looking at the melody. This is one of the shorter cantatas, but extraordinarily rich in detail and emotional range.