Bach's setting of the 23rd Psalm, to the great chorale tune “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr,” was written for the so-called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” It assumes a tone that is sometimes surprising, especially for English-speaking people who have grown up with a rather sentimental idea of the Psalm.The first chorus calls for pairs of horns in G, oboes d'amore, and strings. The brilliance of the high horns gives the piece a heroic cast that is quite surprising. Although not as maniacally active as the opening chorus of BWV 79, it resembles it in range and style. Horns begin the piece alone with the chorale in the first measure and a fanfare in the second. Oboes and strings enter with a lively, dancing figure that propels the movement irresistibly forward. The tone of the movement is an unusual combination of heroic and pastorale. We are used to less verbal characterization in these chorale cantatas than we saw in the 1 st and 2nd Jahrgang pieces. Here however, there are marvelous moments of color, like the wonderful suspensions in the horns before the words “his holy words.”

The “still waters” in the Aria #2 produces a cool 6/8 oboe d'amore aria with alto. It is remarkable for its wonderful spinning cantabile in the oboe part that seems never to run out of steam. Notice the very Christian introduction of the “Holy Ghost” in this chorale version of the Psalm. The bass recitative seems rather jaunty at first for the “valley of the shadow of death” but suddenly deepens with the introduction of the strings at the description of persecution and sorrow. The end of this recitative has a kind of radiance that is unexpected from what comes before.One of the most surprising things in all of the cantatas is Bach's reaction to the text “thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” All of a sudden we get a blast of Lutheran militarism. The 1st violins play an extravagant theme over a marching bass, which descends into heroic arpeggio figures as the second violins enter on the theme. The whiplash theme returns and is propelled into a rush of triplet figures that leads us to the cadence. Both the soprano and the tenor are singing at the top of their range producing a hysterical manic effect. By using the time signature 2 instead of cut time Bach seems to insist upon a very fast tempo. The duet is one of the most viscerally exciting things in all of Bach. If anything the end is more animated than the beginning. While his reaction to the text is unexpected, there is no doubt about the intensity and concentration of this remarkable duet. High horns return to the final chorale with the 2nd horn playing a fifth, independent voice as in the final chorale of Cantata BWV 1.

©Craig Smith

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