Bach Cantata BWV 4 has a complicated history. It was one of the earliest, if not the first, cantata written when Bach was still fundamentally a student. In Bach's first year in Leipzig he so thoroughly revised the work that it is not known how much of the original remains. Certainly some things such as the marvelous and rich four-voice harmonization of the chorale that ends the work are the work of the mature master.The work is a set of choral variations on the great Easter Chorale "Christ lag in Todes Banden." The cantata begins with a Sinfonia for the string orchestra. It takes certain phrases of the chorale tune and molds them into a perfect introduction to the energetic and exciting opening chorus. Certainly the heightened excitement of the brilliant Allelujas is a youthful holdover. A walking bass line accompanies the hushed soprano-alto duet that follows. Then tenors then take up the tune against a brilliant Vivaldi-like string line. The center of the cantata is occupied by a vivid four-voice setting of the chorale with the tune in the alto. Here Luther's vivid and brutal lines are marvelously and thoroughly characterized. The bass aria is the most inward part of the cantata, a meditation upon the meaning of the Passover and its relationship to Christian doctrine. The bouncy soprano-tenor duet is a tremendous release from the intensity of the bass aria. The final four-voice chorale setting is one of the greatest in the whole Bach canon and a suitable close to this brilliant and impressive work.

©Craig Smith

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