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Bach's Cantata 182, for Palm Sunday

Wikimedia Commons

On the program:

Suite No. 5 in C minor for solo cello, BWV 1011 - Pieter Wispelwey, cello

Cantata BWV 182 Himmelskönig, sei willkommen (translation) - Malin Hartelius, soprano; Nathalie Stutzmann, alto; James Gilchrist, tenor; Peter Harvey, bass; Monteverdi Choir & English Baroque Soloists, John Eliot Gardiner, conductor

See video from Pieter Wispelwey's Bach Cello Suites recording

(The image above [courtesy Wikimedia Commons] shows column detail from the Nikolaikirche, Leipzig, which is modelled on palms.  The theme of palms is prevalent in the architecture of the Nikolaikirche, which, with the Thomaskirche, is one of the churches served by Bach between 1723 and 1750.  The Nikolaikirche also played a pivotal role in the fall of the Communist regime of East Germany in the 1980's.)


Brian McCreath (BMcC): There’s a certain dignity in this sonata by Bach.

It’s the quality of a procession, but with just a recorder and solo violin, it’s also modest and unassuming, a simple procession, with a lightness that invites us to come along … and it leads, finally, to this gorgeous moment …

… an opening up, as if the sun has risen.  It’s the opening of the Cantata No. 182, Himmelskönig, sei willkommen, and you’ll hear this entire Palm Sunday cantata, coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I'm Brian McCreath;  welcome to The Bach Hour, from WCRB, a part of WGBH. We’re online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can find a translation of the Cantata No. 182 from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, and where you can hear this and other programs on-demand.  Again that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

In 2012, Dutch cellist Pieter Wispelwey decided to celebrate his 50th birthday with Bach!  He had already recorded the six Suites for Solo Cello twice, but something about reaching the half-century mark prompted Wispelwey to return to these cornerstone pieces for his instrument. 

Not surprising, really.  The suites are never far from the music stand of any cellist, and Wispelwey wanted both to take advantage of his accumulated experience with them and to approach them with a certain freshness of perspective.  To pull off the latter, he decided to tune his instrument to a lower pitch than we usually hear.  By using a pitch of “A equals 392,” – meaning the A above middle C is a note that vibrates 392 times per second, as opposed to today’s standard of 440 – Wispelwey found a new sonic palette.  It also put him just enough out of his own comfort zone that he found himself exploring new artistic possibilities.

When he visited Boston just after releasing this recording, I asked Pieter Wispelwey to describe the particular characteristics of the Fifth of these six cello suites.

Pieter Wispelwey: To me, the number 5, especially number 6, but also number 5, are the more orchestral suites. So a room is too small. So the opening of the Prelude, the slow opening, is grand. I mean, it's dark, but it's also powerful and full of resistance and determination, and where you couldn't play so much with your instrumental colors in number 4, because you're hampered by all the flats and the stops and the lack of open strings, here, you can use your instrument's resonance. So the opening is full of roaring chords, and playing at 392, where those strings are on a lower tension and they will roar differently.

But you also, almost, you see that rope just going, resonating. So bringing out those maximum resonances is your first job. And tempo choice is of the essence in the Prelude, in the Allemande, in the Sarabande in particular, those three movements. So the power of the opening introduction works best when there is a proud and dictatorial tempo going. So it's not a peaceful piece like the number 1, or... Yeah, this is a wartime suite.

BMcC: And here is the rich and powerful Suite No. 5 in C minor by Bach, with cellist Pieter Wispelwey. 

[MUSIC – BWV 1011]

In that final Gigue of the Cello Suite No. 5 by Bach, you can practically feel what Pieter Wispelwey calls the “roar” of the cello, especially when the instrument is tuned to the lower baroque pitch.

This performance of Bach’s Suite No. 5 for Solo Cello with Pieter Wispelwey was released in 2012.  Along with all six suites, the set also includes a 52-minute documentary that delves into the issues of baroque pitch, instrumentation, and style, through conversations among Wispelwey and musicologists Laurence Dreyfus and John Butt.  And you can find an excerpt from that video when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.  Just click on The Bach Hour, where you can also hear this entire program again on-demand.  Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Coming up, a quiet, simple procession begins the journey of Holy Week in the Cantata 182 for Palm Sunday.

You’re listening to The Bach Hour from WCRB in Boston, online at Classical WCRB dot org. I’m Brian McCreath.

It was only a few years before writing the cello suite you just heard that Bach wrote what is now his only surviving sacred cantata for Palm Sunday, the Cantata No. 182, "Himmelskönig, sei willkommen," or "King of heaven, welcome."

The instrumental opening of the piece is a terrifically ingenious combination.  There’s a French Overture rhythm and pace, symbolizing a procession of royalty.  It’s carried off in a light, airy texture, perhaps giving us a sense of humility.  And there’s an added hint of an unfolding drama.  The procession, the symbolism of royalty, with a story to be told – it all adds up to a picture of Jesus’s procession into Jerusalem, which, as Bach’s audience would have been well aware, to Jesus’s execution.

But that arrival in Jerusalem is depicted in the Bible as a joyous occasion.  So, after that opening instrumental sonata, the chorus sings a song of welcome for the King.

Then the bass soloist sings about the inevitability of all the events that are yet to come.

The solo recorder returns in a more somber mood, transforming that joyous welcome into a meditation on dedication to the divine.

But dedication isn't easy;  in fact, it's pretty difficult, and that comes next when the tenor sings, "Jesus, through good times and bad, let me journey with You!", accompanied by a twisting cello obbligato that reflects a sort of winding road.


Two chorale settings bring the cantata to a close, the first with a serious tone that meditates on the pain Jesus will feel in the passion and the meaning of that pain to a believer, and the second bringing back that violin and recorder duet from the opening of the piece to re-establish the joy that ultimately comes from Jesus leading the way to heaven.

Remember, you can access a translation of the text for the Cantata 182 at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. 

Here is the Cantata No. 182, "Himmelskönig, sei willkommen," recorded in concert in March of 2000.  The soloists include soprano Malin Hartelius, alto Nathalie Stutzmann, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey.  They're joined by the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, all directed by John Eliot Gardiner.

[MUSIC – BWV 182]

That was J.S. Bach's Cantata No. 182, "Himmelskönig, sei willkommen," in a performance from John Eliot Gardiner's Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000.  Joining the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists were soprano Malin Hartelius, alto Nathalie Stutzmann, tenor James Gilchrist, and bass Peter Harvey. 

Remember, you can hear this program again when you visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I'm Brian McCreath, and I'll hope to have your company next week on The Bach Hour.