BACH — TELEMANN — PHILIPPE JAROUSSKY — SACRED CANTATAS — 2016
One voice, two composers so different yet so much alike. Bach the totally one-pointed Protestant who believes life has only one end, I mean objective, and that life has to be lived so that the end is reached in the best possible conditions for our soul, if we want to have any honorable Christian future beyond this passage to death, to eternal life, a passage that has no right of passage: just submit to your lot and try to be as good a Christian as you can and hence as successful in this life at what you are doing as possible. Telemann is a man of fire who sees in the world nothing but hatred and vengeance, ugly crimes and horrible sins. Life is fundamentally bad. It is hell on earth and as the good Christian Telemann wants to be he has to wait for the end, for death, that very death that will put all that ugliness beyond reach, that will make us, enable us to escape from that ugliness. Of course you have to wait for it to come by, but Telemann prays and begs Jesus to permit him to share his death, his lot, his resurrection in his father’s realm. But as long as he will live he will be confronted to that ugliness.
Bach’s “Vergnügte Ruh” is a complaint to death and life, to the soul that saves the believer from the world that tries to drag him down. The soul is all-powerful in salvation, but the heart is all-perverted in sinful life and perdition. There is no hope but to concentrate on your soul and to isolate, refrain your heart that is so easily tempted by Satan. Luckily Jesus can help the soul to go on living as good as possible in this world of temptation. Philippe Jaroussky reaches in this tortured situation, in this ripped open mind and personality of this individual Christian that is torn apart between his soul and his heart. He reaches some luminous summits in serene pain and in exquisite belief that when the end comes his life will speak for his soul and not his heart. There is some absolute certainty in this deep pain. Suffering becomes beauty, death becomes a promise in tone and in vocal color. And it can end in an aria that is so light, gay, dynamic like a funfair merry-go-round that makes the repentant sinner beg for the end to be able to capitalize on his soul during his life to reach what he calls Himmelszion, the promised land of heavens that can only be reached at the end of the long ordeal of this life.
Telemann’s “Die stille Nacht” is the dirge of a suffering sinner, because any Christian in this life is a sinner and they must suffer for their sins though they cannot prevent them. When Bach had a choice in this life, Telemann sees no choice at all. He uses in the first aria a sentence that- expresses this lot, this curse. “’Ich bin betrübt bis in den Tod.” There is no hope, no escape and this sadness that brings his soul to despair, this suffering that crushes his bones, this agony he suffers in soul and body, resounds from the very first notes, repetitive violin chords that punctuate the fall into that abyss of torment. And the sentence I have just given is sung in such a way that we are fascinated by the mesmerizing hypnosis this sinner contemplates.
“Ich bin betrübt / bis in den Tod / bis in den Tod
“Ich bin betrübt / bis in den Tod / bis in den Tod
“Ich bin betrübt / bis in den Tod / bis in den Tod”
The line is thus cut up into three segments and repeated three times, NINE the number of the beast. No escape from this beast and this beast will come back after the soul and its despair, after the bones being crushed and after the terrible agony that is suffered, this beast will come back a second time in its thrice ternary structure. NINE again, the beast to start with, the beast to end up with and in between just plain pain and suffering, alive of course.
And the second aria starts with the request of Jesus to his father to take the cup of his future suffering on the cross away. Philippe Jaroussky sings it as if it were love, love with no restraint- from a little child to his father, as if it w<ere Isaac speaking to Abraham. And yet at once the rebellion of this son in front of the suffering yields into submission in suffering. The tone of Philippe Jaroussky is all we need to believe that double nature and to come back to the childish request of Jesus a second time. And in this second request after the rebellious moment, Jesus sounds nearly of age to make up his own mind, to lie down on the wood of the sacrifice and to ask his father to please let him turn his head away not to look at the knife.
And that leads to the third aria, an aria of hope, maybe, of witnessing for sure of Jesus’ mission and achievement. Telermann calls all human children and all sinners to see Jesus in his saving ordeal of a crucifixion. And the spectacle is one of sadness in hope, or hope in sadness, of some kind of erring in the vocalises as if the soul was stammering in front of the agony, the long hours of pain leading to death and yet to salvation.
Bach’s “Ich habe genug” is surprising in just some sort of homesickness of the soul that is longing to go back to the home it has come from, the divine essence it has descended from. That is so well expressed by Philippe Jaroussky in the first aria. The title which is also the first line has two meanings. “Genug” like in “OK! That will do! That’s enough!” but also “genug” like in “I have enough of Jesus in me to bear all that perverted life and to climb back up to my divine origin.” And the conclusion is that the sinner is ready to go, ready to leave this life behind, happy in the Jesus he has integrated in his soul, in his being, in his Christian mind.
This aria and the next one reveal a repetitive music that has a very strong effect on the congregation that listens to it and that even takes part in it as if it were impossible not to sing along this long lamentation. We are hypnotized and mesmerized into entering the song, the psalm, the arias, the total submission to this moment of light and conviction that we are one step away from rejoining Jesus in his eternal life. Rebellion has in any possible way been excluded and rejected by Bach and the second aria “Schlummert ein” is like a lullaby sung by ourselves to ourselves to put ourselves to sleep, both meaning intended since we are ready for the big departure. The contemplation of one’s own death is pathetic but also empathetic. That’s Bach’s peaceful vision of the mortal lot of human beings. And this first sentence is repeated three times as the opening of the aria, between the two stanzas and the closing of the aria. A trinity that is divine of course and that expresses the perfect equilibrium of the soul in its communion with god. Not one human child can resist this engulfing music, voice and discourse. Let’s go to sleep in this absolutely certainty.
That leads us to the last aria “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod.” The circle has been run over and over and we have come back again and again to this moment that is an end of the trajectory and a beginning of the enlightenment that comes at this rare and unique moment when our soul is flying up, escaping from down here and reuniting itself with Jesus. This cantata is a miracle in vocal expressivity and depth. And this last aria is joy because death is joy and we have to dance with death around the maypole of the resurrection of our soul finally freed of this life and our bones, our hearts, our bodies, “all the affliction that confined me here on earth.”
Telemann’s “Jesus liegt in letzten Zügen” goes back to the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion and long suffering of the torture and the death penalty, but not death for death, rather death for the show of it, for the pleasure of an audience, a death that has to be long and progressive. And Telemann in front of the reality of life can only rebel against our lot that is a real curse in a way: the curse that does not bring death that turns our life in the year long ordeal and torture that has to make us age and die so slowly that we cannot even count the minutes of pain because they are millions and each one is worse and harsher than the previous one and yet nothing to compare with the next one. Jesus’ crucifixion becomes a short vision of our own pain since it is concentrated in something like nine hours whereas our slow execution takes a whole life to finally reach its proper end. Philippe Jaroussky makes his voice weep and cry for mercy in so sad tones that we understand how this cry for mercy is the last thing a human child can really long for, death, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
We could think at this moment Telemann sees Jesus dying on his cross through the eyes of the young teen named John who is at the foot of the cross and who is going to be entrusted to Mary, and Mary to John. John is a child and in these days, children could see real ugliness across the street or in front of any temple, real killing of people, slicing of bodies, slow dying for the pleasure of the death provider. Nothing to compare with today’s Internet provider’s pictures of all that human monstrosity. It was not a screen in those days. It was a real war, real legionaries killing and violating anything that still had some life in their flesh.
The second aria, “Mein Liebster Heiland,” is a love song to Jesus because of the salvation he gave us. And I do say a love song because love it is, absolute and without any restraint. The cantata can then end on a phenomenal dance that brings together joy because death is coming and anger because death has not yet come and done its work. Jesus’ salvation of human children is turned into a promise for us to die as soon as we can hope for it. “Darauf freuet sich mein Geist.” And this “Geist” is the little part of Holy Spirit we have in us, in our soul, a little piece of Holy Spirit that can rejoice since death is finally coming and will liberate it.
We can wonder why Philippe Jaroussky brought together these four cantatas that are so deadly to the point of death and death again? It sure is the celebration of death and we have to go through such a moment when death is so close, so next to us, for us to be able to feel that morbidly joyful, that sadly hopeful call to depart this life. This CD is mourning the death of someone and we can recognize ourselves in such a deep and emotional celebration of the high road to the celestial mountains lost in heavenly clouds.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU