Tuesday, April 26, 2011

JS Bach: Die Familie Bach vor Johann Sebastian - MAK, Goebel

Johann Sebastian Bach
Die Familie Bach vor Johann Sebastian - Die Kantaten
Musica Antiqua Köln, Reinhard Goebel
Archiv 419 253-2

This is certainly amongst the most absorbingly interesting releases to have come my way: "Music Of The Bach Family Before Johann Sebastian", the very title beckons to the baroque-curious mind; and it will not be disappointed by the greater number of compositions in this collection. Four members of the Bach family are represented-Heinrich (1615-92), his two composer sons, Johann Christoph (1642-1703) and Johann Michael (1648-94), and Georg Christoph (1642-97), the son of Heinrich's brother Christoph. We cannot thank Johann Sebastian Bach enough for the music included here since it was he who initially collected it together. After his death this Altbachisches Archiv which included many more pieces besides, passed to his second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel. When he died, the Bach anthology was bought by a collector whence it passed, via Zelter, to the Berlin Singakademie. In 1935, Max Schneider published the vocal works of the collection- "in the nick of time", writes the author of an interesting accompanying essay, Andreas Holschneider, "for the Berliner Singakademie's entire collection of manuscripts was burnt during the Second World War".

This two-disc issue contains all the works for solo voices, choir and instrumental ensemble but not the choral motets which have generally been given more attention in the past. Heinrich Bach's vocal concerto, or cantata, Ich danke dir, Gott is the sole surviving vocal work by him. It's scored for two sopranos, alto, tenor and bass with five-part string ensemble and continuo. The stile concertato recalls Schutz, especially in the ripeno sections, but the instrumental writing and the important solo and ensemble vocal episodes have a distinctly forward-looking aspect. On the strength of this piece it's not surprising to learn that Heinrich's funeral oration described him as an experienced composer of chorales, motets, concertos (such as the present work), preludes and fugues.

The history of Georg Christoph Bach's little cantata, Siehe, wie fein und lieblich is delightful. In the year following his appointment as Cantor at Schweinfurt, his brothers Ambrosius and Johann Christoph (not the one represented in this anthology) paid him a visit to celebrate his birthday. Georg Christoph was so delighted by this gesture of family solidarity that he wrote his birthday cantata to the highly appropriate text of Psalm 133: "Behold, how good and joyful a thing it is brethren to dwell together in unity". Everything about the work conveys the harmonious spirit which existed among the three brothers. 'Three' plays a highly significant role throughout: three voices (two tenors and a bass), three bass viols and, admittedly a solo violin, an instrumental prelude containing three themes and so on. The music is full of interest with some dashing gestures and one cannot but feel sorrowful that this is the only piece by him to have survived.

Johann Michael Bach is represented by his five formally varied sacred concertos. All but one are scored for a five-strand string ensemble and prefaced by a short instrumental movement. The vocal requirements differ from cantata to cantata. Ach, bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ is scored for four-part choir and begins with a darkly-coloured sinfonia containing brilliant episodes for the upper strings. Some of the images of the text are colourfully illustrated with affective dynamic shading in passages such as "In these last sorrowful hours". The cantata, Auf, lasst uns den Herren loben is scored for an alto voice with strings and continuo. Its opening sinfonia with recitative-like solo-violin writing is particularly arresting though the simplicity of the strophic setting, with its little instrumental echoes is appealing, too. The other cantatas, Es ist ein grosser Gewinn and the strophic Ach, wie sehnlich wart' ich der Zeit are for soprano voices with strings, whilst the fifth one, Liebster Jesu, hor mein Flehen, is a Lenten dialogue for five solo voices. The contrast between instrumental virtuosity and the gentle directness of much of the vocal writing is an engaging feature of this music; it avoids predictability and constantly surprises us with its wide, sometimes unexpected terms of reference.

The remaining compositions in this collection have left a deep impression upon me. Johann Christoph, younger brother of Johann Michael, expresses himself in musical language which ranges from profound melancholy to fierce spiritual affirmation. Johann Sebastian greatly admired his work as did Carl Philipp Emanuel. Some of the pieces here, such as the wedding cantata, Meine Freundin, du bist schon and the hauntingly beautiful lament, Ach, dass ich Wassers g'nug hatte, were already familiar to me but his setting of the cantata for the Feast of St Michael and All Angels, Es erhub sich ein Streit, though available through Karl Geiringer's anthology, "Music of the Bach Family", was, for me, a thrilling and unforgettable first performance. Johann Sebastian performed it, according to Philipp Emanuel, in Leipzig where everybody was astonished by its effect. It's lavishly scored for two five-part chorus, five soloists, four trumpets, drums, bassoon, strings and continuo. The piece offers the greatest contrast imaginable with the two poignant laments, Ach, dass ich Wassers g'nug hatte and Wie bist du denn, O Gott. The first, for alto voice with strings, contains a marked Purcellian flavour in its opening measures. The second, for bass with a similar string ensemble, is on a more ambitious scale, making considerable demands both upon singer and violinist. The cantata, Die Furcht des Herren, for a town council election, is scored for five soloists with four-part chorus and an orchestra of strings. Meine Freundin, du bist schon is an extended wedding cantata for four soloists, four-part choir, strings and continuo. The text is accompanied by an amusing and light-hearted commentary by Johann Ambrosius Bach, which is reproduced in full in the accompanying booklet.

The performances in the main are very strong, with outstanding contributions both from Reinhard Goebel as violin soloist and from Cologne Musica Antiqua. Anyone who has heard this group's recording of German chamber music before Bach (Archiv Produktion 2723 078, 10/81-nla) will readily understand my enthusiasm for its contribution to this altogether more ambitious project. Goebel's own violin playing seems to me expressive in almost every detail sometimes conveying passion, but more often the deep pathos contained in so much of the music. His account of the poignant little sinfonia of Johann Michael Bach's Auf, lasst uns den Herren loben is just one of many instances where he eloquently captures the spirit of the music. In the larger scale pieces such as Johann Christoph's Es erhub sich ein Streit, Goebel directs his 22-part ensemble with skill and vivid imagination. Few if any listeners will be disappointed either by the music or the thrilling performance.

The vocal contributions are mostly stylish and convincing. I have reservations, however, about the bass, Michael Schopper. In most of the pieces in which he sings he blends fairly well with the other soloists though he sounds somewhat more closely balanced than they do; but his important opening music in Johann Christoph's Meine Freundin, du bist schon is a disappointment. An element of theatre is certainly required here and throughout the cantata, but Schopper over-acts his part and is tempted, it would seem, to play to the gallery. He might just have got away with it but for the fact that his intonation is a little insecure and there is a decided tendency to sing under the note. Later on, he settles more comfortably into the piece. Perhaps, once again, however, it is Goebel himself who steals the show with some splendidly incisive and communicative violin playing. In the several choral movements which feature in the anthology the Rheinische Kantorei sound fresh and well disciplined.

To sum up, this is an issue of distinction and an important addition to our recorded catalogue of music. The level of artistic creativity in a single family is cause enough for wonder, but when it is complemented by performances of this calibre we can be doubly thankful. Excellent recorded sound and full texts in accordance with Archiv Produktion's usual high standard. Bravo!

Nicholas Anderson, Gramophone Magazine 1987

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