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"Leipzig 1723"

Ælbgut; Capella Jenensis

rec: July 2022, Leipzig, Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche
Accentus Music - ACC30598 (© 2023) (67'09")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores JS Bach
Scores Graupner

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (BWV 23); Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe (BWV 22); Christoph GRAUPNER (1683-1760): Aus der Tiefen rufen wir (GWV 1113/23a); Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden (GWV 1113/23b); Georg Philipp TELEMANN (1681-1767): Ich muß auf den Bergen weinen und heulen (TWV 1,591)

Isabel Schicketanz, soprano; Stefan Kunath, alto; Florian Sievers, tenor; Martin Schicketanz, bass
Friederike Otto, cornett; Ulrike Wolf, transverse flute; Eduard Wesley, Martin Jelev, oboe, oboe d'amore; Nelly Sturm, bassoon; Helen Barsby, Denis Starshinov, trumpet; Masafumi Sakamoto, Katrin Zolnhofer, Clemens Erdmann, trombone; Yves Ytiet, Regine Freitag, Kaori Kobayashi, Bruno van Esseveld, Hedwig Ohse, violin; Daniela Döhler-Schottstädt, Lea Strecker, viola; Gertrud Ohse, cello; Tillmann Steinhöfel, violone; Axel Wolf, lute; Cornelia Osterwald, harpsichord, organ; Friedhelm May, timpani

Leipzig 1723 - that may ring a bell with almost anyone who knows something about classical music. 1723 was the year that Johann Sebastian Bach was appointed Thomaskantor in Leipzig, as successor to Johann Kuhnau who had died on 5 June the previous year. The appointment was the end of a long story of deliberations in the Leipzig city council, which was responsible for finding a successor. Kuhnau's shoes were hard to fill as he had become known as "the ORACVLUM of not only the city, all of Saxony or Germany but all of Europe", as a Leipzig city chronicler, not without some exaggeration, stated in his obituary. The office of Thomaskantor was one of the most prestigious in the German-speaking world, and his duties were manyfold, in the Thomaskirche and the Neukirche as well as the Thomasschule, but also in the city at large. The weight of the Thomaskantor needed to reflect the importance of the city.

The story which resulted in Bach's appointment has been told many times, and in the booklet to the present disc Michael Maul describes at length the deliberations within the city council. The music that the main contenders presented and was performed at the Thomaskirche during the process is probably far lesser-known. This disc brings them together, although not in chronological or liturgical order.

The city council's first choice was Georg Philipp Telemann, who at the time was considered the main composer in Germany, certainly in the field of sacred music. Only one year before he had started his job as Musikdirektor in Hamburg. Even so, he was willing to move to Leipzig, but the authorities in Hamburg were not willing to let him to and offered him a substantial raise in his salary. That made it easy for him to turn down the appointment by the Leipzig city council. On 9 August, the 10th Sunday after Trinity, two cantatas from his pen had been performed in the Thomaskirche, before and after the sermon respectively. It is not known which cantatas were performed, but recent research has made a good case for Ich muss auf den Bergen weinen und heulen and Wenn du es wüsstest. Unfortunately, the latter's music has not been preserved; only the text is extant. The former is performed here. The Gospel of the day was taken from Luke 19, where Jesus prophesies the destruction of Jerusalem. In the opening aria for alto, the unknown librettist includes a quotation from the Lamentations of Jeremiah: "How doth the city sit solitary". It includes chromaticism, and the transverse flute is given a virtuosic obbligato part. The cantata includes arias for bass and soprano. The latter has a special form: the first section if followed by a recitative of the alto, and then the soprano returns with the dacapo of the aria.

When Telemann turned down the job, the city council had to look for another candidate. Several were considered, among them Johann Friedrich Fasch, who was Kapellmeister at the court in Zerbst, and Georg Friedrich Kauffmann, who worked in Merseburg since 1710 as organist and later Kapellmeister. Apparently they did not find universal approval among the members of the city council, and one of them proposed Christoph Graupner, who knew Leipzig well, as he had been a pupil at the Thomasschule under Kuhnau. On 17 January 1723 two cantatas from his pen were performed. That was the second Sunday after Epiphany, when the Gospel of the day was the opening of John 2, which describes the wedding at Cana. Graupner's cantatas were Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu, dir and Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden. In both cantatas the connection to the Gospel is rather loose. In Aus der Tiefen, for instance, the words of Jesus are used as an answer to the opening of Psalm 130: "Out of the depth I cry to you, O Lord". "Our need has increased, but salvation does not follow, because your spirit speaks: My time has not come yet". The scoring and texture of this cantata are different from most other cantatas by Graupner. At the court in Darmstadt, where he was Kapellmeister, he had some virtuosic sopranos, who came from the opera in Leipzig and Hamburg respectively, at his disposal. His deputy, Gottfried Grünewald, was a virtuosic bass. This explains why most of his cantatas include arias for soprano or bass, whereas the roles of alto and tenor are often confined to recitatives, short arias and duets. It is different here. Aus der Tiefen opens with a chorus, which is followed by an accompanied recitative for tenor, soprano and bass, including a short chorus, and closes with another chorus. Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden also opens with a chorus, and then we get an accompanied recitative for tenor and alto, again with a chorus in the centre. Both alto and tenor have an aria, whereas the bass has only a recitative and the soprano has no solo part at all. The cantata ends with a chorale.

The cantatas were positively received and the council was convinced that Graupner was the right man for the job. However, they did not receive an immediate reply, and while awaiting it, Bach was given the opportunity to perform two trial cantatas. On 7 February 1723, Sunday Estomihi, Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe (BWV 22) and Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (BWV 23) were performed. The Gospel of that Sunday, the last before Lent, was taken from Luke 18, which tells how Jesus heals a blind man and announces his suffering in Jerusalem. Each of these two elements are allocated to one of the cantatas. Cantata 22 is connected to the journey to Jerusalem, as the title indicates. It opens with an arioso for tenor and bass with chorus, and arias for alto and tenor embrace a recitative for bass. The cantata ends with a chorale setting. Cantata 23 deals with the healing of the blind man. The latter's cry for help is applied to the faithful in general: "O true God and Son of David, who from eternity at a distance already looked closely upon my affliction and my bodily pain, have mercy on me!" The cantata opens with a duet of soprano and alto, which is followed by an accompanied recitative for tenor. Then follows a chorus - The eyes of all wait upon you, Lord - and an extended arrangement of Luther's German version of the Agnus Dei: 'Christe, du Lamm Gottes'. The latter was probably part of an older work and included at a late stage. Because of the collaboration of trombones, the cantata was transposed from C minor to B minor, and the oboes replaced by oboi d'amore. That is the version performed here.

This recording is quite interesting, from a historical point of view, but also musically speaking. The five cantatas performed here are a musical illustration of what we have read in books on Bach and his way to Leipzig. Only a few may have heard the cantatas by Telemann and Graupner, although the latter's Aus der Tiefen is one of his better-known. They also make clear why the appointment of Bach was not a foregone conclusion, and the Leipzig city council was considering Telemann and Graupner. If history had moved in a different direction, we may never have heard much sacred music from the pen of Bach, as at the time he was largely writing instrumental music. And how would Telemann or Graupner have evolved in style, if they had been appointed Thomaskantor in Leipzig? The confrontation of Telemann, Graupner and Bach makes clear once more that there is no reason at all to neglect the former two, and it is a fortunate development that their oeuvre, also in the field of sacred music, is taken seriously these days.

Performances as we have here certainly help to overcome possible prejudices. The vocal ensemble Ælbgut is a small chamber ensemble, which performs vocal music with one voice per part. It is still unclear how many singers Kuhnau and later Bach had at their disposal, but a small ensemble like this may well be in line with what was common practice in many towns in Germany at the time. For those who are used to hear larger forces, listening to Bach's cantatas in such a small line-up may be something they have to get used to. The advantage is that the polyphony, for instance in a dense chorus as 'Christe, du Lamm Gottes', has more transparency than with larger forces, without losing anything of its impact. The latter is due to the four excellent singers of Ælbgut: Isabel Schicketanz, Stefan Kunath, Florian Sievers and Martin Schicketanz. The Capella Jenensis delivers excellent performances of the instrumental parts, with some fine executions of the obbligato parts.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Capella Jenensis

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