musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Bach's Pupils

[A] "Bachs Schüler" (Bach's Pupils)
Vocal Concert Dresden; Dresdner Instrumental-Concert
Dir: Peter Kopp

rec: Nov 16 - 19, 2007, Dresden, Lukaskirche
Carus - 83.263 (© 2008) (59'33")

[B] Johann Christoph ALTNICKOL: "Befiehl du deine Wege - Mass and motets"
Norddeutscher Figuralchor; Musica Alta Ripa
Dir: Jörg Straube

rec: Nov 25, 2004/Feb 6 & March 6, 2005, Mandelsloh, St. Osdach Kirche
Carus - 83.168 (© 2007) (50'33")

Johann Christoph ALTNICKOL (1719-1759): Befiehl du deine Wege, motet for 4 voices and bc [A,B]; Missa in d minora [B]; Nun danket alle Gott, motet for 5 voices and bc [B]; Sanctus for tenor, strings and bc [B]; Sanctus for 4 voices and bc [B]; Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Bitten, motet for 4 voices and bc (H 826,3 / Wq 208,3); Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795): Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, motet for 4 voices; Johann Friedrich DOLES (1715-1797): Wer bin ich, Herr?, motet for 4 voicesb; Gottfried August HOMILIUS (1714-1785): Die Elenden sollen essen, motet for 6 voices; Johann Philipp KIRNBERGER (1721-1783): An den Flüssen Babylons; Johann Ludwig KREBS (1713-1780): Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz

[A] [solib] Katja Fischer, soprano; Romy Herde, contralto; Sebastian Reim, tenor; Falk Joost, bass; [DIC] Katharina Bäuml, Frederique Brilloin, oboe, taille; Cornelia Fiedler, Anke Strobel, violin; Christine Trinks, Klaus-Dieter Voigt, viola; Steffen Hoffmann, cello; Ulla Hoffmann, double bass; Krystof Lada, bassoon; Holger Gehring, organ
[B] [solia] Sonja Wolfram, soprano; Gesine Frank, Ursula Kasperczyk, contralto; Benedikt Nawrath, tenor; Jens Fiedler, Torsten Gödde, bass; [MAR] Anne Röhrig, Ursula Bundies, violin; Klaus Bundies, viola; Juris Teichmanis, cello; Jacques van der Meer, double bass; Bernward Lohr, organ

The motet was an important part of the liturgy in Protestant Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. Whereas in the 17th century some new works in this genre were written, most motets sung in church were still dating from the 16th and early 17th century, and largely written in the stile antico. When Johann Sebastian Bach composed his motets he didn't write them for liturgical use, but for special occasions like weddings and funerals. For one reason or another he and other composers didn't feel the need to replace the traditional motet repertoire by works of their own.

Around the middle of the 18th century that seems to change: since then a remarkable number of motets were written, most of which for liturgical use. Gottfried August Homilius, for instance, composed more than 60 motets, Johann Heinrich Rolle around the same number and composers like Johann Friedrich Doles, Johann Philipp Kirnberger and Johann Adam Hiller also contributed to the revival of this genre.

The disc "Bach's Pupils" gives an interesting overview of the way the genre of the motet was dealt with by Johann Sebastian's sons and pupils. Even though it isn't always possible to establish with certainty a teacher-pupil relationship, there is no doubt the composers on this disc were in some way influenced by the Thomaskantor.

In the booklet Christoph Koop makes an interesting observation about the difference between Bach's sons and his pupils. "Whereas the latter were evidently trying to approach their model, the sons were more concerned to distance themselves from their father's music." The two motets on this disc support, but also modify this observation. The motet Bitten by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach moves far away from his father's models. Its character is strongly determined by the fact that it was originally written as a solo song with keyboard accompaniment. Only later Emanuel reworked it as a motet for four voices and bc. In some of the stanzas the number of voices is reduced to two or three. This motet, which strongly reflects the spirit of the Empfindsamkeit was most likely intended for domestic rather than liturgical use.

The difference with the motet by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach which opens the disc, is striking. Whereas most motets performed here are partly based on a chorale, Emanuel's motet doesn't refer to any chorale at all. Johann Christoph Friedrich's motet, on the other hand, is based on one of the most beloved hymns in Protestant Germany, 'Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme', by Philipp Nicolai (1599). The motet is divided into three sections. The first begins with an extended setting of the first two lines: "Wake up, calls the voice of the watchmen very high upon the battlement". Ascending figures are dominating here, and there are antiphonal elements when the line "wake up, calls the voice" is split up between high and low voices. This is followed by a chorale arrangement in which the sopranos sing the cantus firmus. According to the taste of the time the mood changes on the line "it is at midnight that they call us with bright voices". Towards the end of this section the figures of the beginning return. The second section is freely composed without reminiscences of the chorale melody. There are long melismas on "sing" ("Zion hears the watchmen sing") and lively figures on "her heart leaps for joy". There are ascending figures on "she wakes and she makes haste to rise" and "her light grows bright, her star ascends". The voices literally follow each other closely on the line "we follow all to this joyous hall". The third section begins with an extended setting of the line "Glory to you be sung" which is followed by a chorale setting. The motet ends with an imitative passage of the last two lines: "we rejoice over this, io, io, ever in dulci jubilo".

The motet An Wasserflüssen Babylons by Johann Philipp Kirnberger also modifies Christoph Koop's statement: although the use of counterpoint and the use of harmony for reasons of expression are reminiscent of Bach, the way the text of Psalm 137 is set reflects the taste of the time. Interpretative directions like "a profound melancholy" and "inner vexation of the soul" are the product of the aesthetics of the Empfindsamkeit. It is interesting to note that Kirnberger was a strong advocate of Palestrina and Hassler, two representatives of the stile antico. In this respect he is far ahead of his time as it was only in the 19th century that the masters of renaissance polyphony were receiving the attention of composers in Germany.

Johann Friedrich Doles was Bach's pupil during his studies in Leipzig from 1739 to 1743, and acted as Thomaskantor in Leipzig from 1756 to 1789. His motets were very popular among his students: former pupils are said to making up their way to the organ when attending services in the Thomaskirche in order to again sing some of Doles' motets. In his chorale motet Wer bin ich, Herr? elements of solo song are included: there is an extended tenor solo in the second section whereas the other voices sing a chorale on the melody of 'Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten'. This solo is a typical example of the sensitivity which is a feature of the aesthetics of the time.

As written above Gottfried August Homilius has composed a large number of motets, which were definitely written for liturgical use. Some time ago Frieder Bernius made a selection of these motets and recorded them with his Kammerchor Stuttgart. Fortunately this disc contains a motet which is not included in that recording. As most motets by Homilius it is based on a text from the Bible, Psalm 22, vs27. This motet for 6 voices is characterised by a skilled use of counterpoint and ends with a fugal passage on the line: "your heart shall live forever".

Johann Ludwig Krebs was one of Bach's favourite pupils who has become known first and foremost as organist and composer of organ works. In his organ works he shows a strong preference for counterpoint; in general the influence of his teacher is omnipresent. Erforsche mich, Gott, und erfahre mein Herz is the only motet by Krebs which has come down to us; whether he has written more is uncertain. It is a 5-part setting of two verses (23 and 24) from Psalm 139: "Search me, God, and discover my soul, examine me and discover my thoughts". These are combined with the first and last stanza of a rhymed version of this same Psalm by the German poet Paul Gerhardt (1607 - 1676), on the melody of 'Christe, der du bist Tag und Licht'. The first stanza is used as cantus firmus in the first section. After the fugal second section - vs 24 of Psalm 139 - the motet closes with a chorale setting of the last stanza by Gerhardt.

The largest work on this disc is the motet Befiehl du deine Wege by Johann Christoph Altnickol. After working as a singer and assistant organist in Breslau from 1740 to 1744 he went to Leipzig where he studied theology and started to work with Bach. From 1745 to 1747 he sang as a bass in the Thomaskirche, and he also acted as copyist. In 1749 he married Bach's daughter Elisabeth Juliane Friederica and was appointed organist at the St Wenzel in Naumburg/Saale. How close he was to Bach is also proven by the fact that he acted as trustee after Bach's death, which made him responsible for the distribution of his estate. His music is also very close to that of his father-in-law. The motet Befiehl du deine Wege is unmistakebly modelled after Johann Sebastian Bach's motet Jesu, meine Freude. Both set all the verses of the chosen chorale, and both contain chorale settings, chorale arrangements, fugues and trios. In Altnickol's motet there is quite a lot of text expression. In verse 2 the words "mit Sorgen und mit Grämen" (in grief and care) is set to a chromatically ascending figure, in the 11th verse the phrase "du singst Freudenpsalmen" (and sing you psalms of gladness) is provided with a lively rhythm and melismas. Specific words are singled out by isolating them through unisono, repetition and general pauses, like 'nichts" (verse 2: "nothing") and "hoff" (verse 6: "hope on"). Altnickol makes mostly use of polyphony, although there are also homophonic passages, like the trio on the 8th verse. There are frequent fugal passages; in verse 2 all four pairs of lines are treated like this.
This should not give the impression Altnickol is only looking backwards: there are defnitely traces of the style which was fashionable in his time. One of them is that opposing elements in the text are all treated differently, which results in sometimes strong contrasts within a single verse, for instance in verse 7. Another aspect which reflects the modern taste is that the voices are not treated on equal terms: it is the upper part which usually dominates.

The second disc reviewed here is completely devoted to Altnickol. Apart from this same motet it contains a Mass, which has the form of a missa brevis, consisting of Kyrie and Gloria only, two settings of the Sanctus - without Hosanna and Benedictus - and another motet, Nun danket alle Gott. In the Mass we meet remiscences of Bach again: Kyrie I and II are set for tutti, the 'Christe' for two solo voices, here alto and bass. The Gloria also contains an alternation of tutti and solo sections: 'Laudamus te' is a duet for soprano and alto, and 'Domine Deus' and 'Quoniam tu solus sanctus' are solos for tenor and bass respectively. In this work Altnickol again makes use of fugues: in Kyrie I (the second section) and Kyrie II and the 'propter magnam' in the Gloria, and the Mass ends with another fugue on 'Cum Sancto Spiritu'. Something which has been pointed out in the motet Befiehl du deine Wege is present here as well: in 'Gratias agimus tibi' the word "gratias" is singled out by being sung three times, every time followed by a pause.

The two settings of the Sanctus have one thing in common: the cantus firmus in both settings is sung by the tenors in long note values. The difference is that in one of the settings the tenor part is the only vocal part of the piece, surrounded by a four-part polyphonic web for strings. The last piece on the disc is another motet, Nun danket alle Gott for five voices with basso continuo. It contains two sections, the first written in free form, in which specific words are singled out: "grosse (Ding)" (wondrous [things]), "lebendig" (alive), "fröhliches" (joyful), "Friede" (peace). The second section is a simple chorale setting.

It is rather curious that the same record company produces two discs which partly overlap. In a way that is inevitable, because very little of Altnickol's oeuvre has been preserved. It is unlikely he has written much more as he died rather young. Two cantatas have come down to us, one of which has been recorded by Hermann Max with his Rheinische Kantorei and Das Kleine Konzert. This means that right now almost the complete output of Altnickol is available on disc. His music may not belong to the best of his time, but it has enough qualities to be worth listening to. The works by other composers on the disc "Bach's Pupils" are without exception very interesting and worthwhile, and should encourage musicians to explore further the oeuvre of the composers.

As far as the performances are concerned, one of the issues in the interpretation of sacred music from Germany in the 18th century is the number of singers involved. There is strong evidence that Johann Sebastian Bach had to rely on just one singer for every part, and according to Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrot he was no exception. We know that even in a rich city like Hamburg Telemann and his successor Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach as Musikdirektor didn't have substantially more singers at their disposal. From this perspective both recordings are debatable: the Vocal Concert Dresden consists of 22 singers (6/5/5/6), the Norddeutscher Figuralchor even 38 (12/10/8/8/). In particular the latter choir is too big in my view: in polyphonic sections it lacks clarity and in the faster passages it isn't as flexible as the Dresdner Vocal Concert. Therefore I prefer the latter's performance of Altnickol's motet Befiehl du deine Wege. That doesn't mean Jörg Straube's performances are not recommendable: apart from the additional repertoire his choir sings very well and is getting good support from Musica Alta Ripa.

The first disc is of a generally high level of singing and playing. With his ensembles Peter Kopp comes up with really fine performances of most interesting repertoire, and one can only be thankful to all people participating in this project for bringing this music to our attention. The producer should have been aware, though, that claiming Doles' motet to be a world premiere recording is unjustified: Hermann Max has recorded this motet as long ago as 1988.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Vocal Concert Dresden
Norddeutscher Figuralchor
Musica Alta Ripa

CD Reviews