musica Dei donum

CD reviews

BACH Family: "Family Affairs"

Ensemble Polyharmonique; Teatro del Mondo
Dir: Andreas Küppers

rec: Feb 14 - 16, 2021, Mülheim, Martinskirche
CPO - 555 418-2 (© 2022) (59'24")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Bitten a 4 (Wq 208,3 / H 826,3); Heinrich BACH (1615-1692): Kyrie a 6; Johann BACH (1604-1673): Weint nicht um meinen Tod, aria a 4; Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitlich stirbt a 5; Der Mensch vom Weibe geboren a 5; Es ist nun aus, aria a 4; Johann Ernst BACH (1722-1777): Aus der Tieffen a 4; Johann Ludwig BACH (1677-1731): Unsere Trübsal a 6; Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694): Sei lieber Tag willkommen a 6; Unser Leben währet siebnzig Jahr a 5; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56) ([O du schönes Weltgebäude a 4]); Kyrie a 5 in F (BWV 233a); Adam DRESE (1620-1701): Nun ist alles überwunden, aria a 4 (formerly attr to Heinrich Bach)

[EP] Magdalene Harer, Joowon Chung, soprano; Alexander Schneider, alto; Johannes Gaubitz, Sören Richter, tenor; Matthias Lutze, bass
[TdM] Toshinori Ozaki, lute; Christian Heim, violone; Andreas Küppers, organ

We know several musical dynasties of the 17th and 18th centuries, but no-one of them is as large as the Bach dynasty. More than 80 members of the Bach family are known to have been active as professional musicians, from the mid-17th century to the end of the 18th century. The title of the first paragraph of Bernhard Schrammek's liner-notes to the present disc shows the scope of their activities: "Wechmar - London". Wechmar is the village in Thuringia, where Veit Bach, grandfather of the first musical Bachs, settled, coming from Pressburg (now Bratislava). London is the place where in 1782 one of the last Bachs, Johann Christian, died.

A large part of what the members of the Bach dynasty have written, has been lost. A substantial part of what has been preserved we owe to Johann Sebastian, who not only did some research into the history of his family, but also collected music written by some of his relatives. The collection he put together is known as the Alt-Bachische Archiv. After his death it came in the possession of his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, and later was included into the archive of the Berlin Singakademie.

Most of the Bachs were active as organists, but often they were also responsible for the vocal music in the churches they served. This explains the vocal oeuvre of many of the Bachs, some of whom are represented on this disc. Whereas several of them composed cantatas, the motet seems to have taken a special place in their oeuvre. That is remarkable, given that the genre of the motet did not exert great attraction to German protestant composers of the 17th century. For services on Sundays and feastdays, churches still used the collections of motets in the stile antico that had been published in the first decades of the 17th century. Even Johann Sebastian used them in Leipzig. Many motets by the Bachs were intended for special occasions, such as weddings and funerals.

The latter explains that quite a number of motets deal with death, which was an important subject of sacred music anyway. A look at the opening lines is enough to know how dominant this subject was.

Johann Christoph Bach, Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitlich stirbt: "But the righteous one, though he die early, shall be at rest". Der Mensch, vom Weibe geboren: "Man who is born from a woman, has but a short time to live". Included is the hymn Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig: "O how useless, o how fleeting is this life given to us. Scarcely we are born are we destined to die". Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben: "My life is over, God takes back what he has given". It is a strophic piece; each stanza closes with the words "Good night world!" The text is put into the mouth of the deceased. This was a tradition in Germany: the deceased addresses the bereaved and consoles them by referring to the heavenly bliss which he or she enjoys and which should encourage those who are still alive: "Jesus has wiped the tears from my eyes, what good are yours then?"

Comparable with the latter piece is Johann Bach, Weint nicht um meinen Tod: "Do not weep over my death, my victory is one of gladness, I have completely transcended fear, wretchedness, sorrow and trouble. (...) I float through the joys of heaven and know no suffering". The same goes for Adam Drese, Nun ist alles überwunden: "Now all has been overcome, my dear ones, do not weep! (...) Now, my dear ones, be content, soften the suffering of your hearts! We are not separated for ever, think of salvation". This piece is included here, because it was previously attributed to Heinrich Bach.

Johann Michael Bach, Unser Leben währet siebnzig Jahr: "The length of our days is seventy years - or eighty, if we have the strength". In this motet the third stanza of the hymn Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr, 'Ach Herr, lass deine lieben Engelein', is inserted: "O Lord, let your dear little angels carry my soul in my final moments to Abraham's breast".

All these pieces are connected by what is a central issue in Christian thinking: death as a transition to life everlasting. That manifests itself also in the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian. In his cantatas the faith in a life after death could take the form of a longing for death, as we find it, for instance, in the last aria from his famous cantata Ich habe genug: "Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod" - With joy I anticipate my death. This longing for death cannot be fully understood without knowing of what often preceded it: a life full of trials and tribulations. This is expressed in two pieces in the programme. One is Johann Ludwig Bach, Unsere Trübsal, die zeitlich und leicht ist: "Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." The second one is Johann Ernst Bach, Aus der Tieffen, a setting of Psalm 130 (129), known in Latin as De profundis, and one of the seven penitential psalms.

Two pieces express the faith in God's goodness. Johann Michael Bach's Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe ("Lord, if I have you alone, I need nothing of heaven and earth") refers to Jesus as bridegroom. Bridal mysticism was part of German Pietism, which manifests itself in many sacred works of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed a large number of songs for solo voice and keyboard, most of them of religious content. He reworked some of them as motets for four voices and accompaniment, among them Bitten, which is also an expression of faith in God's goodness: "God, your goodness spreads as far as the clouds extend; you crown us with mercy and hasten to stand besides us". The piece then turns to a prayer for "humility in prosperity, courage in adversity". The most 'joyful' piece in the programme is the motet for New Year's Day by Johann Michael Bach, Sei, lieber Tag, willkommen.

The programme is embraced by two settings of the Kyrie, the first section of the Mass ordinary. Heinrich Bach's setting is written in the stile antico, but even so does sound not fundamentally different from most of the motets on this disc. Johann Sebastian's Kyrie was later included in one of his 'Lutheran masses'.

As one may expect, these pieces include a lot of text illustration. There are too many to list here. I just mention two in Johann Christoph's Der Mensch, vom Weibe geboren. "Er gehet auf wie eine Blume und fällt ab" - He [man] opens like a flower, and falls to earth. The latter words are eloquently illustrated by a descending figure. And then he "fleucht wie ein Schatten und bleibet nicht" - he "fleets as a shadow and makes no mark." This is sung in a fast tempo and in a volatile way, as the text says. Notable in this repertoire is the important role of hymns. In several pieces they are used as a cantus firmus. This may be a habit of the time, but one cannot exclude the possibility that this was something the Bachs especially liked.

In some strophic pieces the stanzas are alternately sung by the entire ensemble and by single voices. That seems a fully legitimate option. In Der Mensch, vom Weibe geboren, organist Andreas Küppers adds very short interludes between the lines two and three of the first and third stanzas of the hymn. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's motet is accompanied by a lute, which seems a little anachronistic. A fortepiano would have been a more logical option. Stylistically this is the most 'uncharacteristic' piece in the programme: we are here in an entirely different world, if we have the motets of previous generations in our ears. The same goes for Aus der Tieffen by Johann Ernst Bach.

A part of this programme is probably rather well-known: there is no lack of recordings of motets by the Bach family. Even so, there are some items which are not that often performed. I can't remember having heard Heinrich Bach's Kyrie before. Johann Ernst's piece may also be new to the catalogue. Whatever is the case, this production is most welcome, because of the quality of the music and the level of the performances. The Ensemble Polyharmonique is one of the best in the performance of small-scale sacred music of the 17th century. One could probably see it as the successor to Cantus Cölln, which has discontinued its activities. Technical perfection - articulation, balance between and blending of the voices, intonation - goes hand in hand with a thorough understanding of the spiritual content of these motets. This disc is an impressive survey of the art of the Bach family.

On a technical note: the text of Johann Sebastian Bach's chorale Du, o schönes Weltgebäude as it is sung, is not entirely identical with the text as printed in the booklet.

Johan van Veen (© 2024)

Relevant links:

Ensemble Polyharmonique

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