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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Hamburger Quartalsmusiken"

Himlische Cantorey; Les Amis de Philippe
Dir: Ludger Rémy

rec: June 19 - 20, 2009 (live), Leipzig, Altes Rathaus
CPO - 777 594-2 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (1.39'30")

Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe (Wq deest; H 811); Herr, lehr uns tun (Wq deest; H 817); Nun danket alle Gott (Wq 241; H 805); Siehe! Ich begehre deiner Befehle (Wq 247/212; H 812)

[HC] Veronika Winter, Hanna Zumsande, soprano; Anne Bierwirth, Anne-Beke Sontag, contralto; Henning Kaiser, Jan Kobow, tenor; Markus Flaig, Ralf Grobe, bass
[LAP] Susan Williams, Franziska Jacknau, Thomas Friedlaender, trumpet; Ludwig Kurze, timpani; Dorothee Müller, Matthias Kiesling, transverse flute; Luise Haugk, Ulrike Neukamm, oboe; Elissabeth Mergner, bassoon; Klaus Bona, Sabine Kuhlmann, Ruth Ellner, Cornelia Fiedler, Renate Gentz, Almut Schlicker, Adéla Misonová, violin; Lothar Haass, Thordes Hohbach, Klaus Dieter Voigt, viola; Monika Schwamberger, Fabian Boreck, cello; Miriam Shalinsky, Christian Heim, double bass; Beate Röllecke, organ

In 1768 Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach began his duties as Musikdirektor in Hamburg, one year after the death of his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann. In this capacity he was responsible for the performance of liturgical music in the five main churches of the city. In addition he was expected to compose a Passion every year and music for special occasions, like the inauguration of pastors and deacons as well as funerals. Moreover he had to write so-called Kapitänsmusiken - oratorios for the yearly festive banquets in honour of the captains of the civic guard. This resulted in a considerable workload.

Up until that time Bach had composed barely any vocal music. Apart from a handful of large-scale pieces he had mostly written songs for voice and keyboard. Therefore he had very little to fall back on. All of a sudden he had to direct about 130 performances in the five churches every year. No wonder he made extensive use of music by colleagues. When he died his estate catalogue contained a large number of sacred works by composers like the Graun brothers, Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel and Gottfried August Homilius. Part of it were no less than four complete annual cantata cycles by Telemann. It was only at a later stage of his career in Hamburg that he could reuse some of the material he had written before. And that is exactly what he did: many sacred pieces of the later 1770s and the 1780s are pasticcios - pieces put together from different sources. In the four Quartalsmusiken on these discs several borrowings are recognizable which are all listed in the booklet. It is quite possible that there are even more which cannot be identified as yet.

The Quartalsmusiken (litterally: quarterly compositions) occupy a special place in Bach's sacred oeuvre. They were written for the four main feasts celebrated in Hamburg: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and Michaelmas (September). Because of their festive nature the instrumental scorings all include parts for three trumpets and timpani. In contrast to most cantatas they were performed on successive Sundays in all main churches. That means that in one church a cantata for Michaelmas, for instance, was performed four weeks after the actual feast-day. For that reason the connection between the text and the respective feast-day couldn't be too close.

It is a bit odd that the programme on these two discs begins with a cantata for Easter. Considering the course of the liturgical year it would have been more logical to start with a cantata for Christmas. Nun danket alle Gott was performed in 1780 and 1783 and begins with the famous chorale "Now thank we all our God". After an accompanied recitative we hear the chorus 'Wer ist so würdig als du' (Who is as worthy as you) which Bach had composed earlier as a separate piece, which in its turn was an arrangement of a previously-written song for voice and keyboard. It is followed by a recitative, a chorale and a tenor aria which comes from an inauguration cantata of 1769. Another recitative is followed by an arietta and the chorus 'Heilig ist Gott, der Herr Zebaoth', again a separate composition from an earlier date, remarkably scored for double-choir. The cantata closes with a stanza from 'Nun danket alle Gott'.

Herr, lehre uns nun is a cantata for Pentecost. It dates from 1769 and was reused in 1787. It begins with a chorus with passages for solo voices. This cantata comprises two arias which are taken from Bach's Magnificat (H 772). Bach had written this setting when he applied for the job of Thomaskantor in Leipzig after the death of his father. The cantata includes two stanzas from the chorale 'Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier', one of which closes the cantata. Before that the opening chorus is repeated - a feature in many cantatas by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

Siehe! Ich begehre deiner Befehle is written for Michaelmas. The title is an indication of its subject: "Behold! I am desirous of your commands". The opening chorus is written on verses from Psalm 119, an ode to God's commandments. It consists of two sections: in the first the text is sung homophonically by the choir on the melody of the chorale 'Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot' (These are the Holy Ten Commandments). The second part is fugal and sung in a brisk tempo, which suits the text: "I hurry and do not delay to keep your commandments". This chorus returns at the end of the cantata and is followed by the last stanza of the chorale. The chorus and the two arias are from a previously-composed inauguration cantata.

The last cantata, Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe, is for Christmas. It dates from 1772 and was again performed in 1778 and 1782. Textually it is more closely connected to the feast of Christmas than the other cantatas to their respective feast-days. It opens with the chorus of angels from St Luke: "Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and goodwill to men". Remarkable is particularly the long tenor aria - in this performance more than 11 minutes: "Light of the world, given by God, guide me, guide me!". In addition we hear a duet of soprano and bass and some recitatives. The opening chorus is not repeated this time. The cantata ends with a setting of the stanza "Das hat er alles uns getan" (All of this he has done for us) from the hymn 'Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ'. It is the only part of this cantata whose origin could be traced: it is from a cantata by Georg Anton Benda.

This recording shows that Carl Philipp Emanuel was a gifted composer of sacred music. His vocal oeuvre is still unjustly neglected and remains in the shadow of his instrumental works. Features of the latter are recognizable in his vocal music as well. Among them are sudden dynamic contrasts and unexpected melodic turns. In particular the accompanied recitatives bear the traces of the Empfindsamkeit. All these characteristics come off very well in these performances. The soloists show great feeling for Bach's musical language. Its sensitive side gets full attention without ever lapsing into sentimentality.

Ludger Rémy has opted for a scoring with soloists who are joined by ripienists in the tutti. From a historical point of view that is certainly right. We know from the sources that both Telemann and Bach had a limited number of singers at their disposal. The Himlische Cantorey is a fixed group which also performs independently. No wonder the ensemble is excellent and the voices of the singers blend perfectly. Despite the small size of the vocal ensemble the tutti sections have enough impact. The instrumental parts are given fine performances by Les Amis de Philippe.

All in all, Ludger Rémy and his colleagues have delivered compelling performances of first-rate sacred music. With this production a new step has been taken in the process toward a more thorough understanding of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's vocal oeuvre.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

Relevant links:

Himlische Cantorey

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