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Johann Ludwig BACH (1677 - 1731): "Das ist meine Freude - Motets"

Stephan Van Dijck, tenora; Dirk Snellings, bassb
Ex Tempore Gent, Orpheon Consort
Dir: Florian Heyerick

rec: August 11 - 19, 2004, Saint Gérard (B), Église de Bossières
Carus - 83.187 (© 2007) (77'36")

Die richtig für sich gewandelt a 10; Das Blut Jesu Christi a 8; Das ist meine Freude a 8; Gedenke meiner, mein Gott a 8>sup>a; Gott, sei uns gnädig a 8b; Ich habe dich ein klein Augenblick verlassen a 8; Ich will auf den Herren schauen a 8; Sei nun wieder zufrieden, meine Seele a 8; Uns ist ein Kind geboren a 8; Wir wissen, so unser irdisches Haus a 8

[OC] José Vasquez, Lúcia Krommer, Christian Zincke, Eva Fürtinger, Susanne Braumann, Margit Meckel, Christa Opriessnig, Christian Drechsel, viola da gamba; Hector Castillo, violone; Jacques Willemyns, organ

Johann Ludwig Bach is one of the members of the large Bach dynasty which was active in Central Germany during the late 17th and early 18th century. He was born in Thal near Eisenach, as son of Jacob Bach (1655 - 1718), who was a schoolmaster and choirmaster. Little is known about his earliest musical education; most of what is known about him dates from the time he worked in Meiningen, where he had several positions until he was appointed as Hofkapellmeister. He held this position until his death in 1731. It is impossible to say how much he has composed. Not that many compositions have been preserved, and although he, in his capacity as Kapellmeister, must have written instrumental music just one orchestral suite is known. The rest of his output as known today consists of vocal music, all but one piece of sacred nature. An important part of this are his cantatas: 22 have come down to us, 18 of them thanks to Johann Sebastian - a distant relative - who has copied them for performance in Leipzig. This is a clear sign of his appreciation of Johann Ludwig's compositions.

Today Johann Ludwig's motets are relatively well-known: some of his 11 motets are regularly sung by choirs, in particular Das ist meine Freude and Das Blut Jesu Christi. In his time the genre of the motet was on the decline as the Italian concertato style had put the polyphonic motet into the sidelines. But in Thuringia and Saxony the genre was still alive, even though motets were not part of the repertoire for the common liturgy, but rather written for special occasions, like weddings and funerals. Although we don't know for sure for what occasions Johann Ludwig has written his motets, all but one - the Christmas motet Uns ist ein Kind geboren - could have been written for funerals. That is certainly the case with the perhaps most remarkable motet of all, Ich habe dich ein klein Augenblick verlassen. This motet is set for three 'choirs', two of which are playing the role of 'parentes' (parents) and 'defunctus' (the deceased). Also Gedenke meiner, mein Gott has the character of a dialogue between a deceased person ("Think of me, my God, in the most favourable light") and God ("I think of you, O soul, do not waver").

The former motet gives an indication of the style of Johann Ludwig's motets. They may fit in a tradition of motet-writing in especially Thuringia, stylistically he follows his own path which moves sometimes rather far away from that tradition. One of the features of his motets is their double-choir structure: only Unser Trübsal - not recorded here - is for 4 voices. This in itself is rather exceptional, but whereas in some motets both choirs have the usual SATB structure, sometimes choirs are reduced to two voices, like in Ich habe dich ein klein Augenblick verlassen. The two choirs singing the 'roles' of the parents and the deceased person - probably a little child - both consist of just two voices: ST and TB respectively. In this motet there are in fact three different choirs, and the same is the case in Die richtig für sich gewandelt haben, where again a two-part choir is added to the two four-part choirs. In Gott sei uns gnädig the double-choir structure is extended by a part for solo bass which is partly quite virtuosic.

Six of the 10 motets on this disc consist of two kinds of texts: they begin with a dictum, a quotation from the Bible, which is followed by an 'aria' consisting of free poetry after which usually the dictum is repeated. The motets are considerably longer than usual, mainly because of the number of stanzas of the 'arias'. In most recordings, including this one, only a couple of stanzas are sung, but even then these motets are rather long. That is also due to the fact that in many cases the dictum has a dacapo structure, and as these sections are rather lengthy in itself, with much repetition of phrases, they often take most of the time of the motet as a whole.

As we know next to nothing about how Johann Ludwig Bach himself has performed these motets the interpreters have considerable freedom to use the different options common at the time they were composed. That means that the voices can be supported or replaced by instruments. In this recording the Orpheon Consort, an ensemble of viole da gamba, is used to do so. It is playing very well, and the sound of the viols is a nice addition to the choral sound, but the use of this option lacks consistency. For instance in Das Blut Jesu Christi the first stanza of the aria is performed with voices only, the second with instruments playing colla parte. The reasons escape me.

The vocal scoring in itself also raises questions. In the programme notes Uwe Wolf writes that several passages in these motets are technically quite demanding. In my view this points into the direction of a performance with one voice per part rather than with a choir. Listening to this disc I noticed several figures which are not very comfortable for a choir to sing. And in my view the two-part sections in these motets are definitely meant to be sung by solo voices rather than a section from the choir.

Despite these critical remarks I am generally positive about this recording. Ex Tempore is a fine choir with nice voices, which produce a beautiful abnd clear sound. They also sing with the flexibility these motets ask for and give a good account of the text. At the same time I sometimes find the text expression a bit too flat as several words don't get the attention they deserve. The articulation could also have been a little sharper now and then. The main minus is that in the longer works - in particular in those sections which are repeated or where some phrases are repeated several times - this performance isn't always able to keep the listener's attention. Or, at least, that is my experience. A little more variety in the colour of the choral sound had made this recording more interesting. It is perhaps here that the difference between this choir and an ensemble like the Collegium Vocale comes to the fore: the latter is basically an ensemble of soloists, and therefore every singer has a more individual character, without the choir losing its overal sound. Be it at as it may, I recommend this disc as it brings all but one of these fine and often intriguing motets by one of the most interesting members of the Bach family.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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