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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Magnificat

Monika Mauch, soprano; Matthias Rexroth, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Gotthold Schwarz, bass
Basler Madrigalisten; L'arpa festante
Dir.: Fritz Näf
rec: Jan 9 - 11, 2008, Arlesheim, Reformierte Kirche
Carus - 83.412 (© 2008) (62'37")

Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes, cantata for Christmas (H 815 / Wq 249) (1st version); Magnificat in D (H 772 / Wq 215) (1st version, 1749)

For a long time the interest in Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's oeuvre was limited to his keyboard music and some of his chamber and orchestral music. Gradually he was also dicovered as a composer of sacred vocal music, the largest part of which he wrote in his capacity as Musikdirektor in Hamburg as the successor to his godfather Georg Philipp Telemann. One of the first conductors who recorded some of Carl Philipp Emanuel's sacred music was Hermann Max, with his ensembles Rheinische Kantorei and Das Kleine Konzert. The booklet of this recording claims that both works on this disc are world premiere recordings. Strictly speaking that is true, but both works have been recorded before in somewhat different versions. The cantata Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes is the first version of Auf, schicke dich recht feierlich which Hermann Max recorded in 1987. The Magnificat is even one of Bach's most popular vocal works and is performed regularly and has been recorded more than once. But it is the second version which is always performed; here we hear the first version which dates from 1749.

The early version is historically interesting; it has been suggested Bach composed this work for his application as Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1750. His application failed, though, and so did his next attempt in 1755. The main difference between the two versions of the Magnificat is in the scoring: the early version doesn't have the trumpets which figure prominently in the well-known second version. But when it was performed in Leipzig people heard something very different, and in particular those who remembered the setting of Bach's father Johann Sebastian will have noticed how different there musical languages were. If one looks at the timings of the arias in Carl Philipp Emanuel's Magnificat one will immediately notice that they are considerably longer than in Johann Sebastian's Magnificat. The soprano aria 'Quia respexit' takes about 5½ minutes, the alto aria 'Suscepit Israel' almost six. Stylistically they are quite close to the arias in the oratorios and operas of the time; in 'Quia respexit' we even get a long cadence.

The way the content is translated into music is also quite different from what was common in the baroque era. There is little illustration of single words or turns of phrase, but it is rather an atmosphere which is created, for instance through the instrumental scoring, reflecting the mood of the text. The sections which tell about God's treatment of the proud and the mighty are dominated by powerful figures and dynamic accents in the orchestra and the vocal parts. But God's mercy for his people is expressed by two transverse flutes joining the strings in a wonderful andante ('Suscepit Israel'). This doesn't mean there is no translation of words at all; Bach didn't avoid a descending figure on "deposuit" or an ascending figure on "exaltavit" in 'Deposuit potentes'. Typical for Carl Philipp Emanuel is the sudden transition of an allegro into a moderato in the chorus 'Gloria Patri', which is - again in moderate tempo - followed by a contrapuntal closing section, 'Sicut erat in principio'.

The cantata is a bit inconsistent as far as its text is concerned. It was originally written as an 'inauguration cantata', performed at the occasion of the ordination and induction of a preacher. Some years after its composition Bach reused it as Christmas cantata. These two occasions are reflected in the text, in particular in the last sections, when John 3 vs16 is quoted ("For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life"; King James Version) which is followed by an aria in which the teaching by the preacher is looked at from two angles: that of the preacher ("Be blessed by me, my brothers") and the congregation ("Enraptured, I will hear the sweet teaching"). This cantata is definitely not a work which will be immediately recognized as Christmas music. For the second version - the one which was recorded by Hermann Max - Bach replaced the opening chorus 'Die Himmel erzählen' by another chorus, 'Auf, schicke dich recht feierlich' and he added a closing chorale, 'Rat, Kraft und Held'.

The arias in this cantata are considerably shorter than in the Magnificat. In the aria for bass, 'Gross ist der Herr', the greatness of God is underlined by drumrolls. The text already referred to (John 3 vs16) is set as a duet for soprano and alto, with a remarkable instrumental scoring for two transverse flutes and strings, without basso continuo. It gives this piece an intimacy and kind of tenderness which is reflecting the aesthetics of the time. In the last aria, about the teaching of the preacher referred to before, the different angles are represented by the four solo voices.

Although we get different versions from works which were already known this disc still is worthwhile for bringing these versions to our attention. They increase our knowledge of how Carl Philipp Emanuel dealt with religious music during the various stages of his life and career. Apart from that the performances are further arguments in favour of this production. One could argue that the use of a choir of six sopranos and five singers for the other three parts is very likely unhistorical. If Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott are right the most common practice in Leipzig was to perform cantatas with just one voice per part, only at some occasions joined by one ripieno singer per part. There is strong evidence that the practice in Hanburg during Bach's time wasn't very different. Apart from this the performances deserve praise: all participants give very fine performances and really bring these works to life. The singers are well aware of the texts they are dealing with and are not afraid to explore the sometimes strong contrasts Carl Philipp Emanuel has created.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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