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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Capriccio sopra il genio del Bach giovanissimo"

Cécile Mansuy, harpsichorda, organb

rec: August & Oct 2011, Porrentruy, (former) Église des Jésuites
Chromart Classics - TXA14038 (© 2013) (67'56")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo in B flat (BWV 992)a; Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (BWV 1091)b; Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (BWV 721)b; Fantasia in G (BWV 571)b; Fugue in e minor (BWV 945)a; Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn (BWV Anh 55)b; Partite diverse sopra il Corale Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen (BWV 770)a; Sonata in D (BWV 963)b; Toccata in d minor (BWV 913)b; Wir Christenleut habn jetzund Freud (BWV 1090)b

The title of this disc - in English: Capriccio on the genius of the young Bach - is a variation on the title of one piece in the programme: Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo, in English: Capriccio on the departure of the most beloved brother. The whole programme is devoted to music from Bach's formative years.

The Fantasia in G (BWV 571) is impossible to date. There is no autograph; the earliest copy, probably from 1727 or later, is from the organist and composer Johann Peter Kellner who played a crucial role in the dissemination of Bach's keyboard works. It has many traces of a concerto and in its sequence of the three movements - fast-slow-fast - follows the pattern of the Vivaldi concerto. Maybe it was written in Weimar; at that time Bach became acquainted with the latest Italian concertos. The opening subject of the first movement seems to be derived from Kuhnau, another indication of an early time of composing.

This piece is for organ, and so are the four chorale arrangements two of which are from the so-called Neumeister Sammlung (BWV 1090, 1091). This large collection of organ chorales is preserved in the library of Yale University; its discovery was announced in 1984. It includes some of Bach's earliest organ compositions, although it is not always clear who the composer was. The collection also contains pieces by composers from an earlier generation, such as Johann Pachelbel and Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott is one of the most famous organ pieces in the Bach catalogue, but its authenticity is questionable. It has only been preserved in a copy by Johann Gottfried Walther, a distant relative of Bach. The chorale melody is often played with the tremulant, because a text like this in vocal compositions of the 17th century was often accompanied by strings playing with tremolo. Cécile Mansuy doesn't use a tremulant. Is that because the organ has no such register? I can't tell as the booklet omits any information about the instrument. Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn is also of doubtful authenticity, and Bach's pupil Johann Ludwig Krebs has been suggested as its composer. If that is correct, it should be of a much later date than the other pieces on this disc.

The Fugue in e minor (BWV 945) is again spurious. Philipp Spitta, in his Bach biography of 1873, refers to this piece as the oldest surviving fugue from Bach's pen. However, in his liner-notes Jean-Claude Zehnder writes that "assignations from the 19th century - because of the enthusiasm of Bach's rediscovery - frequently enjoy little credibility". As far as I know it is mostly omitted from Bach editions, such as that of Brilliant Classics. The Bach Cantata website mentions just one recording as part of Kevin Bowyers Bach edition for Nimbus. That makes the inclusion on this disc especially welcome.

Imitation was a frequent phenomenon of the 17th century, for instance in violin music by the likes of Johann Jacob Walther and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. In the first half of the 18th century we find such imitations mostly in Telemann's overtures , but they are rare in Bach's oeuvre. The Capriccio sopra la lontananza del fratello dilettissimo is one of the few pieces of this kind. It is a programmatic piece which describes the feelings when a brother leaves his family and friends. There has been much speculation about the identity of the brother. Zehnder believes that it could refer to Bach's elder brother Johann Jacob who entered the service of the Swedish king in 1704. Others have questioned whether the brother was a relative of Johann Sebastian himself.

The two main works of the programme are Bach 'the other way round'. The Toccata in d minor and the Partita Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen are played on an instrument other than the one on which they are mostly performed. The partita is one of various sets of chorale variations which Bach composed in his early years. At that time he studied the music of Johann Pachelbel and Georg Böhm - the latter may even have been his formal teacher. They both contributed considerably to the genre of the chorale partita. They are mostly played on the organ, but some partitas have no pedal part and can be played on a stringed keyboard instrument, such as the harpsichord or the clavichord. Sacred keyboard music for domestic use was quite common at the time, for instance Pachelbel's Musicalische Sterbens-Gedancken of 1683. This partita could have been written in Arnstadt which means that it has to be ranked among Bach's earliest compositions. The last variation is the most brilliant and makes little reference to the chorale melody.

The Toccata in d minor is one of seven (BWV 910-916) which are not connected to each other. Most of them show the influence of the stylus phantasticus which was a feature of the North German organ school. This particular toccata is in four sections, slow-fast-slow-fast. The two fast sections are fugues. It is one of the most strictly-organized toccatas of the seven. The instrument for which these toccatas were written is a matter of debate among scholars. The writing for manuals only suggests the harpsichord rather than the organ, but at that time there was no strict division between the instruments. As we have seen pieces based on chorales could be played on the harpsichord, and there is no objection against playing 'harpsichord music' on the organ. What could speak in favour of the organ is the similarity in style between these toccatas and Bach's toccatas with pedal parts. Moreover, organ playing outside the liturgy - for instance in the form of recitals - was a known phenomenon at the time, whereas harpsichord recitals were not. It is quite possible that Bach has played such toccatas when he was asked to examine newly-built organs. This is not the first time one or more of these works are played on the organ, but such recordings are rather rare. Cécile Mansuy's performance is a good and convincing argument for an organ performance.

I am less convinced about the Sonata in D which is another piece with imitative elements, especially in the last movement, which is called Thema all'imitatio Gallina Cucca, referring to the hen and the cuckoo. The imitation of these birds is not that demonstrative, but they work better on the harpsichord. In contrast to the toccatas I can't see a good argument in favour of a performance on the organ.

Most of the works on this disc are rather well-known, but it is interesting to hear them in the context of the time in which they were written. Especially the performance on a different instrument than usual of two of the compositions makes this disc a substantial addition to the Bach discography. Cécile Mansuy delivers very good performances, well articulated and in a truly speechlike manner. It is a shame that the instruments are not specified in the booklet. A search on the internet revealed that the organ was built in 1985 by Jürgen Ahrend, a specialist in reconstructions of historical organs and building of new instruments in baroque style. It certainly sounds like the appropriate instrument for the music played here.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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