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Johann Christoph BACH (1642 - 1703): "Arie variate & Lamenti"

Ingrid Alexandre, contraltoa; Salvo Vitale, bassb; Anaïs Chen, violinc; Il Concerto delle Violed; Mario Martinoli, harpsichorde, organf

rec: May 19 - 20 & June 14, 2011, Presciano, San Pietro
Et'cetera - KTC 1907 (© 2012) (74'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list
Score Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte

Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte, Lamento in e minoracdf; Aria Eberliniana variata pro dormente Camillo in E flate; Aria variata in a minore; Sarabanda variata in Ge; Wie bist du denn, o Gott, in Zorn auf mich entbrannt, Lamento in e minorbcdf

[Il Concerto delle Viole] Roberto Gini, Kees Boeke, Sabina Colonna Preti, Marco Angilella, viola da gamba

The Bach family is the largest dynasty of musicians in history. The list given in New Grove under the entrance 'Bach' comprises more than 70 names. Most of them have sunk into oblivion. The main reason is that only a relatively small number have left any compositions. It is reasonable to assume that many haven't written anything: they were mostly active as organists, and they were expected to improvise. In the 17th century organ music was not printed as there was no market for it.

One of the composers who have left their mark in music history is Johann Christoph Bach. It is likely that a large part of his oeuvre has been lost, and considering the high quality of the music which has been preserved this has to be considered "an irretrievable loss", as Peter Wollny rightly states in his liner-notes. His qualities were recognized by the members of the Bach family of later generations, such as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach who called Johann Christoph the "great and expressive composer".

Johann Christoph was the son of an organist, Heinrich Bach, and might have received the first music lessons from his father. He studied composition with Jonas de Fletin, cantor in Arnstadt, who was a pupil of Heinrich Schütz. This has some relevance in regard to the two vocal items on this disc. In 1665 he was appointed organist of the Georgenkirche in Eisenach; he held this position until his death. That was not out of free will: he once tried to move to another post, but didn't get the permission of the town council. Wollny mentions the fact that municipal records document "incessant quarrels with his superiors" - that sounds familiar, and reminds us of the quarrels of Johann Sebastian with the authorities in Leipzig. As the organist of the Georgenkirche he initiated the construction of a new, much larger organ. He could play this instrument in the late 1690s, but it was finished only four years after his death.

The oeuvre of Johann Christoph which has been preserved comprises a number of chorales with preludes for organ, three harpsichord pieces, motets and sacred concertos. Among the latter are the two lamentos included in the programme on this disc. They belong to his best-known compositions and fully justify the characterisation as "expressive composer". The lamento was a popular form in 17th-century Germany and rooted in the lamentos which were written in the early 17th century in Italy. The Lamento d'Arianna from Monteverdi's lost opera Arianna is the most famous example. In these two pieces the influence of Schütz is notable, especially in the way the text is translated into music. However, these lamentos are more theatrical and more passionate than Schütz's works. Both are scored for a solo voice, violin, a consort of viols and bc. This is typical for the genre of the lamento; in this kind of works composers liked to use one or more viole da gamba. The violin plays the most prominent role in Wie bist du denn, o Gott, for instance in one of the most emotional passages, "Du gibst mir manchen Stoß" (You deal many blows to my sick heart).

This disc includes all three harpsichord works which have been preserved. It is no surprise that they fall into the category of the variation which was a very popular genre in the 17th century. The Aria Eberliniana variata has come down to us in a copy by Johann Sebastian's elder brother with the same first name, Johann Christoph. It has led to speculation that he may be the composer of these variations, but Peter Wollny brings forward some good arguments against this assumption. The origin of the melody which is varied here is not known; it is assumed to be a popular song. Wollny sees a connection with variations on Die Meyerin, another popular song, as we find them in the oeuvre of Johann Jacob Froberger and Jan Adam Reinken.

The melody on which the Aria variata in a minor is based has also not been identified yet. This work is part of a manuscript which was once owned by Johann Christian Bach (1743-1814), known as the Hallische Clavier-Bach (the keyboard Bach from Halle). Like the Eberliniana variations it is built up as a series of variations of increasing virtuosity. The melody is mostly clearly audible. As was quite common at the time both works include a chromatic variation; the Aria variata closes with such a variation.

The Sarabanda variata has been preserved in a manuscript once owned by a musician from Erfurt who may have taken it from the estate of Johann Gottfried Walther, related to the Bach family. The bass of the sarabanda shows some similarity with the bass line of Johann Sebastian's Goldberg variations. Wollny writes that this could indicate that Sebastian knew this piece, but also suggests that the similarity could be coincidental.

The harpsichord pieces are substantial compositions which bear witness to the standard of keyboard playing in Germany in the second half of the 17th century. This is an episode in German music history which has not been fully explored yet. The three pieces on this disc may have been recorded before, but this is probably the first time that they are brought together on one disc. Mario Martinoli delivers nice performances: he articulates well and his use of rubato increases the tension within these pieces. In some variations the tempo is probably a bit too slow. I remember a fine recording by Bradford Tracey which takes about two minutes less than Martinoli and is just a little more engaging.

The lamentos are also given good performances, but here there is more competition and I am not sure that these performances are quite up to that. We are used to hear Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte with a male alto. Ingrid Alexandre has a beautiful voice and there is no lack of expression. Even so, she could have made more of it, and I especially found her voice a bit too weak on the low notes which are set to depict the "heavy burden". There are some very low notes in Wie bist du denn, o Gott and Salvo Vitale sings them well. His German pronunciation is pretty good, but not perfect ("mehr"). His voice is a matter of taste; I find it a little too harsh and there is not enough differentiation in his colouring.

However, this disc is recommendable for the three harpsichord works, which don't belong to the standard repertoire of keyboard players. It is to be hoped that they will take note of this disc and pay more attention to them. These pieces only confirm the qualities Carl Philipp Emanuel attributed to him.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Ingrid Alexandre

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