musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Bach Family: "Bach's Family - Choral Motets"

Kammerchor Stuttgart; Sonntraud Engels-Benz, organ
Dir: Frieder Bernius

rec: June 15 - 17, 2018, Gönningen (D), Evangelische Kirche
Hänssler Classic - HC18014 (© 2019) (56'17")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores Altnickol

Johann Christoph ALTNICKOL (1720-1759): Befiehl du deine Wege; Nun danket alle Gott; Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795): Ich liege und schlafe ganz mit Frieden; Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme

Maria Bernius, Sandra Bernius, Katharina Eberl, Anna-Sophie Brosig, Kathrin Lorenzen, Aline Wilhelmy, Filine Huppert, soprano; Magdalena Fischer, Anna Botthof-Stephany, Elke Rutz, Sigrun Bornträger, Ute Schäfer, Agnes Schmauder, contralto; Friedemann Engelbert, alto; Jo Holzwarth, Oliver Kringel, Tobias Meyer, Christian Rathgeber, Tobias Mäthger, tenor; Johannes Hill, Antonio di Martino, Adolph Seidel, Matis Koch, Felix Rathgeber, bass

The motet was a fixed part of the liturgy in Lutheran Germany. This explains why several collections of motets were published in the early 17th century. These were mostly in Latin, which was still used in liturgy, and written by composers of the 16th century, many of them Catholic. During the 17th century new pieces on German texts were written, especially arrangements of chorales. However, in the course of time composers felt less attracted to the genre of the motet. Towards the end of the 17th century, they turned to the form of the cantata, modelled after the Italian chamber cantata and opera. It is telling that Johann Sebastian Bach, in his capacity as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, purchased several copies of the collection Florilegii Musici Portensis of 1621 as late as 1729. He himself and members of his family of earlier generations, as well as his colleague Georg Philipp Telemann, did write motets, but these were not intended for common services, but for special occasions, in particular funerals.

The motets of members of the Bach family from the late 17th and early 18th centuries are quite popular among choirs and vocal ensembles and are often performed and recorded. In comparison, the motets of Johann Sebastian's sons are less well known. During the second half of the 18th century, composers showed an increasing interest in the genre of the motet. Gottfried August Homilius, Johann Heinrich Rolle and Johann Adam Hiller composed motets for liturgical use. However, the motets which are the subject of the present disc, were all intended for special occasions.

Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, Johann Sebastian's second youngest son, is among the least-known members of the Bach dynasty. His music hardly appears on the programmes of ensembles and keyboard players, perhaps due to the fact that the general opinion of him as a person and a composer isn't very favourable. He is too often associated with the bourgeois mentality - in the negative sense of the word - which without any doubt was one of the features of the second half of the 18th century. The fact that for the most part of his life he worked at the court in Bückeburg - not exactly an artistic centre of international stature - hasn't helped him either. That is particularly tragic as, according to his brother Wilhelm Friedemann, he was one of the best keyboard players of the family, who could "most readily perform his father's clavier compositions". The keyboard takes a central stage in his oeuvre: apart from pieces for keyboard solo, he wrote a number of keyboard concertos. He also composed a pretty large number of vocal works, including eight oratorios and some cantatas. A part of his output in this department has been lost. The work-list in New Grove mentions three motets which are arrangements of pieces by his brother Carl Philipp Emanuel, a lost motet that is mentioned in his obituary and some pieces preserved incomplete. And then there are the two motets included here, of which Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme is the best-known.

This motet is an arrangement of one of the most beloved hymns in Protestant Germany, written by Philipp Nicolai (1599). It is divided into three sections. The first begins with an extended setting of the first two lines: "Wake up, calls the voice of the watchmen very high upon the battlement". Ascending figures are dominating here, and there are antiphonal elements when the line "wake up, calls the voice" is split up between high and low voices. This is followed by a chorale arrangement in which the sopranos sing the cantus firmus. According to the taste of the time the mood changes on the line "it is at midnight that they call us with bright voices". Towards the end of this section the figures of the beginning return. The second section is freely composed without reminiscences of the chorale melody. There are long melismas on "sing" ("Zion hears the watchmen sing") and lively figures on "her heart leaps for joy". There are ascending figures on "she wakes and she makes haste to rise" and "her light grows bright, her star ascends". The voices literally follow each other closely on the line "we follow all to this joyous hall". The third section begins with an extended setting of the line "Glory to you be sung" which is followed by a chorale setting, taken from Johann Sebastian's cantata BWV 140. The motet ends with an imitative passage of the last two lines: "we rejoice over this, io, io, ever in dulci jubilo".

The disc opens with Ich lieg und schlafe, which dates from 1780 and bears the annotation SDG (Soli Deo Gloria), as so many works of Johann Sebastian. This motet, for four voices and basso continuo, may have been written for the funeral of Count Karl Wilhelm Ernst of Schaumburg-Lippe in September 1780, who had died at the age of 21. It is a setting of the last verse from Psalm 4 (I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety) and the first stanza of the hymn Es ist noch eine Ruh vorhanden by Johann Sigismund Kunth (1700-1779). The motet has a form which we also know from the motets of earlier generations in the Bach family. The first section is a free treatment of the verse from Psalm 4, then this section is sung again, with the sopranos singing the hymn as cantus firmus. This is followed by another setting of the psalm-verse. This time Bach includes a fugal episode. Lastly, the entire ensemble sings the hymn in homophony.

One may wonder why two motets by Johann Christoph Altnickol are included in a programme with the title "Bach's Family". That is easy to explain: in 1749 he married Bach's daughter Elisabeth Juliane Friederica. He had been close to her father for some time. After working as a singer and assistant organist in Breslau from 1740 to 1744 he went to Leipzig where he studied theology and started to work with Bach. From 1745 to 1747 he sang as a bass in the Thomaskirche, and he also acted as copyist. In the same year he married Bach's daughter, he was appointed organist at the St Wenzel in Naumburg/Saale, with the recommendation of his father-in-law. The latter had stated earlier that Altnickol was a pupil "of whom I have no cause to be ashamed". How close he was to Bach is also proven by the fact that he acted as trustee after Bach's death, which made him responsible for the distribution of his estate.

His music is also very close to that of his father-in-law. The motet Befiehl du deine Wege is unmistakably modelled after Johann Sebastian Bach's motet Jesu, meine Freude. Both set all the verses of the chosen chorale, and both contain chorale settings, chorale arrangements, fugues and trios. The text of this hymn, also known from Bach's St Matthew Passion, is from the pen of Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), one of the main authors of hymn texts of the 17th century. In Altnickol's setting there is quite a lot of text expression. In verse 2 the words "mit Sorgen und mit Grämen" (in grief and care) is set to a chromatically ascending figure, in the 11th verse the phrase "du singst Freudenpsalmen" (and sing you psalms of gladness) is provided with a lively rhythm and melismas. Specific words are singled out by isolating them through unisono, repetition and general pauses, like 'nichts" (verse 2: "nothing") and "hoff" (verse 6: "hope on"). Altnickol makes mostly use of polyphony, although there are also homophonic passages, like the trio on the 8th verse. There are frequent fugal passages; in verse 2 all four pairs of lines are treated like this. The chorale melody turns up only in some of the stanzas. In the first it is given to the sopranos, in the sixth to the altos, in the ninth to the tenors and in the last to the sopranos again. The motet ends with another demonstration of Altnickol's contrapuntal skills as the last lines have the form of a fugue.

Nun danket alle Gott for five voices with basso continuo consists of two sections. The text is taken from the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), one of the Apocrypha of the Bible. The first section is a free setting of Martin Rickart's hymn (1636) based on verses from chapter 50: "And now, bless the God of all, who has done wondrous things on earth; who fosters men's growth from their mother's womb, and fashions them according to his will!" The second section is a setting of the ensuing verses: "May he grant you joy of heart and may peace abide among you; may his goodness toward us endure in Israel as long as the heavens are above". Specific words are singled out: "grosse (Ding)" (wondrous [things]), "lebendig" (alive) (I), "fröhliches" (joyful), "Friede" (peace) (II). The motet ends with a homophonic setting of the last stanza from Rinckart's hymn: "Lob, Ehr und Preis sei Gott".

Although all four works on this disc have been recorded before, it would be an exaggeration to say that they are widely known. They are seldom performed, and the number of recordings is limited. Therefore this disc deserves a whole-hearted welcome, especially considering the quality of the motets performed here. The Kammerchor Stuttgart is one of the world's most renowned ensembles of its kind, with a repertoire which spans about five centuries, from the late Renaissance to our time. It is a real vocal ensemble, most of whose members have also made a career as soloists. No wonder, then, that they are fully capable of taking care of the solo episodes in these motets, especially Altnickol's Befiehl du deine Wege. The choir and its members deliver outstanding performances, in which the text is always in the centre of attention and is clearly intelligible.

The liner-notes are useful and well written, but the lack of English translations of the lyrics is a serious omission.

If you like choral music, this disc is a must have.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Kammerchor Stuttgart

CD Reviews