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Johann Ludwig BACH (1667 - 1731): Trauermusik

Anna Prohaska, soprano; Ivonne Fuchs, contralto; Maximilian Schmitt, tenor; Andreas Wolf, bass
RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann

rec: March & April 2010, Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus-Kirche
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902080 (© 2011) (77'27")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Johann Ludwig Bach, member of a collateral branch of the large Bach family which goes back to the 16th century, has to be considered one of the most prominent composers of his time in his region of Germany. Johann Sebastian apparently was impressed by the quality of his cantatas as he copied 18 of them for performances in Leipzig. It is this part of his oeuvre for which he is best known. Various cantatas as well as his mass which is based on the chorale Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr are available on disc, for instance in recordings by Hermann Max.

He also recorded the Trauermusik which is the subject of this disc. It is a remarkable work for various reasons. It was written at the occasion of the funeral of Duke Ernst Ludwig of Saxe-Meiningen, who was Johann Ludwig's employer from 1699, when he entered the court chapel, until the Duke's death in 1724. At that time Johann Ludwig was Kapellmeister, and naturally it was his duty to compose the music for this occasion. The libretto is in three parts and is largely based on a strophic poem by the Duke himself, which he had written many years before his death. It is dominated by the then common thought of worldly life as a heavy burden, even a kind of prison, from which man is liberated by death. It is due to the passion of Jesus that death is a transition to eternal life which is referred to as Jerusalem or Zion - a notion used especially in Revelation.

This work is also remarkable for its texture and scoring. The whole work is set for two vocal and instrumental choirs which sometimes alternate and at key moments join each other in order to create a maximum effect. The orchestras are also richly scored with woodwind, trumpets, timpani and strings.

The first part opens with a chorus on the text of the 16th verse from Psalm 116 ("O Herr, ich bin dein Knecht"): "O Lord, I am thy servant, the son of thy handmaid. Thou hast broken my bonds asunder". Then follows a series of recitatives and arias for soprano, alto and tenor, and a recitative for bass which is followed by the chorus 'Meine Bande sind zurissen' which refers to the opening chorus: "My bonds are broken asunder. Lord, this is thy doing". It is a remarkable piece for its length and the way in which the text is illustrated in the music.

Whereas the first part describes the reality of human life and the assurance that "He whom all power over all flesh is given (...) will raise you up from your prison", as the bass recitative says, the second part then expresses the reality of the transition to eternal life. We find references to Jesus' passion, for instance in the chorale 'Herr Jesu Christ, wahr'r Mensch und Gott': "Lord Jesus, true man and God, who didst suffer torture, anguish and scorn, (...) and gained for me thy Father's grace". Jerusalem is mentioned in the aria for bass with chorale: 'Jerusalem, du hochgebaute Stadt': "Jerusalem, thou city built on high, would to God that I were within you". The form of an aria with a chorale is typical for music of this time in Germany, and certainly by members of the Bach family. Also typical is the closing chorus of this second part: two stanzas from the same chorale are sung by one choir, whereas the other choir sings "Halleluja". After the first half the two choirs swap their roles. (Johann Sebastian Bach follows the same procedure in the second section of his motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, but his indication in this respect is mostly ignored.)

The third part is a song of praise for being liberated from life and living in the new Jerusalem. It begins with a chorus on the text of the closing verses (17-19) of Psalm 116: "I will offer thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving and will call upon the name of the Lord". In this part the trumpets join the orchestra, which play a noticeable role in the bass aria 'So viel Gnadengaben'. In the arias we find several references to Jesus' suffering and death which has put an end to "the condition of servitude" and is the ground for "my year of liberty". In the closing chorus the notion of Jerusalem, "new city of God", is picked up again. The piece ends with a chorale in three stanzas in the form of a chorale arrangement - a fabric which is typical for Johann Ludwig Bach and which we also find in his cantatas.

This Trauermusik is a remarkable piece in any respect. It is a monument of German sacred music of the early 18th century and bears witness to Johann Ludwig Bach's qualities as a composer. The choir and orchestra are top of the bill in baroque music right now and that shows in this recording. The soloists are adequate; Anna Prohaska makes the best impression from a stylistic point of view. In the passages for solo quartet the voices blend reasonably well, but not more than that. That is largely due to the incessant vibrato of the contralto, tenor and bass, and although their vibrato isn't wide it should have been avoided.

Despite the good overall impression of this performance, one issue need to be mentioned: the size of the choir and the orchestra. Peter Wollny, in his liner-notes, states that the scoring "must certainly represent the maximum forces the Meiningen court Kapelle could muster". That doesn't answer the question how large the two orchestras must have been. In this recording each instrumental group includes six violins, three violas, cello and double bass. I wonder whether the chapel in Meiningen could bring up that many players. On the other hand, one cannot exclude the possibility that additional players may have been attracted for a special occasion like this. Problably even more questionable is the size of the choir, with 34 singers. As a result there is too much of a contrast between the tutti and the solo sections in the opening chorus, even though the latter are sung by members of the choir. In the closing chorale the second stanza is sung by the four soloists, and I wonder whether the score includes any indication of this kind. I can't see the need for it.

However, these issues shouldn't withhold anyone from purchasing this disc. It is an impressive piece of music and its qualities come off well in this recording.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Anna Prohaska
Maximilian Schmitt
Andreas Wolf
RIAS Kammerchor
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

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