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Johann Christian BACH (1735 - 1782): "Missa da Requiem"

Lenneke Ruiten, soprano; Ruth Sandhoff, contralto; Colin Balzer, tenor; Thomas E. Bauer, bass
RIAS Kammerchor; Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann

rec: Nov 2010, Berlin-Dahlem, Jesus-Christus-Kirche
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902098 (© 2011) (74'55")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D
Cover & track-list

Dies irae in c minor (Warb E 12); Introitus & Kyrie in F (Warb E 11); Miserere in B flat (Warb E 10)

There is a remarkable similarity between the careers of George Frideric Handel and Johann Christian Bach. Both were from Germany and educated in the German tradition, but both were strongly interested in Italian opera from an early age. When they had the opportunity they travelled to Italy to broaden their horizon. Both composers started to write music soon after their arrival, and both composed sacred music. After some years in Italy they settled in England where they spent the rest of their careers. The difference is that Bach converted to Catholicism, whereas Handel always remained faithful to his Protestant convictions.

In modern times the appreciation of these two composers differs greatly. Although Handel's music is certainly not universally liked, it is frequently performed and recorded, and every year a considerable number of discs with his music are released. Johann Christian Bach doesn't do so well, although a reassessment of some kind is notable. In recent times some of his operas have been performed and his orchestral music also turns up now and then in programmes of period-instrument ensembles. His sacred music is still largely neglected. In 2010 a set of two discs with Vesper Psalms was released by Carus. That was a substantial contribution to the discography. There is still a long way to go, though: the work-list in New Grove includes almost 30 liturgical compositions, most of which were written between 1757 and 1760. In the latter year Bach was appointed organist of Milan Cathedral, and as the composition of liturgical music was not part of his duties he stopped writing sacred works.

This disc includes two large-scale compositions. The cover mentions a Missa da Requiem, but strictly speaking that is incorrect. There is no such work as a Requiem in Johann Christian's oeuvre. The work recorded here consists of an Introitus - 'Requiem aeternam' and 'Te decet hymnus' - and Kyrie and a setting of the sequence Dies irae. It is not quite clear whether these two parts were conceived as a unity. When Bach travelled to England he had the autograph of his Dies irae in his baggage. It was preceded by the Introitus and Kyrie which are written in F major, whereas the Dies irae is in C minor. However, the scoring is the same: eight voices and orchestra, which suggest that they may have been connected from the onset.

Bach sent the Introitus and Kyrie to Padre Martini, the greatest music scholar of his time, and for some years his teacher. Several influences come together here: Padre Martini was a strong advocate of counterpoint and knew the music of Johann Sebastian, who had educated his son in the same art. Johann Christian's settings reflect his skills in this department, and so do the tutti parts from the Dies irae and the Miserere mei Deus. Both compositions bear witness to the style of sacred music in Italy in the 18th century: a mixture of the stile antico and the modern idiom which found its most marked expression in opera. The arias in these two works are in the style of opera, although they show more restraint and sometimes intimacy. That is to be expected, considering their content. That is also taken into account in the performances: the soloists are given the opportunity to sing cadenzas but they rightly take that with some moderation. Highly virtuosic cadenzas which put the singer into the centre would be inappropriate here.

This is an indication of the stylish approach by Hans-Christoph Rademann who is a specialist in German sacred music of the 17th and 18th centuries. He pays much attention to a good delivery, and that is one of the strengths of this recording. The texts are always clearly audible, and the soloists emphasize the good notes and the main parts of the texts through dynamic accents. One of the minuses of these performances is the incessant vibrato of in particular Lenneke Ruiten and Thomas Bauer. It isn't too obtrusive, but from a stylistic point of view it is untenable. It also results in the trios and quartets for solo voices not coming off that well, especially because of their insufficient blending. The choral parts are excellent: the RIAS Kammerchor is one of the best in the business, and the polyphonic structure of the tutti sections is clearly exposed thanks to an admirable transparency. The Akademie für Alte Musik adds a rich palette of colours to these performances which impressively demonstrate the qualities of Johann Christian Bach's sacred music.

Despite sometimes less than ideal contributions of the soloists this disc is an important addition to the discography and proves once again that Johann Christian Bach deserves a more prominent place at today's music scene.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Lenneke Ruiten
RIAS Kammerchor
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

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