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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Köthener Trauermusik" (BWV 244a) (ed. M. Jourdain/R. Pichon)

Sabine Devieilhe, soprano; Damien Guillon, alto; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Christian Immler, bass
Ensemble Pygmalion
Dir: Raphaël Pichon

rec: May 2014, Versailles, Chapelle royale
Harmonia mundi - HMC 902211 (© 2014) (73'53")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list

Composers of the baroque era often reused music they had written before. George Frideric Handel is probably the most notorious example and this practice is sometimes held against him. But his colleague Johann Sebastian Bach did the same. Unfortunately we don't know every case of parody - as it is usually called -, because a considerable part of his music is lost. It is generally assumed that his St Mark Passion largely consisted of music he had written before but that is impossible to prove. The same is true for the composition which is the subject of this disc.

From 1716 to 1723 Bach was in the service of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, not only a great lover of music but also a skilled player of the violin, the viola da gamba and the harpsichord. In this time Bach created some of his finest instrumental works. On 19 November 1728 the Prince died a few days before his 34th birthday. The main cause was his grief over the loss of two of his children, among them the heir to his estate. When Bach left Cöthen for Leipzig he retained the title of Kapellmeister, he returned several times to participate in performances and continued to write music for his former employer's chapel. It was only logical that it was Bach who should compose the funeral music. The ceremonies took place on 23 and 24 March of the following year. On the latter day the funeral service was held, and here the music which is now known as Köthener Trauermusik was performed. The catalogue number BWV 244a can be explained from the general assumption that for the most part of this work Bach made use of the music which he had written for the first version of the St Matthew Passion - catalogued as BWV 244 - in 1727. That is a most reasonable assumption as the author of the libretto - the only part of the work which has survived - was Christian Friedrich Henrici, also known as Picander, who is also the author of the text of the Passion. Moreover, a comparison of the two librettos shows strong similarities between arias and accompanied recitatives. Those parts for which no material could be found in the Passion, can be taken from another funeral cantata, the so-called Trauer-Ode (Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl) (BWV 198), also from 1727.

An interesting question is which version came first. If it is true that the first version of the St Matthew Passion dates from 1727 - which seems not fully established - one has to conclude that parts from this work were adapted later to the funeral music for Leopold. That may seem rather strange. It is known that Bach used music from secular cantatas for sacred works, but not the other way round. The funeral music seems to prove otherwise. However, two things need to be kept in mind. Firstly, it is questionable whether one should consider the Köthener Trauermusik as a secular work. It is true that the text is largely secular, but it includes several Christian notions, particularly references to eternal life. The second part begins with a chorus on the text: "We have one God of salvation and one Lord, who rescues us from death". The first aria of this same part begins with the phrase: "Preserve me, my God, in the midst of my days". The soprano aria includes the phrase "I would embrace my God" and the recitative which precedes the repeat of the opening chorus says: "God saves us and can rescue us from death". In the fourth part the last recitative, before the closing chorus, refers to the happy fate of Leopold: "Our end will be as blissful and gentle as was our Leopold's". Secondly, the strict separation between the sacred and the secular did not exist at the time; that seems to be something of the 19th century. Phrases like Soli Deo Gloria or Jesu Juva could appear in scores of sacred music but also in instrumental scores. Moreover, in Bach's time the worldly rulers were looked upon as God's representatives on earth. From that perspective it was not inappropriate to use the same music for God and for kings and princes.

The main problem in the reconstruction of the Trauermusik is the dictum which opens and closes the second part. Morgan Jourdain who is responsible for the reconstruction recorded here writes in his liner-notes: "[A] reading of Klaus Häfner's study of the processes of parody in Bach's oeuvre (...) offered us not only valuable help in understanding the mechanics of his rewriting methods, but also an unexpected gift. In a carefully argued thesis, the musicologist suggests that the missing Dictum, the cornerstone of the funeral service, was none other than the original version of a chorus that Bach was later to reuse - and therefore parody - in the second 'Kyrie eleison' of the B minor Mass. The two-section verse of the Dictum is such a smooth fit for the two themes of the fugal motet that this proposal seems self-evident".

This recording follows a number of public performances of this reconstruction, In his notes in the booklet the conductor of this recording, Raphaël Pichon, admits that he was not quite sure how the audiences would react, especially in Germany, where people are familiar with Bach's Passion music. That is quite understandable, but it is probably not really different from the way Bach lovers listen to the secular cantatas parts of which Bach reworked for his Christmas Oratorio. Reconstructions like this are helpful in correcting the sometimes too rosy pictures of Bach and his time. A better understanding of the way of thinking at the time can help us to put into perspective the kind of adaptations as we hear in this funeral cantata.

This is a pretty good performance, although there are some flaws. The tutti are sung by a choir of 17 singers. It is known that musicians from other towns were brought in to take part in the performances in Cöthen, but whether these included singers is not known. One cannot exclude that the choruses may have been sung with larger forces than were common at the time. It is regrettable that Pichon allowed the sound of the choir to be compromised by a slight vibrato, which damages its homogeneity. The opening chorus seems a little too fast, and that also goes for the chorus which closes the first part. As a result they tend to superficiality. Damien Guillon has the most solos to sing, and he does so admirably. He has established himself as one of the best Bach interpreters of our time. Especially his performance of 'Erhalte mich' (a parody of 'Erbarme dich') is superb and highly expressive. Thomas Hobbs gives a very good account of the tenor part. His aria 'Zage nur, du treues Land' (known as 'Blute nur' from the St Matthew Passion) is especially beautiful. I had never heard Sabine Devieilhe in this kind of repertoire; she does quite well, for instance in the aria 'Mit Freuden sei die Welt verlassen' (an adaptation of 'Aus Liebe'). However, in 'Hemme dein gequältes Kränken', she sings twice "halten desto eher sein" instead of "ein". This should have been corrected. Christian Immler has the perfect voice for music like this, but I am disappointed about his vibrato-laden performances here.

On balance, this is probably not the ideal performance of this reconstruction, but very respectable and overall convincing. Unfortunately we will never know what exactly has been performed on 24 March 1729. This reconstruction can at least give us some idea of what could have been performed. That makes this production an important addition to the Bach discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Sabine Devieilhe
Thomas Hobbs
Christian Immler
Ensemble Pygmalion

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