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Johann Sebastian Bach's formative years

[I] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "The Complete Work for Keyboard - 1: The Young Heir"
Benjamin Alard, harppsichorda, organb; Gerlinde Sämann, sopranoc
rec: May 7 - 12, 2017, Strasbourg, Église Sainte-Aurélie
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902450.52 (3 CDs) (© 2018) (4.08'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

[Ohrdruf] Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Prelude and fugue in E flata; Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694): Nun komm der Heiden Heilandb; Johann Sebastian BACH: Christus, der ist mein Leben (BWV 1112)bc; Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (BWV 1091)bc; Ehre sei dir, Christe, der du leidest Not (BWV 1097)bc; Fantasia in C (BWV 570)b; Fugue in A (BWV 949)a; Fugue on a theme of Tomaso Albinoni in C (BWV 946)b; Gott, durch deine Güte (BWV 724)bc; Ich hab mein Sach Gott heimgestellt (BWV 1113)bc; O Jesu, wie ist dein Gestalt (BWV 1094)bc; Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 551)b; Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (BWV 700)bc; Wie nach einer Wasserquelle (BWV 1119)bc; Georg BÖHM (1661-1733): Vater unser im Himmelreich à 2 claviers et pédaleb; Girolamo FRESCOBALDI (1583-1643): Bergamasca (F 12.46)a [1]; Johann Jacob FROBERGER (1616-1667): Canzona in a minor (FbWV 306)a [2]; Nicolas DE GRIGNY (1672-1703): Point d'orgue sur les grands jeuxb [3]; Johann KUHNAU (1660-1723): Suonata IV 'Hiskia agonizzante e risanato'a [5]; Louis MARCHAND (1669-1732): Suite in d minor (prélude; sarabande; chaconne)a [4]; Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706): An Wasserflüssen Babylon
[Lüneburg] Johann Sebastian BACH: Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein (BWV 741)b; Alle Menschen müssen sterben (BWV 1117)bc; Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 1099)bc; Capriccio in E 'In honorem Johann Christoph Bachii Ohrdrufiensis' (BWV 993)b; Fugue in a minor (BWV 947)a; Herr Gott, nun schleuss den Himmel auf (BWV 1092)b; Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut (BWV 1114)ac; Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr (BWV 1115)bc; Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 1105)bc; Machs mit mir, Gott, nach deiner Güt (BWV 957)bc; Nun lasst uns den Leib begraben (BWV 1111)bc; Partite diverse sopra Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen (BWV 770)b; Prelude and fugue in C (BWV 531)b; Prelude and fugue in d minor (BWV 549a)b; Prelude and fugue in A (BWV 896)b; Sonata in a minor (BWV 967)a; Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (BWV 1116)bc; Werde munter, mein Gemüte (BWV 1118)bc
[Arnstadt] Johann Sebastian BACH: Aria variata alla maniera italiana in a minor (BWV 989)a; Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo in B flat (BWV 992)b; Fantasia in c minor (BWV 1121)a; Fantasia in G (BWV 571)b; Fantasia and Imitatio in b minor (BWV 563)a; Fugue on a theme of Tomaso Albinoni in A (BWV 950)a; Fugue on a theme of Tomaso Albinoni in b minor (BWV 951a)a; Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 533)a; Prelude and fugue in g minor (BWV 535a)b; Prelude and Partita in F (BWV 833)a; Sonata in D (BWV 963)a; Suite in A (BWV 832)a

Sources: [1] Girolamo Frescobaldi, Fiori Musicali di diversi compositioni ... in partitura, 1635; [2] Johann Jacob Froberger, Libro secondo di toccate, fantasie ... et altre partite, 1649; [3] Nicolas de Grigny, Premier Livre d'Orgue, 1699; [4] Louis Marchand, Pièces de clavecin, [Livre premier], 1699; [5] Johann Kuhnau, Musicalische Vorstellung einer biblischer Historien, 1700

[II] "Bach and Friends"
Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas, harpsichorda, organb
rec: Feb 2016, Ciboure (F), Église Saint-Vincent
Ambronay - AMY048 (© 2017) (74'17")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Prelude and fugue in g minor (BWV 542)b; Toccata in g minor (BWV 915)a; Georg BÖHM (1661-1733): Vater unser im Himmelreich (2 versus)b; Vater unser im Himmelreich à 2 claviers et pédaleb; Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Prelude and fugue in g minor (BuxWV 163)a; Johann Caspar Ferdinand FISCHER (1656-1746): Suite VIII in G, op. 2,8a [2]; Georg MUFFAT (1653-1704): Toccata IX in e minorb [1]; Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706): Aria VI in f minor 'Aria Sebaldina' (VIII.11)a [3]; Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (1595-1663): Pavane lachrimae (WV 106)a

Sources: [1] Georg Muffat, Apparatus musico-organisticus, 1690/R; [2] Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer, Les pièces de clavessin, op. 2, 1696 [3] Johann Pachelbel, Hexachordum Apollinis, 1699

In today's performing and recording practice, performers tend to focus on what are called the 'mature' works of composers. There are many more recordings of Mozart's last symphonies than of his early contributions to the genre. The same goes for his keyboard concertos. From that perspective there are good arguments for complete recordings. They include those parts of a composer's oeuvre which are mostly ignored or don't receive the attention they deserve.

Johann Sebastian Bach seems to be the exception to the rule. Pieces from his formative years are probably not as frequently performed and recorded as later works, but they are certainly not ignored and are even the subject of separate recordings. It is hardly big news when a new complete recording of his organ works is announced. Several of such recordings are on the market, although they sometimes differ with regard to the pieces included or omitted, for various reasons. Complete recordings of Bach's harpsichord works by a single performer are probably less common. At least I can't think of any harpsichordist who has recorded all of them single-handedly. Harmonia mundi's planned complete recording of all Bach's keyboard works by one and the same performer is certainly unique. Many harpsichordists are also experienced organists, but recording Bach's entire output for the keyboard is quite an undertaking.

That is not all. Benjamin Alard, the young French keyboard player, also decided to record Bach's keyboard works in chronological order. That requires much research as it is not always easy to decide when exactly Bach composed his keyboard works. It will be interesting to see how he will proceed in this matter. So far two volumes have been released. Here the first is reviewed; the second will be reviewed in due course.

Volume one is called "The Young Heir", and includes pieces written in Ohrdruf, Lüneburg and Arnstadt. The first two discs focus on Bach's formative years, first under the tutelage of his brother Johann Christoph, and then as pupil of Georg Böhm, organist in Lüneburg. The first disc not only includes pieces by Bach himself, but also by composers whom he became acquainted with by studying their compositions, largely by way of copying them. This was the usual way of learning how to compose.

During his years in Ohrdruf Bach encountered the oeuvre of Girolamo Frescobaldi, whereas his pupil Johann Jacob Froberger transported the features of his style to Germany. Bach heard, studied and copied the latter's works. Johann Kuhnau, whom Bach was to succeed as Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1723, was a much admired composer of keyboard music. He has become particularly known for his so-called 'Biblical sonatas'. One of them is included here, and it is assumed that these sonatas inspired Bach to the composition of the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo (BWV 992), included at the third disc. Georg Böhm is represented with one of his best-known works, a chorale arrangement of Vater unser im Himmelreich, in which the cantus firmus is strongly ornamented. Another composer who greatly influenced Bach, was Johann Pachelbel, who became acquainted with the Bach family in Eisenach, where he was court organist from 1677 to 1678. Bach also studied the works of French masters. He copied Nicolas de Grigny's Livre d'orgue in 1713, but, according to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, Bach had studied "some good and old Frenchmen" in his youth. That must have been the reason pieces by Grigny and Louis Marchand are included here.

The first disc includes a few of Bach's earliest keyboard works, and more of them are on the second disc. Some are from the collection of chorale preludes, discovered in 1984 and known as the Neumeister Choräle. We get a mixture of liturgical and secular works. One of the latter is the Capriccio in E (BWV 993), which dates from 1707 and was written in honour of his brother Johann Christoph. Strictly speaking it does not belong on this disc, devoted to Lüneburg.

The third disc includes music associated to Bach's time in Arnstadt. Here he acted as organist of the Neue Kirche from 1703 to 1707. The programme comprises mostly free works, such as preludes and fugues, fantasias, a sonata and a suite. Notable are two fugues on subjects by Tomaso Albinoni. Unfortunately the liner-notes don't inform us, when Bach learnt to know the composer's oeuvre. Bach's study of instrumental works by Italian contemporaries dates from his time in Weimar. We probably have to conclude from this that the chronology in this project is not as strict as one may expect.

Some features of this recording need to be mentioned. First, Alard decided that the Lutheran chorale preludes should be followed by their sung version to enable the listener fully to understand the meaning of each one of the chorales. In most cases the chorale is sung after the prelude; in a few cases, where the chorale melody is not ornamented, the cantus firmus is sung rather than played. Second, all three discs include pieces played on the organ and on the harpsichord. These are not separated in different sections, which means that the listener has to adapt to the different sounds (and volumes) of the two instruments. Whether a piece should be played on the organ or on a strung keyboard instrument is largely left to the performer. Chorale preludes were intended for liturgical use in the first place, but that does not mean that they can't be played at the harpsichord. Alard does so in only one case (Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, BWV 1114). The same goes for free works, such as preludes and fugues. The Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 533) is mostly played on the organ, but here we hear a performance on the harpsichord, which is a nice alternative to existing recordings. I am less convinced about Alard's decision to play the Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo at the organ. The reason is not so much that secular music can't be played at the organ, but not on a large church organ as is the case here. Organ recitals were very rare, basically only in the case an organ was inaugurated, and a piece like this capriccio obviously could not be played before or after a service.

That brings me to the instruments Alard selected for this recording. The organ pieces were recorded in the Eglise Sainte-Aurélie in Strasbourg. Its organ was built by Andreas Silbermann, a scion of a famous dynasty of organ builders in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries. It earned some fame, because Albert Schweitzer used it for a recording of organ works by Johann Sebastian Bach in 1936. At that time, the organ had pneumatic action, the result of many adaptations to fit in with the fashions of the time. After World War II it was decided to return to mechanical action. In 1997 the initiative was taken to try to reconstruct the organ to the state of 1718, when it was built by Silbermann. This reconstruction took place from 2013 to 2015.

The harpsichord was built by Émile Jobin. In the booklet, Alard explains: "The harpsichord is the fruit of a synthesis carried out by Émile Jobin taking his inspiration from a harpsichord by Joannes Ruckers of 1612 (conserved at the Musée de Picardie in Amiens) and a harpsichord by Joannes Dulcken of 1747 (conserved at the Vleeshuis Museum in Antwerp), both instruments having formerly been restored by Émile Jobin. There is a missing generation between these two instruments both originally built in Antwerp: it is therefore a sort of attempt at a reproduction of this missing link of Flemish craftsmanship. I could imagine that Bach could have discovered this type of harpsichord during his different travels, notably to the North and the capitals of the Hanseatic region (Hamburg and Lübeck) at the homes of Johann Adam Reincken or Dietrich Buxtehude." It is a fine instrument, but I regret that Alard did not opt for a replica of a historical instrument. That said, unfortunately we don't know what kind of harpsichords Bach played or preferred at what stage of his career. To some extent, that also goes for the organ. I hope that in later volumes Alard will also use the clavichord, which was the most common keyboard instrument at the time.

Benjamin Alard is a brilliant player, who has made quite a career since a young age. That is easy to understand if one listens to these recordings. His performances are fully natural, for instance with regard to phrasing and articulation. His interpretation is rhetorical and speech-like, he shows a fine sense of rhythm, and the performances of the pieces based on chorales have a clear vocal character. The decision to include sung versions of the chorales deserves praise, and Gerlinde Sämann was a perfect choice for this job. She has a beautiful voice and the text is always perfectly intelligible. All in all, this is a very good start of what could be one of the major recording projects of the years to come.

It makes sense to include here a disc by Alard's colleague Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas. The title is a bit odd and is not explained in the liner-notes. Bach knew only Böhm and Buxtehude personally, but considering the difference in age, it probably goes too far to call them his 'friends'. Scheidemann was long dead, when Bach was born, and it seems unlikely that he ever met Pachelbel, Fischer and Muffat personally. However, they all represent the various styles that influenced Bach and contributed to his development as a composer.

Bach's admiration for Dieterich Buxtehude is well known and extensively documented. He was the last representative of the North-German organ school. Scheidemann is generally considered the founder of that school and a highly influential figure in his time. His variations on Dowland's Lachrimae pavan show the influence of his teacher Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and indirectly this contributed to Bach's art of variation. I already mentioned Pachelbel, but Johann Caspar Ferdinand Fischer is a different case. It is known that his collection of preludes and fugues, Ariadne musica (1702) was an inspiration to Bach's Wohltemperirtes Clavier. However, he was also one of those German composers who were attracted by the French style, and who were called Lullistes. The influence of the French style manifests itself in two movements from his Suite VIII, comprising of a prelude and a chaconne. Whether Bach knew the collection from which this suite is taken, is not known. Georg Muffat was the first advocate of a mixture of the French and Italian styles, later known as goûts réunis. Although the toccata is basically an Italian genre, Muffat includes French elements in the Toccata IX.

Bach's toccatas are largely written under the influence of the Italian style, translated into German by the North German organ school. His seven toccatas BWV 910 to 916 bear witness to that. They are mostly played at the harpsichord, as is also the case here, but can also be performed at the organ. In the Fantasia and fugue in g minor Bach again pays tribute to that school, but here the two sections are formally separated, which is a relatively new development. Originally the fantasia and the fugue are likely to have been written at different times. It is assumed that the fugue dates from Bach's Weimar period, whereas the fantasia may be of a later date.

This is a nice programme, which has some sense of coherence, even if that is nowhere explained. However, all the pieces are pretty well known, probably with the exception of Fischer's suite. The performances are very good, both on the harpsichord and on the organ. The harpsichord is a copy of an instrument by Johann Heinrich Gräbner of 1722, which is kept in Prague, where Mozart played it while composing Don Giovanni. The organ, built by Dominique Thomas, is a modern instrument based on Dutch organs of the 17th century, with elements of Arp Schnitger. The only issue is that the acoustic of the church is a bit too dry; a little more space would have been welcome.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Benjamin Alard
Louis-Noël Bestion de Camboulas
Gerlinde Sämann

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