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Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel & Johann Christian BACH: "Magnificats"

JoŽlle Harvey, soprano; Olivia Vermeulen, mezzo-soprano; Iestyn Davies, altoa; Thomas Walker, tenor; Thomas Bauer, bass
Dir: Jonathan Cohen

rec: Oct 4 - 6, 2015, Tetbury (Gloucestershire), St Mary the Virgin and St Mary Magdalen
Hyperion - CDA68157 (© 2018) (76'48")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score CPE Bach
Score JS Bach

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Magnificat in D (Wq 215 / H 772)a; Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782): Magnificat in C (Warb E 22); Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Magnificat in D (BWV 243)a

For many centuries the Magnificat or Song of Mary, one of the canticles from the Bible, was one of the main parts of the liturgy. It was sung at the end of Vespers, preceded and followed by an antiphon which linked it to the time of the year. In Protestantism, where the Virgin Mary takes a fundamentally different place, it was connected to the Feast of the Visitation - Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth shortly after the Annunciation - and, following logically from this, Advent and Christmas. This explains why we know so many settings of the Magnificat from the Renaissance: Nicolas Gombert, to mention just one example, wrote a series of eight settings in the different church modes. In comparison the number of Magnificat settings from the pen of Lutheran composers in Germany is rather small.

The present disc includes three settings by members of the Bach family. They are all pretty familiar, although Johann Sebastian's setting is by far the most frequently-performed. They are quite different in style, but Carl Philipp Emanuel's Magnificat has much more in common with his father's setting than that of his youngest brother Johann Christian, who composed his Magnificat for the Roman Catholic liturgy during his stay in Italy.

Johann Sebastian composed only one setting of this text. A performance at Christmas Day in 1723 - his first year as Thomaskantor in Leipzig - is documented, but it seems likely that he wrote it for the Feast of the Visitation at 2 July of that year. For the performance at Christmas he included four hymns which linked the work to Christmas. This was in line with a tradition in Leipzig to add so-called laudes, which is rooted in an age-old practice of adding tropes to an existing text. One can see also a link here with the liturgical tradition of adding an antiphon as mentioned above.

The 1723 version is in E flat, but Jonathan Cohen decided to record the second version, which may have been a reworking for the Feast of the Visitation in 1733. It was transposed from E flat to D, and there are also minor adaptations of the score. One of the differences is that the recorders were replaced by transverse flutes.

It is not hard to understand why this is such a beloved work, both among performers and audiences. It is a sequence of brilliant tutti sections, with an instrumental scoring which reflects the festive nature of Mary's Song, and relatively concise arias and duets, which are full of text expression. The aria for bass, 'Qui fecit mihi magna', the tenor aria 'Deposuit potentes' and the one for alto, 'Esurientes implevit bonis' are eloquent examples.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's Magnificat has also been preserved in two versions. The first dates from 1749; it has been suggested Emanuel composed this work for his application as Thomaskantor in Leipzig in 1750. His application failed, though, and so did his next attempt in 1755. The second version, recorded here, is from 1779, when Emanuel was Musikdirektor in Hamburg. The main difference between the two versions is in the scoring: the early version doesn't have the trumpets which figure prominently in the well-known second version. It is a mixture of different styles: the influence on the father is clearly notable, but the length of the arias shows the influence of contemporary opera. 'Quia respexit' is set in the form of an aria by father and son, but whereas in JS Bach's version this aria, which closes with a tutti episode, takes less than four minutes, in CPE Bach's setting it lasts almost six minutes.

The way the content is translated into music is also quite different from what was common in the baroque era. There is little illustration of single words or turns of phrase, but it is rather an atmosphere which is created, for instance through the instrumental scoring, reflecting the mood of the text. The sections which tell about God's treatment of the proud and the mighty are dominated by powerful figures and dynamic accents in the orchestra and the vocal parts. But God's mercy for his people is expressed by two transverse flutes joining the strings in a wonderful andante ('Suscepit Israel'). This doesn't mean there is no illustration of words at all; Bach didn't avoid a descending figure on "deposuit" or an ascending figure on "exaltavit" in 'Deposuit potentes'. This verse is very extroverted, whereas the ensuing verse 'Esurientes implevit bonis' is much more intimate. Typical for Carl Philipp Emanuel is the sudden transition from an allegro to a moderato in the chorus 'Gloria Patri', which is - again in moderate tempo - followed by a contrapuntal closing section, 'Sicut erat in principio'.

Johann Christian Bach's oeuvre includes three different settings of the Magnificat. It is a bit of a shame that Cohen decided to perform the best-known third version; the previous settings are generally ignored. It is a concise work; in this recording it takes a little over ten minutes, whereas JS Bach's setting takes a little under 26 minutes and CPE Bach's over 40. The work is divided into five sections, all set for tutti, although there is an episode for soprano solo in the opening section and the third section includes solo episodes for the three lower voices. The occasion for which this work was written is not known, but at the time Johann Christian worked at Milan Cathedral, and it seems likely that he composed this Magnificat for Vespers. In its idiom it reflects the Italian style of his time, for instance in the treatment of the orchestra, but it is not devoid of counterpoint. Richard Wigmore, in his liner-notes, rightly mentions here the influence of Bach's teacher, Giovanni Battista (Padre) Martini, who was a great lover of the stile antico.

From the angle of programming this is a quite interesting disc. It allows for a direct comparison of the various ways in which three members of the Bach family have treated this familiar text. It is most revealing to observe that Carl Philipp Emanuel - not only here, but in his sacred music in general - still strongly adheres to the style of his father, often mixing it with more modern features. In this respect there is a clear difference between CPE Bach's sacred music and his instrumental oeuvre, especially that for keyboard. In comparison Johann Christian has moved much further away from his father's style.

Unfortunately the performances don't give much reason for enjoyment. The Italian pronunciation of the text is wrong in the case of Johann Sebastian's and Carl Philipp Emanuel's settings. With 19 voices the vocal ensemble seems too large; CPE Bach's predecessor in Hamburg, Georg Philipp Telemann, mostly had only eight singers at his disposal in music for the church, and there is little reason to believe that his successor had larger forces to rely upon. The ensemble sings with much enthusiasm, but also mostly at full power and not always with much subtlety. The vibrato in some of the voices damages the tutti sections. That is also the problem of most of the soloists. Iestyn Davies makes by far the best impression; 'Suscepit Israel' in CPE Bach's Magnificat is done really well. In this same work Thomas Bauer is responsible for the worst part: he sings 'Fecit potentiam' in the style of an operatic rage aria. Thomas Walker seems to be at the wrong place here as well: his screaming in 'Qui fecit' and in 'Deposuit potentes' in CPE Bach is rather unpleasant and unstylish.

Lastly, Cohen decided to perform CPE Bach's Magnificat in the second version, but retained the setting of 'Et misericordia' from the 1749 version. This results in a version which is unhistorical, as it has never been performed this way in the composer's own time. It is annoying how often representatives of historical performance practice compromise some of its basic principles.

All in all, this disc may be interesting from the angle of repertoire, but musically it is largely a missed opportunity.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Iestyn Davies
JoŽlle Harvey
Olivia Vermeulen
Thomas Walker

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