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"Bach & Böhm: Music for weddings and other festivities"

Ensemble Clematis
Dir: Leonardo García-Alarcón

rec: March & Nov 2011, Beaufays, Église Saint-Jean l'Évangéliste
Ricercar - RIC 323 (© 2012) (68'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover & track-list
Parts J.Chr. Bach; Score Quodlibet

Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Meine Freundin, du bist schönb; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Der Herr denket an uns (BWV 196)a; Quodlibet (BWV 524)b; Georg BÖHM (1661-1733): Mein Freund ist meina

Mariana Flores, soprano; Paulin Bündgena, Steve Dugardinb, alto; Fernando Guimarães, tenor; Philippe Favetteb, Christian Immlera, bass
Stéphanie de Failly, Jivka Kaltcheva, violin; Sue Ying Koang, violin, viola; Paul De Clerck, viola; Benjamin Glorieux, Hervé Douchy, cello; François Joubert-Caillet, viola da gamba; Éric Mathot, double bass; Leonardo García-Alarcón, harpsichord; Lionel Desmeules, organ

The title of this disc, "Music for weddings and other festivities" is a bit speculative. In the case of Böhm's cantata we don't know whether it was written for a special occasion and if so, for which. In fact, we know relatively little about Böhm's life and career anyway, and his vocal output is a rather neglected part of his oeuvre. This particular cantata is one of his better-known, probably just because of its subject as it can easily be associated with a wedding. We can be more sure about the purposes of the cantatas by Johann Christoph and Johann Sebastian Bach. The latter's Quodlibet is also obviously written for a wedding festivity, but in this case there is some doubt about its authenticity: the first two pages are missing and it is possible that it is a copy of a composition by someone else.

It is no surprise that the cantatas by Böhm and Johann Christoph Bach are both based on texts from the Song of Songs. This book from the Old Testament describes the love of a man and a woman. Over the centuries it was given a metaphorical meaning: the bride was the Church or the individual believer and the bridegroom God or, more specifically, Jesus. That made these texts also appropriate for weddings, as the marriage between man and woman was considered a mirror image of the bond between God and the faithful.

Mein Freund ist mein comprises six sections, each consisting of one stanza of the poem which Böhm has taken and which paraphrases texts from the Song of Songs. The first and last sections are choruses for the tutti; they embrace four stanzas, each for a different solo voice. They all begin with the line which also opens the choruses: "My friend is mine and I am his". The arias are separated by a ritornello for the strings. The emotional character of the text is effectively set by Böhm. Unfortunately little of that comes off in this performance which is rather lacklustre and flat. There are too few dynamic accents, and the tempi are mostly on the slow side. The best part is the bass aria; Christian Immler gives an idiomatic performance, and obviously he has no problems with the German pronunciation. That is quite different with the other soloists, in particular Mariana Flores and Paulin Bündgen.

This also causes problems in the other items on this disc. Meine Freundin, du bist schön by Johann Christoph Bach is again largely written on texts from the Song of Songs. It ends with a drinking song which then turns into a saying grace. The central section is a long chaconne for violin solo with the soprano singing "My friend is mine and I am his", ending with "I am sick for love". The performers don't make that much of this part. I know Mariana Flores from various outstanding recordings, but here she is flat and just seems not to know how to explore the text and its meaning. This could well be the effect of having no real knowledge of German; the pronunciation is anything but perfect here as well. In the opening section Philippe Favette is rather bland. The closing section is far too slow. A text like "Eat, my dear ones, and drink, my friends", requires a swifter tempo and a more animated performance than it gets here.

This cantata is a mixture of sacred and secular elements, although at that time there was no strict separation between these two categories. Der Herr denket an uns by Johann Sebastian Bach is a strictly sacred cantata; its text comprises the verses 12 to 15 from Psalm 115. It is an early work, opening with a sinfonia for strings, which also play the ritornelli in the duet of tenor and bass. Before that we hear a very early example of a dacapo aria in Bach's oeuvre, scored for soprano. It includes parts for two violins playing unisono. The cantata ends with a chorus. It is one of the better parts of this disc, although the soprano aria is too slow.

The disc ends with the Quodlibet; it belongs to the kind of music the members of the Bach family used to sing during their annual family meetings. It is suggested that this particular piece was written for a wedding. It receives a performance whose vividness is in strong contrast with the rather dull performances of the other pieces in the programme. However, it is damaged by the poor German pronunciation of the singers, with the exception of Philippe Favette. At the end the last line is repeated on the 'Quodlibet' from the Goldberg Variations which García-Alarcón has added.

All in all this disc is really disappointing. I had expected more from these performers. Maybe German music is just not their thing; if you don't have a thorough knowledge of the German language and culture of the 17th and early 18th centuries such music is very hard to interpret. Largely the same programme has been recorded by the Netherlands Bach Society (instead of Bach's Quodlibet it offers a motet by Heinrich Schütz). That recording is not ideal either, but still better than this one. For Böhm's cantata one may also turn to Ralf Popken and for Johann Christoph Bach to the Rheinische Kantorei and Musica antiqua Köln ('The Bach Family before Johann Sebastian', Archiv).

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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