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Bach Family: Motets, Arias & Sacred concertos

[I] Johann, Johann Christoph & Johann Michael BACH: Motets
Vox Luminis, Scorpio Collectiefa
Dir: Lionel Meunier
rec: Sept 2013, May & Nov 2014, Beaufays (B), Église Saint-Jean l'Évangéliste
Ricercar - RIC 347 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (2.21'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

[VL] Sara Jäggi, Zsuzsi Tóth, Kristen Wittmer, soprano; Helen Cassano, mezzo-soprano; Daniel Elgersma, Barnabás Hegyi, Jan Kullmann, alto; Olivier Berten, Robert Buckland, Philippe Froeliger, tenor; Achim Hoffmann, baritone; Bertrand Delvaux, Matthias Lutze, Lionel Meunier, bass; David Van Bouwel, Haru Kitamika, Claudio Ribeiro, Masato Suzuki, organ
[SC] Eva Godard, cornett; Adam Bregman, Simen Van Mechelen, Charlotte Van Passen, Adam Woolf, sackbut

[II] Bach Family: "Altbachisches Archiv"
Cantus Cölln; Concerto Palatinob
Dir: Konrad Junghänel
rec: Feb 2002, Neustadt-Mandelsloh, Kirche St. Osdag
Harmonia mundi - HMG 501783.84 (2 CDs) (R) (© 2015) (2.33'05")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

[CC] Monika Mauch, Susanne Rydén, Hedwig Westhoff-Düppmann, soprano; Elisabeth Popien, contralto; Henning Voss, alto; Wilfried Jochens, Henning Kaiser, Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Wolf-Mattias Friedrich, Sebastian Noack, Stephen Schreckenberger, bass
Friedemann Immer, Ute Hübner, Hans-Jörg Packeiser, Thibauld Robinne, trumpet; Ursula Bundies, Veronika Skuplik, Anette Sichelschmidt, violin; Volker Mühlberg, Volker Hagedorn, Marie Harders-Sauer, viola; Mieneke van der Velden, Kaori Uemura, Johannes Boer, viola da gamba; Matthias Müller-Mohr, violone; Adrian Rovatkay, bassoon; Alexander Weimann, organ; Stefan Gawlick, timpani
[CP] Bruce Dickey, cornett; Simen Van Mechelen, Henning Wiegräbe, Charles Toet, Wim Becu, sackbut

anon: Nun ist alles überwunden, aria [II]; Georg Christoph BACH (1642-1697): Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ist's, sacred concerto
Johann BACH (1604-1673): Sei nun wieder zufrieden meine Seele a 8, motet [I,II]; Unser Leben ist ein Schatten a 9, motet [I,II]; Weint nicht um meinen Tod a 4, aria [I,II]
Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte [II]; Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitlich stirbt a 5, motet [I,II]; Der Mensch, vom Weibe geboren a 5, motet [I]; Die Furcht des Herren, sacred concerto [II]; Es erhub sich ein Streit a 22, sacred concerto [II]; Es ist nun aus a 4, aria [I,II]; Fürchte dich nicht a 5, motet [I]; Herr, nun lässest du deinen Diener in Friede fahren a 8, motet [I,II]; Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig, sacred concerto [II]; Lieber Herr Gott, wecke uns auf a 8, motet [I,II]; Meine Freundin, du bist schön, cantata [II]; Merk auf, mein Herz a 8, motet [I]; Mit Weinen hebt sichs an a 4, aria [I,II]; Sei getreu bis in den Tod a 5, motet [I]; Unsers Herzens Freude hat ein Ende a 8, motet [I,II]; Wie bist du denn, o Gott, in Zorn auf mich entbrannt, lamento [II]
Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694): Ach, wie sehnlich wart ich der Zeit, aria [II]; Auf, laß uns den Herren loben, aria [II]; Das Blut Jesu Christi a 5, motet [Ia,IIb]; Dem Menschen ist gesetzt, einmal zu sterben a 8, motet [I]; Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe a 8, motet [I]; Fürchtet euch nicht a 8, motet [I]; Halt, was du hast a 8, motet [I]; Herr, du lässest mich erfahren a 8, motet [I]; Herr, ich warte auf dein Heil a 8, motet [I]; Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe a 5, motet [I,IIb]; Ich weiß daß mein Erlöser lebt a 5, motet [I,IIb]; Nun hab ich überwunden a 8, motet [I,IIb]; Nun treten wir ins neue Jahr a 8, motet [I]; Sei, lieber Tag, willkommen a 6, motet [I]; Unser Leben währet siebenzig Jahr a 5, motet [I]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) (Johann Christoph BACH?): Ich lasse dich nicht a 8, motet [I,II]

Scores J Bach
Scores JChr Bach
Scores JM Bach

Throughout history sons often followed in their father's footsteps. They took over their father's business and learned their skills from him. That was also the case in the field of music. Many performers and composers received their first music lessons from their father and often they joined him in an orchestra or succeeded him, for instance as organist, after his death. If brothers and sisters also made a profession of music, complete musical dynasties came into existence, which played an important part in musical life of a town or - for instance in France - at the court. However, few dynasties are so widespread as the Bach family. Many of its members from the generations before Johann Sebastian were active as professional musicians, mainly in Saxonia and Thuringia, and often as organists. Even Bach scholars can hardly keep track of all the branches of the Bach family and their respective members. New Grove lists 78 Bachs from the 16th to the 19th century, who in some way or another were active in the field of music.

It is not known how many of them have written music, and if so, how much. A substantial part of their output must have been lost. From Georg Christoph Bach, for instance, we know only one piece, but from an inventory four other vocal works are known, which apparently have been lost. Fortunately many compositions have come down to us, and that is partly due to the collector's mania of Johann Sebastian Bach, who copied compositions of members of his family and included them into a collection, which has become known as the Altbachische Archiv. This is the subject of the second production reviewed here. It includes sacred works of various kinds: motets, arias, lamentos and sacred concertos. In comparison Vox Luminis focused on the genre of the motet, although it also included some pieces, known as aria. It confined itself to three members of the Bach family: Johann, Johann Christoph and Johann Michael. Johann was the brother of Johann Sebastian's grandfather Christoph. Johann Christoph and Johann Michael were the sons of a third brother: Heinrich. Cantus Cölln recorded also the only preserved piece by Georg Christoph Bach, who was the son of the above-mentioned Christoph, and thus Johann Sebastian's uncle.

In some cases the attribution of a piece is uncertain. That goes especially for some pieces which are mostly treated as products from the pen of Johann Bach. Sei nun wieder zufrieden may in fact be a composition of Jonas de Fletin, a pupil of Heinrich Schütz. The authenticity of Weine nicht um meinen Tod is also not established. Sometimes it is known that a piece was written by a member of the Bach family, but not exactly by which of them. The best-known example is Ich lasse dich nicht; the Ricercar booklet still mentions Johann Christoph and Johann Sebastian as alternatives, whereas in the liner-notes to the Harmonia mundi production Peter Wollny is sure that it was written by the latter.

Let me first turn to the recording of Vox Luminis. We hear the complete motets of Johann, Johann Christoph and Johann Michael. However, there were more members of the Bach family who composed such pieces. The main composer of motets from the same generation is Johann Ludwig, whose oeuvre includes eleven motets. Hermann Max and Florian Heyerick have recorded a considerable number of them.

It shows that the members of the Bach family were keen to compose motets, which is quite remarkable. This was the most common genre of sacred music until the early 17th century. Especially in the second half of the century the influence of the Italian cantata made itself felt, and composers lost their interest and instead turned to the more fashionable genre of the cantata. That said, the motet remained a fixed part of the Lutheran liturgy. But as composers didn't write motets, those which were sung during the liturgy were mostly more than 100 years old. One of the most important collections was Florilegii Musici Portensis, printed in Leipzig in 1621 and reprinted numerous times since. Johann Sebastian Bach purchased several copies as late as 1729, which shows that they were still in use, undoubtedly because of a lack of newer material.

Motets were mostly written for funerals. Nearly all of Johann Sebastian's motets are written for such occasions, and the same is the case with many motets by members of the previous generations of the Bach family. The first disc of the Vox Luminis production is entirely devoted to funeral motets. The second disc includes motets for Christmas and Passiontide, although some could probably also be used for a funeral. However, the very fact that the remaining motets are connected to some of the main feasts of the ecclesiastical year only confirms that motets were not written for common liturgical practice.

The motets are all dominated by counterpoint; they are a mixture of the stile antico of the 16th century and the modern style of the 17th. The latter manifests itself especially in the connection between text and music. In many motets we find examples of madrigalisms. A number of motets are for two choirs. These are mostly of the same scoring - SATB - but in some cases they are different. In Halt was du hast by Johann Michael Bach, for instance, the first choir has the usual scoring, but the second comprises alto, two tenors and bass. The Lutheran chorale plays an important role in the corpus of motets. They can be used as a cantus firmus, for instance in the soprano. In some motets the two choirs are first involved in the singing of the free material, and then in the second section they split, and one of the choirs sings a chorale. Some motets have a bass line, which is nothing more than a basso seguente. There are no real basso continuo parts. Vox Luminis decided to use an organ in those motets which have no indication of an independent bass line, and so did Cantus Cölln.

The motets are the main subject of the Vox Luminis recording. Three pieces are of the aria genre; they are strophic: a different text is sung to the same music. All three have also been recorded by Cantus Cölln, which in addition offers three more. They also included specimens of two further genres.

The lamento was a much-loved genre in the 17th century. It had its origin in the 16th century, when some madrigals were called lamento. In the 17th century it was frequently part of an opera. In 17th-century Germany the lamento was often used for religious subjects, and mostly scored for a solo voice and one or more viole da gamba. Johann Christoph Bach wrote two superb lamentos, Ach, daß ich Wassers gnug hätte and Wie bist du denn, o Gott, in Zorn auf mich entbrannt, for alto and bass respectively. In these pieces the instruments play an important role. That is also the case in some of the sacred concertos, sometimes also called 'cantatas'. The latter is probably a good description of Meine Freundin, du bist schön, written for a wedding by Johann Christoph. The central section is a very long ciacona of 66 variations for soprano and strings, and the violin has a virtuoso solo part, in particular at the end of the cantata. Although Johann Christoph is not mentioned as a violinist, one wonders whether he was a very skilled player of the violin himself or had a violin virtuoso at his disposal, as Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig also includes a demanding violin part.

One of Johann Christoph's most brilliant pieces is the sacred concerto for Michaelmas, Es erhub sich ein Streit, which is in 22 parts. Through an increase in the number of instruments involved as well as dynamics Johann Christoph creates a strong amount of drama. We find the same in a sacred concerto on the same text by Heinrich Schütz and in Johann Sebastian's cantata BWV 19. I already mentioned Georg Christoph Bach; his cantata Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ists is a setting of Psalm 133: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity". This was written for a special occasion: the composer's birthday on 16 September 1689, when his twin brothers Johann Ambrosius - Johann Sebastian's father - and Johann Christoph visited him. It cannot be a coincidence that this piece is scored for three voices: two tenors and a bass.

These two productions were released at about the same time. Although they partly differ in the choice of music, it is inevitable to compare the performances. There are some similarities: in both cases the motets are performed with one voice per part. In that respect they are probably closer to the historical 'truth' than choral performances, such as those by Philippe Herreweghe (with the Collegium Vocale Gent) and Erik Van Nevel (with the Capella Sancti Michaelis). In both recordings much attention is paid to the text, which is clearly intelligible. One major difference is the use of instruments. Jérôme Lejeune, in his liner-notes, mentions that only for Das Blut Jesu Christi by Johann Michael parts for instruments, playing colla voce, have been preserved. Therefore only here the singers of Vox Luminis are joined by the Scorpio Collectief. In comparison, Cantus Cölln is more generous in the addition of instruments. It is hardly possible to decide what is right here. The fact that no instrumental parts have been preserved does not exclude their involvement. It is quite possible that the use of instruments could vary from one occasion to the other and probably also depended on the venue where the music was performed.

I have enjoyed both recordings. The qualities of Vox Luminis are documented in many recordings from recent years. I have reviewed most of them and I have never been really disappointed. That said, in the motets I mostly preferred the performances of Cantus Cölln. The main reason is that I find the tempi of Vox Luminis mostly a bit too slow. The fact that many motets are written for funerals doesn't justify slow tempi. Moreover, not only these are slowish. Take Mit Weinen hebt sichs an by Johann Christoph; Vox Luminis takes 6'25", whereas Cantus Cölln needs only 5'13"; the latter has the more natural tempo. The same goes for Johann Michael Bach's Das Blut Jesu Christi: 4'57" vs 3'18". In Cantus Cölln's performance the cantus firmus comes off more clearly. In Johann Bach's Unser Leben ist ein Schatten the second choir is marked chorus latens, meaning that the choir has to be placed at a distance. That distance is larger in Vox Luminis's recording than in that of Cantus Cölln. The advantage is the larger contrast, the disadvantage that the text is harder to understand. In one aspect Vox Luminis is to be preferred: every piece is performed complete. Cantus Cölln has cut short some of the arias. Johann Bach's Weint nicht um meinen Tod comprises nine stanzas; Cantus Cölln sings only five. Es ist nun aus by Johann Christoph Bach has seven stanzas, of which Cantus Cölln has selected four.

The lamentos, arias and sacred concertos in the Cantus Cölln recording are mostly very good. The individual members of the ensemble are also capable of taking care of the solo parts; in that respect there is no difference between the two ensembles. That does not mean that every solo part comes off equally well. The soloists are not specified in the booklet. Overall I am not that impressed by the basses in their solo parts, although Johann Christoph's lamento Wie bist du denn, o Gott is done rather well. The performance of Meine Freundin, du bist schön is not the best available; the soprano (Susanne Rydén) does well in the high register, but is a bit shaky in the lower part of her tessitura; the bass doesn't make much impression. Herr, wende dich and Georg Christoph's sacred concerto, on the other hand, are excellent.

If you don't have the Cantus Cölln recording yet, this is the chance to add it to your collection. It includes some of the finest performances of music by the Bach family in the catalogue. Vox Luminis has much to offer, and especially the fact that it includes some motets which are hardly known, is a strong argument for the Ricercar production.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Cantus Cölln
Concerto Palatino
Vox Luminis

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