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Heinrich, Johann Christoph, Johann Michael & Johann Sebastian BACH: "Kantaten"

Vox Luminis
Dir: Lionel Meunier

rec: Sept 2018, Gedinne (B), Église Notre-Dame
Ricercar - RIC 401 (© 2019) (66'30")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Heinrich BACH (1615-1692): Ich danke dir Gott; Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Die Furcht des Herren; Es erhub sich ein Streit; Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig; Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694): Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ; Herr, der König freuet sich; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4)

Zsuzsi Tóth, Kristen Witmer, Stefanie True, Victoria Cassano, soprano; Jan Kullmann, Daniel Elgersma, alto; Philippe Froeliger, Robert Buckland, Pieter De Moor, tenor; Sebastian Myrus, Lionel Meunier, Matthew Baker, bass
Rudolf Lörinc, Moritz Görg, Tibor Mészáros, Björn Kadenbach, trumpet; Tuomo Suni, Jacek Kurzydlo, violin; Johannes Frisch, violin, viola; Raquel Massadas, Antina Hugosson, Wendy Ruymen, viola; Benoît Vanden Bemden, violone; Jérémie Papasergio, bassoon; Bart Jacobs, organ; Michael Juen, timpani

There has never been a dynasty in music history like the Bach dynasty. The list of its members in New Grove is long and impressive. Most of them lived and worked in Thuringia and Saxonia, and were educated at the keyboard. Many occupied a position as organist at a church. 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. Fortunately, Johann Sebastian did quite some research into the history of his family, and we owe him a substantial part of our knowledge of its members.

We also owe him a number of compositions by the Bachs, as many would probably have been lost, if he had not collected them and performed some of them in Leipzig. Among them are sacred concertos by Johann Christoph and cantatas by Johann Ludwig. The former is included on the present disc, alongside Johann Michael, Heinrich and Johann Sebastian himself. Whereas the motets of the Bachs are fairly well represented on disc, their sacred concertos and cantatas are less frequently performed. It was probably to be expected, that Vox Luminis, after having recorded a number of "Motets, Arias & Sacred concertos", would turn to other vocal works. The pieces included here are mostly sacred concertos in the style which dominated German music of the 17th century: four or five voices and five instrumental parts, with divided violas. However, the pieces included here derive in several respects from that model, and some point in the direction of the cantata which would become the standard in the 18th century.

The earliest composer in the programme is Heinrich Bach. He started his career as organist and town musician in Schweinfurt, and after a stay with his eldest brother in Erfurt, he moved to Arnstadt, where he acted as court and town musician and as organist of the Liebfrauenkirche from 1641 until his death in 1692. A printed funeral sermon suggests that he composed quite a number of works, but only a few have been preserved. At least one lost piece is known from an inventory: a cantata for Whitsuntide. Ich danke dir Gott is his only extant vocal work, and intended for the 17th Sunday after Trinity. It is for five voices (SSATB), two violins, two violas and basso continuo. It is a technically advanced piece, in which the strings - mostly involved in dialogues - play a substantial role. In the vocal parts homophony and polyphony alternate. The text is taken from Psalm 139 (vs 14) (and not from Psalm 119, as the English translation of the liner-notes have it).

Both Johann Christoph and Johann Michael were sons of Heinrich. Johann Christoph was the eldest. He studied composition with Jonas de Fletin, cantor in Arnstadt, who was a pupil of Heinrich Schütz. In 1665 he was appointed organist of the Georgenkirche in Eisenach; he held this position until his death. That was not out of free will: he once tried to move to another post, but didn't get the permission of the town council. Municipal records document "incessant quarrels with his superiors" - that sounds familiar, and reminds us of the quarrels of Johann Sebastian with the authorities in Leipzig. In his capacity as the organist of the Georgenkirche, he initiated the construction of a new, much larger organ. He could play this instrument in the late 1690s, but it was finished only four years after his death. The best-known pieces from his pen are two lamentos for alto (Ach, dass ich Wassers gnug hätte) and bass (Wie bist du denn o Gott) respectively, and the wedding cantata Mein Freundin, du bist schön. Notable in the latter work is the virtuosic part for solo violin. Something comparable is included in Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig, where two virtuosic violin parts accompany a homophonic chorale for four voices. The layout of this piece is remarkable anyway. Its first half is a dialogue between three repentant believers (SAT) and Christ (represented by the bass, traditionally associated with the vox Christi). The believers exclaim: "[My] strength lies shattered like a potsherd". At the last word the music dies down. The bass then sings an aria in which Christ consoles them. The believers reply: "The Lord punishes me, but does not kill me, for neither the dead nor those that descend into hell will praise the Lord". The last phrase is set to strong dissonances. The chorale 'Frisch auf mein Seel' (Rise up, my soul) closes the piece.

The scoring of Es erhub sich ein Streit is also unusual: ten voices in two choirs - a high vs a low choir - and an instrumental ensemble of four trumpets, timpani, two violins, four violas and basso continuo. The prominence of the lower strings reflects the inclusion of two basses in the lower choir and two tenors in the higher one. For the most part this concerto has a belligerent character, which is obvious considering the subject. This work is not fundamentally different from pieces for St Michael by the likes of Heinrich Schütz and Johann Sebastian Bach.

We have seen that Johann Christoph did not get the permission of the town council of Eisenach to move elsewhere. This indicates his position in the town, and this explains why he wrote Die Furcht des Herren, a cantata written at the occasion of the installation of the town council. It is comparable with Johann Sebastian's Ratswahl cantatas. This piece is a genuine cantata, and is constructed in the form of a dialogue between five different characters: Veisheit (Wisdom) (soprano), Der jüngere regierende Kämmerer (the younger incumbent treasurer; soprano), Der jüngere regierende Bürgermeister (the younger incumbent mayor; alto), Der ältere regierende Kämmerer (the older incumbent treasurer; tenor) and Der ältere regierende Bürgermeister (the older incumbent mayor; bass). They constitute the first choir. The second is a capella, also in five parts, and this represents the entire council. The ensemble comprises five string parts. The dialogue largely takes place between Wisdom and all the other characters together. Wisdom proclaims its importance ("The princes and all who govern on earth rule through me") and "the others" (Die Anderen) react: "Grant me the wisdom".

Johann Michael was the younger brother of Johann Christoph. His musical education was largely the same as that of his brother. In 1665 he succeeded him as organist of the Arnstadt castle chapel. In 1673 he moved to Gehren, where he became the town organist. He was also active as an instrument maker. In 1707 his daughter Maria Barbara married Johann Sebastian. His oeuvre comprises a considerable number of vocal works. Whereas his motets are regulaly performed, his sacred concertos are far less known. The text of Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ is that of a well-known chorale, inspired by the story of the men of Emmaus. The concerto comprises two parts, on the first and second stanza of the chorale respectively. Each of them consists of two sections, the second of which is a fugue. One can consider this concerto a set of two preludes and fugues. The vocal forces are SATB, the instrumental ensemble comprises six parts, with three violins. The chorale melody is ignored; it is not even quoted as a cantus firmus. Der König freuet sich is in five vocal solo parts (SSATB) and five ripieno parts. The instrumental ensemble is also five-part, and intended for strings, but the manuscripts indicate that they can play in alternation with cornetts, trumpets and sackbuts; this option has been ignored here. This work comprises seven sections for soli and tutti; the last is a dacapo of the first. This layout points in the direction of the 18th-century cantata.

So does Johann Sebastian's Easter cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 4), one of his most beloved cantatas. It is not entirely clear, when it was composed. It is assumed that it must have been written before 1714, maybe as early as 1707/08. Stylistically it is still clearly rooted in the 17th century: it is a series of chorale variations per omnes versus, but it is not through-composed and therefore can be considered a link to what was to come. In contrast to later cantatas the stanzas of the hymn are kept intact. It has a symmetric structure: after the sinfonia the first verse is for 4 voices and instruments, like the last. In the centre is the 4th verse, again for four voices and instruments, and this is surrounded by two duets and two solos. As in most recordings, the last section here is a four-part chorale setting; this was not part of the original version but of a copy from 1724/25.

German music of the 17th century belongs to the core of the repertoire of Vox Luminis. The ensemble has performed this kind of repertoire many times since it was founded. Right now it can be considered one of the best interpreters of such music as is performed here. The recording of the motets was impressive, and this disc is a fine addition to its impressive discography. Although most of the singers are no German speakers, their performances are fully idiomatic and the German pronunciaton leaves nothing to be desired. The use of a large organ for the basso continuo is another enjoyable feature of this recording. I have two reservations. The first is that now and then a slight vibrato creeps in, for instance in Kristin Witmer's performance of the part of Wisdom in Johann Christoph's cantata Die Furcht des Herren. Johann Sebastian's cantata Christ lag in Todesbanden is one of his best-known and available in many recordings. Vox Luminis does deliver a good performance, but I find it a little too restrained. It is true that it is not one of Bach's most exuberant pieces for Easter, largely due to the chorale which specifically refers to Christ's Passion, but I would like a less introverted approach.

However, these are relatively minor issues, which take nothing away from my appreciation of these performances. This is a disc anyone interested in the Bach dynasty should add to his collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

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