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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Litanies, Motets, Psalms - The Complete Works for vocal ensemble and basso continuo"

Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam
Dir: Harry van der Kamp

rec: Feb 6 - 9, 2003, Herfold, Johanniskirche
Sony - 82876705432 (2 CDs) (© 2005) (82'45")

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Bitten a 4 (H 826,3 / Wq 208,3); Der Kampf der Tugend a 4 (H 826,2 / Wq 208,2); Die alte Litanei a 8 (H 780 / Wq 204,1); Die Menschenliebe Jesu a 4 (H 826,4 / Wq 208,4); Die neue Litanei a 8 (H 871 / Wq 204,2); Trost der Erlösung a 3 (H 826,1 / Wq 208,1); Warum versammlen sich und dräuen die Heiden (Der zweite Psalm) a 4 (H 773 / Wq 205); Wenn ich zu dir in meinen Ängsten flehe (Der vierte Psalm) a 2 (H 774 / Wq 206); Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), arr Harry van der Kamp: Ein selig Ende mir bescher a 8 (after Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080), Contrapunctus XIX)

Stephanie Petitlaurent, Nele Gramß, soprano; Dorien Lievers, contralto; Marnix De Cat, alto; Marcel Beekman, Harry van Berne, tenor; Markus Flaig, Kees-Jan de Koning, Harry van der Kamp, bass; Maggie Urquhart, violone; Alexander Weimann, fortepiano, organ

The very fact that this disc bears the indication "World Premiere Recording" tells something about how Carl Philipp Emanuel's vocal music has been treated in the past. The increased interest in his music has largely been limited to his instrumental and keyboard works. But when he moved to Hamburg to become Director of Music as a successor to his godfather, Georg Philipp Telemann, he had the duty of composing religious music for the services in the churches of the city. In addition he was expected to write a Passion every year and music for special occasions, like the induction of new pastors. Some of this repertoire has been recorded, but there is still a lot to be explored. This production is doing just that, with the performance of two rather uncommon works.

We are talking here about two settings of the Litany, which date from 1785. The Litany is a form of prayer, used in church services, consisting of a series of invocations (of God or of saints) and supplications, followed by a response. Its structure is antiphonal, meaning that the invocation and supplication are said or sung by one person, for instance the priest, and the response is sung by the congregation. There are several forms, which have developed over the centuries, and during the history of the Western Church saints started to become more and more important. The Virgin Mary also was often the address of the invocations, for example in the 'Litaniae Lauretanae'. She or the saints were asked to pray for the faithful or for specific people.

When Martin Luther broke away from the Church he also set to reform the liturgy. His aim was to keep as much as possible while removing what was theologically unacceptable. He also wanted to use the vernacular in the liturgy. Therefore Luther wrote his version of the Litany in German. Elements from the traditional Litany were preserved, but he removed all references to saints. The invocations are directed to God: his Litany begins with the exclamation "Ewiger!" (Eternal One). Then God is asked for mercy: "Herr! Herr! Erbarme dich!" A number of supplications follow, which the congregation answers with "Behüt uns, Herr, Herr, unser Gott" (Spare us, Lord, Lord, our God!), "Hilf uns, Herr, Herr, unser Gott!" (Help us, Lord, Lord, our God!) or "Erhör uns, Herr, Herr, unser Gott!" (Hear us, Lord, Lord, our God!). At the end the Agnus Dei from the Mass is included: "O du Lamm Gottes, das der Welt Sünde trägt" - "Erbarm dich über uns (Verleih uns steten Frieden)" (O Lamb of God who bears the sins of the world - Have mercy on us (Grant us eternal peace).

Luther's Litany reflects the state of the world of his days. Many supplications refer to the harsh reality of everyday life, like "From pestilence and want - deliver us, Lord, Lord, our God", or prayers to be delivered from war and bloodshed, from strife and discord and from fire and floods - all part of the hardship of people in those days. It is therefore not surprising that in the 18th century a new version was used, in which this kind of prayers are removed. But that wasn't the only reason. The Neue Litanei (New Litany) also reflects the theological changes which were the effect of the Enlightenment. Whereas in Luther's Litany God is asked "From the devil's wiles and cunning deliver us, Lord, Lord, our God" and to "trample Satan under our feet" the devil doesn't appear anywhere in the new Litany. In Luther's version God is asked to bless and protect all kinds of people, like the rulers, sailors, widows, orphans and the sick, even "the fruits of the land and the beasts of the water", the new version focusses on what the faithful themselves should do. We find prayers like "Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who insult and persecute us, that we may be perfect, as you!". And Jesus is asked: "O that we might love our neighbour as ourselves, those for whom, as for us, you were obedient unto death, unto death upon the cross!"
Three things are characteristic of the Neue Litanei. There is a stronger emphasis on the own responsibility of human beings. It focusses on the virtuousness of man: "Let us know with complete confidence, let us feel with joyful faith, that we wale along the strait path through the narrow gates to everlasting life!". And that "strait path" of virtuousness mainly concerns the way man treats his neighbour. There is quite a different spirit in this New Litany in comparison to Luther's original version. Whereas in Hamburg the New Litany had completely replaced the Alte Litanei, in the hymnbooks of Schleswig-Holstein, the region just north of Hamburg, both versions were included. And Carl Philipp Emanuel was asked to write the music for both, not to be sung in church but for domestic use.

Both settings are for eight voices: two 'choirs' of four voices each. The first sings the invocations and supplications, the second the responses. It is interesting that despite the similarity in structure and character the musical language is somewhat different. The setting of the 'New Litany' is much bolder in the treatment of harmony, and contains quite a number of striking dissonances. The setting of the 'Old Litany' is more moderate in this respect. But there is no difference in expression: in both cases Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach achieves a very strong connection between text and music. The fact that the tempo is indicated as 'sehr langsam' (very slow) in both settings, and the amount of repetition which is a feature of the Litany one needs to listen to these works with great attention, preferably while reading the lyrics. This is definitely not music to listen to while doing other things. But if one does listen carefully, one is rewarded by the richness of expression. The performances of the Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam is of the highest order: the voices are superior, their blending excellent. They sing with great attention to detail, and the pronunciation of the text is perfect. There are strong dynamic accents in the performances. I don't know how many indications in regard to dynamics the composer has given, but even when there are no indications at all the use of dynamic accents is certainly right, as they fit into Carl Philipp Emanuel's musical language. Both settings contain a bass line. It is probably to underline the difference between 'old' and 'new' that for the Old Litany the organ is used, whereas Alexander Weimann plays the fortepiano in the 'New Litany'. But considering the fact that these settings were written for domestic use I wonder whether an organ is a logical option.

In addition to the Litanies the first disc offers all four motets Carl Philipp Emanuel has ever written. They are all set for four voices with a bass, which is played here on the fortepiano. Three of the four pieces are on texts by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, one of the most famous poets in Germany around 1750. These three all have a strophic structure, but only in Trost der Erlösung Bach strictly follows that structure. In the other motets he varies the music to the stanzas in several ways, for example by reducing the scoring to two voices. The fourth motet, Die Menschenliebe Jesu, has no strophic structure, but in Bach's setting thematic elements regularly return.

The second disc contains two Psalm settings which are probably the oldest pieces by Carl Philipp Emanuel of all the works recorded here. They date from the 1760s when he was still working in Berlin. The texts are from a strophic translation of the Psalms by Johann Andreas Cramer, a pastor at the court of Copenhagen. Several composers set his texts to music, like Carl Heinrich Graun and Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg; they were published - together with Bach's settings - in Musicalisches Allerley of 1761. Bach set Psalms 2 and 4 to music, both with a bass part, played again on the fortepiano.

Lastly a tribute to the 'old' Bach. At the end of his life Johann Sebastian worked at several large-scale works, probably in order to leave the world a testimony of his art. One of these works was the Kunst der Fuge. The last fugue was left unfinished. "While working on this fugue, in which the name BACH is used in the countersubject, the composer died", his son Emanuel wrote. "The posthumous print left out the unfinished concluding section, adding instead the chorale prelude BWV 668a 'Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit' in a version that the blind master had allegedly dictated to a student and friend on his death bed. As a reverence to J.S. Bach, Harry van der Kamp uses the last stanza of Bach's 'death bed chorale' in his eight-part arrangement of the unfinished Fuga a tre soggetti". The choice of this text is highly appropriate as it reflects Bach's faith: "Grant me a blessed end, awake me on the Day of Judgement, Lord, that I may behold you for all eternity: Amen, Amen, hear me!" It gets a wonderful and deeply moving performance from the singers, and it is a very nice addition to this project.

As one may conclude from the previous lines I am greatly impressed by this recording. The music is of excellent quality and shows a little-known aspect of the oeuvre of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. It is hardly imaginable that the interpretation by the Gesualdo Consort can be surpassed. It is one of the finest vocal ensembles around, and the concentration, intensity and expression of its performances, supported by a perfect intonation, are highly impressive.

An additional note regarding the booklet: the indication 'World Premiere Recording' is correct as far as the two Litanies is concerned, and the two Psalm settings also haven't been recorded before, as far as I know. But the motets - or at least some of them - have been recorded in the past.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam

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