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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Spiritual Songs"

Norbert Meyn, tenor; Terence Charlston, clavichord

rec: Sept 2012, London, Royal College of Music Studio
Toccata Classics - TOCC 0248 (© 2014) (55'41")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Abendlied (Wq 194,31 / H 686,31) [1]; Bitten (Wq 194,9 / H 686,9) [1]; Bußlied (Wq 194,45 / H 686,45) [1]; Der Frühling (Wq 198,14 / H 749,14) [3]; Der Tag des Weltgerichts (Wq 197,13 / H 749,13) [2]; Empfindungen in der Sommernacht (Wq 198,18 / H 752,18) [3]; Passionslied (Wq 194,14 / H 686,14) [1]; Passionslied (Wq 197,2 / H 749,2) [2]; Prüfung am Abend (Wq 194,7 / H 686,7) [1]; Seyn oder Nicht-seyn, Phantasie von C.P.E. Bach mit untergelegtem Text von Gerstenberg in c minor (after Wq 63,3 / H 75); Trost eines schwermüthigen Christen (Wq 194,24-25 / H 686,24-25) [1]; Über die Finsternis kurz vor dem Tode Jesu (Wq 197,29 / H 749,29) [2]

Sources: [1] Herrn Professor Gellerts Geistliche Oden und Lieder mit Melodien, 1758; [2] Herrn Christoph Christian Sturms Geistliche Gesänge mit Melodien, 1780; [3] Herrn Christoph Christian Sturms Geistliche Gesänge mit Melodien, Zweyte Sammlung, 1781

German Lieder are quite popular with singers and audiences. This genre is associated with the likes of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf. However, their roots are in the early 17th century: the first collection with songs on a German text was Johann Nauwachs Teutsche Villanellen of 1627. Towards the end of the century the genre of the cantata - modelled after the Italian chamber cantata - had become so popular that hardly any songs were written. In the 1730s attempts were made to bring the genre back to life. It was Georg Philipp Telemann who published the first collection of songs under the title of Oden (1741).

In the next decades poets and composers who shared the ideals of the Enlightenment were especially active in this field. The aesthetic ideal that music should be 'simple' and 'natural' proved the ideal breeding ground for the genre of the Lied. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was one of the composers who was especially keen to write songs for solo voice. In 1758 he published Herrn Professor Gellerts Geistliche Oden und Lieder. Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715-1769), born as son of a pastor in Saxony, went to Leipzig in 1734 to study theology, but it was mainly literature which received his attention. In 1744 he wrote a dissertation about the history of the fable. As in 1751 Leipzig University appointed him Associate Professor of Poetry, Rhetoric and Morals, he became one of Germany's most influential poets for about twenty years. The Geistliche Oden und Lieder found wide circulation and some songs made their way into German hymnals. In 1780 and 1781 Bach published his last collections of songs, on texts by Christoph Christian Sturm. He had studied philosophy and theology and acted as pastor in Halle and Magdeburg until he became chief pastor of St Peter's in Hamburg in 1778.

It is worth noting that both poets were disappointed with Bach's settings of their texts. The main reason was that they were afraid they were too sophisticated. Gellert wrote: "They are beautiful, but too beautiful for a singer who is not musical". Sturm expressed the same feeling: "They're very beautiful, but I had in mind something simpler". In an interview in the booklet of the present disc Norbert Meyn notes "a tension between the aesthetic ideal that C.P.E. Bach must have been faced with, and the worship of him as an Originalgenie which had developed. (...) I think that's why the songs have a more elaborate and more artful nature than perhaps the songs of other contemporary composers, such as J.F. Reichardt, who were trying to stick more directly to this aesthetic ideal".

The songs are set for voice and keyboard. It is clear that they were meant for both Kenner (professional musicians) and Liebhaber (amateurs). "I have added the necessary harmony and ornaments to my melodies. In this way I have not wanted to leave them up to the arbitrariness of a stiff basso continuo player, and one can thus at the same time use them as hand pieces." With 'hand pieces' (Handstücke) Bach means that the songs can be performed as pieces for keyboard solo. He adds that this way these songs can also be played when the vocal parts are too difficult to sing.

It is most likely that these songs were performed in domestic surroundings, probably also in (small) social gatherings. That has consequences for the way they are performed. In previous recordings the accompaniment was allocated to various keyboard instruments. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded some songs with a tangent piano, Ludger Rémy made three recordings with Dorothee Mields and Klaus Mertens respectively, using a fortepiano. Here another option has been chosen: a clavichord. That is a most unlikely choice, one is inclined to think. The clavichord was a quite popular instrument in Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries, and was especially used as a practice instrument. The presence of several clavichords in the Bach household in Leipzig is well documented. Because of its very soft sound it is almost exclusively used for performances of solo keyboard music. It seems less suited to play with other instruments or with the human voice. However, we have to assume that at least the accompaniment of singers with a clavichord was an established practice. In his Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen Emanuel writes: "[Certain] singers prefer the accompaniment of the clavichord or harpsichord to that of the fortepiano".

In the interview in the booklet Norbert Meyn convincingly argues against using a modern piano in this repertoire, but he doesn't talk about the pros and cons of a harpsichord, a tangent piano or a fortepiano. Were these taken into consideration at all? The clavichord should be considered an option, and it is certainly a most interesting one. This disc is probably the first which presents these songs this way. Meyn doesn't hide the fact that it wasn't that easy to adapt his singing to the sound of the clavichord. "I had to learn to project the voice a lot less, and to sing the top in a very gentle, very soft way, often in pure head voice".

There is another interesting aspect of this recording: almost all the songs are sung complete. Some are very long: Trost eines schwermüthigen Christen would take about 20 minutes if performed at full length, so it was decided to select just three of the stanzas. This is one of two exceptions to the rule (the other is the Passionslied (Wq 194,14 / H 686,14)). Meyn explains: "There is real subtlety between the imagery of each verse; each verse leads very beautifully on to the next. It's not about contrast, it's about reinforcement, or going deeper into oneself; so it seems logical to perform the whole". One verse going on to the next is demonstrated most literally in Prüfung am Abend: every stanza ends with a kind of postlude which leads attacca to the next stanza.

The length of some songs only confirms the view of the two artists that these songs were not written for public performance. That leaves modern performers with a problem because it is not very economical to organize concerts for an audience of ten or even less. If a clavichord is used, a larger audience is simply no option: most of them wouldn't hear a thing, at least not of the clavichord accompaniment. That is where the CD comes in as an alternative: it allows for listening to these songs at home and choosing whatever song one would like to hear. In those circumstances listening to 20 verses with the same music is less of a problem than in a public concert.

I know various previous recordings, and especially those by Dorothee Mields and Klaus Mertens are outstanding. All the songs on the present disc are also included in one of these CPO recordings, but there most songs are performed incomplete (which is not indicated in the respective booklets). That very fact makes the present disc a substantial addition to the discography. The performance with a clavichord is another asset of this disc. It gives food for thought and could well lead to a more differentiated approach to this repertoire. This disc is also an eloquent plea for a complete performance of songs. I can't see any reason why a song by CPE Bach or any of his contemporaries should be performed incomplete. Nobody would omit stanzas from a Schubert song.

The groups of songs from the two collections are separated by a rather curious piece. Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg, a German poet and critic, took Bach's Fantasia in c minor, included in the Probestücke - the appendix to the Versuch - and added the German paraphrase of Hamlet's monologue 'To be or not to be'. "C.P.E. Bach didn't approve of the Gerstenberg Hamlet", Terence Charlston states. He believes that in Bach's view this fantasia stood on its own and didn't need "programmatic support". How it is to be performed is hard to say. Both Charlston and Ludger Rémy refer to the melodrama which was to become a specific genre in the 18th century. In both recordings the interpreters have decided not to recite the text - as was to be the norm in the melodrama - but rather to sing the words to fragments of the keyboard upper part.

I had never heard Norbert Meyn before. He states that he had to adapt his way of singing, so I don't know how he sings under 'normal' circumstances. I had to get used to his performance, especially his incessant slight vibrato. After a while I started to appreciate his singing more, and the sensitive way he deals with the various texts. The songs are quite different in character and that comes off very well. Der Tag des Weltgerichts is a good example of song which takes profit from a clavichord accompaniment. This musical exposition of the Day of Judgment requires loud playing in the keyboard. A clavichord can play even fortissimo when that is needed without overpowering the singer.

This is music to be enjoyed in private, probably not at a stretch, but as it was performed in Bach's time: a couple of songs at a time, and then at full length.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Norbert Meyn
Terence Charlston

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