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Johann Christian BACH (1735 - 1782): "La dolce fiamma - Forgotten castrato arias"

Philippe Jaroussky, alto
Le Cercle de l'Harmonie
Dir: Jérémie Rhorer

rec: May 17 - 23, 2009, Paris, Paroisse Notre Dame du Liban
Virgin Classics - 5099968572600 (© 2009) (63'08")

Adriano in Siria (Warb G 6): Cara, la dolce fiamma (aria); Tutti nemici, e rei (aria); Artaserse (Warb G 1): No, che non ha la sorte - Vo solcando un mar crudele (rec & aria); Perché tarda è mai la morte (cavatina); Carattaco (Warb G 7): Perfida Cartismandua! - Fra l'orrore (rec & aria); Ebben si vada - Io ti lascio (rec & rondo) (Warb LG 2)ac; La Clemenza di Scipione (Warb G 10): Pugna il guerriero (aria); Orfeo ed Euridice: La legge accetto (aria) (Warb G 29) Sentimi, non partir - Al mio bene (rec & rondo) (Warb LG 4)bc; Temistocle (Warb G 8): Ch'io parta (aria)

[obbligati] Markus Deuter, oboea; Emilia Gliozzi, Jérôme Huille, cellob; Frédéric Rivoal, fortepianoc

Johann Christian Bach doesn't enjoy a particularly good reputation. His oeuvre is often dismissed as simplistic and superficial and as a result it isn't that often performed. The recording of his orchestral works and concertos by the Hanover Band for CPO in the 1990s was a bold initiative, but it hasn't done the composer much favour. The performances were not very interesting, and rather confirmed the prejudices against his music.

It isn't only in modern times that Johann Christian Bach's music wasn't held in high esteem. His own brother, Carl Philipp Emanuel, hadn't much positive to say about it. But the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a different view. He met Bach in London when he was still very young, and the 'London Bach' made an indelible impression on him. It resulted in a lifelong friendship.

Whereas Johann Christian's instrumental music is gradually given more serious attention and some really good recordings are on the market - for instance by the Freiburger Barockorchester (Carus) - his vocal oeuvre is hardly explored. As far as I can tell only two operas are available on disc: La Clemenza di Tito (Hermann Max; CPO) and Endimione (Bruno Weil; deutsche harmonia mundi), and just one oratorio, Gioas (Hermann Max; CPO). But otherwise there is little which gives us some idea about Johann Christian Bach's output in the realm of dramatic vocal music.

Therefore this disc is of the greatest importance. It presents a series of arias from operas which Johann Christian Bach has written during his career. It all began when he made his way to Italy. Here he at first concentrated on writing religious music for which his conversion to Catholicism paved the way. In addition he became a pupil of Giovanni Battista Martini. But soon opera began to attract him, and after writing arias for some of the leading castratos he composed his first opera, Artaserse, which was first performed in Turin in 1760. On this disc we hear an aria di tempesta with its preceding recitativo accompagnato (No, che non ha la sorte - Vo solcando un mar crudele) and a very different cavatina (Perché tarda è mai la morte).

Johann Christian Bach spent the largest part of his career in London. Today he is mainly remembered for organising the so-called 'Bach-Abel concerts', with his companion Carl Friedrich Abel. These concerts were the first public concerts in England. But his main interest was again the composition of operas. Opera in England had not recovered from the deterioration which took place during the last stages of Handel's life. In his attempts to perform operas of his own Bach had to deal with jealousy, and with the poor quality of the singers and players he had to work with. But after a while he enjoyed considerable success with the performances of his opere serie.

Adriano in Siria was Bach's third opera in London, and - unlike the previous two - it was not a great success, mainly because the Italian castrato Giovanni Manzuoli overshadowed the complete cast. The longest aria on this disc was written for him, 'Cara, la dolce fiamma'. Another castrato, the soprano Tommaso Guarducci, took the title role in Carattaco, which dates from 1767. The recitativo accompagnato 'Perfida Cartismandua!' and the aria 'Fra l'orrore' are very different in character and show the dramatic qualities of the singer.

When Bach arrived in London it was common usage to perform pasticcios, and that was what Bach performed at first. Also common was to adapt existing pieces, and one example was Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, one of the most popular operas all over Europe. The castrato Gaetano Guadagni, who had been one of Handel's singers, had become particularly famous for his performances of the role of Orpheus. For him Johann Christian Bach wrote an aria to be inserted in a performance of Gluck's opera in 1774.

Before that Bach had visited his native country Germany. He spent some time in Mannheim, and he was asked to compose an opera for the Mannheim opera house, considered one of the most splendorous in Europe. For Temistocle, which was performed in 1772, he made full use of the qualities of the Mannheim orchestra, 'an army of generals', as Charles Burney characterised them. This opera had great success, and was repeated the following year.

La Clemenza di Scipione was Bach's last opera for the King's Theatre in London, and according to Charles Burney it was his best. Surprisingly only one aria has been chosen. 'Pugna il guerriero' is an aria di bravura and opens this disc. After that the opera seria rapidly declined as the public lost its interest. Bach spent most time in continuing his concert series, and for them he composed the two pairs of recitatives and arias recorded here. Both were written for the soprano castrato Ferdinando Tenducci who also had sung 'Tutti nemici, e rei' in Adriano in Siria. The two pieces are remarkable for the instrumental scoring. Both contain obbligato parts for the fortepiano - played by Bach himself during the performances - with two cello parts in 'Sentimi non partir - Al mio bene' and a part for the oboe in 'Ebben si vada - Io ti lascio'. Whereas the first is an original composition by Bach, the second is an arrangement of an aria from the opera Arsace by Michele Mortellari.

This is not only a most fascinating disc because of the quality of the music most of which has probably been recorded here for the first time, it is also hard to imagine better performances than are given here. Philippe Jaroussky's qualities can be admired on many recordings, but this must be one of his best. His voice has an amazing range, which allows him to sing the arias for soprano and alto castratos with the same ease. There is no stress on the top notes, and on the lowest notes he descends into his chest register without any problem.
Some long coloraturas and cadenzas are sung in the same breath. I also liked his messa di voce (for instance on "innocente" in the recitative 'Senti, non partir'. 'Cara, la dolce fiamma' (from Adriano in Siria) is one of the highlights, but in fact the whole disc is quite impressive. In addition the various moods and affetti are equally convincingly exposed. And the recitatives are performed in truly speechlike manner.
The orchestra is playing its own part in this plea for the music of Johann Christian Bach. They play with zest and imagination, and the obbligato parts are impeccably executed.

The only criticism I can think of is the recording: there is a bit too much reverberation, and I had liked more theatre-like acoustics.
The booklet is exemplary. It contains a long and highly interesting essay on life and career of Johann Christian Bach, with many beautiful pictures. It includes all the lyrics with translations in English, French and German.

For all opera aficionados this disc is essential. It would be great if it would result in complete recordings of the operas of Johann Christian Bach.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Le Cercle de l'Harmonie

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