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Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710 - 1784): Cantatas

[I] "Kantaten I"
Dorothee Mields, sopranoa; Gerhild Romberger, contraltob; Georg Poplutz, tenorc; Klaus Mertens, bassd
Bachchor Mainz; L'arpa festante
Dir: Ralf Otto

rec: May 28 - 31, 2010, Wiesbaden, St. Kilian
Carus - 83.362 (© 2010) (79'01")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Ach, daß du den Himmel zerrissest (F 93 / BR WFB F 3)abcd; Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen (F 75 / BR WFB F 10)abcd; O Wunder, wer kann dieses fassen (F 92 / BR WFB F 2)abd; Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtet (F 76 / BR WFB F 19)ab

[II] "Kantaten II"
Rastatter Hofkapelle
Dir: Jürgen Ochs

rec: July 5 - 7, 2010, Baden-Baden, Hans-Rosbaud-Studio
Carus - 83.429 (© 2010) (66'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Agnus Dei (F 98b / BR WFB E 3); Der Herr wird mit Gerechtigkeit (F 81 / BR WFB F 17)bdeg; Heilig ist Gott, der Herr Zebaoth (F 78a / BR WFB E 3); Missa in g minor (F 100 / BR WFB E 1)a; Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten (F 72 / BR WFB F 12)acf

Beate Spaltnera, Ursula Benzingb, soprano; Matthias Lucht, altoc; Judith Ritter, contraltod; Jürgen Ochse, Raimund Sturm, tenor; Johannes Happelf, Klaus Tempsg, bass [soli in superscript]
Michael Maisch, Heiko Hörburger, Ulrich Dannenmaier, trumpet; Manfred Riemer, timpani; Dietrich Schüz, Christine Wieligmann, violin; Ursula Plagge-Zimmermann, viola; Jörg Rieger, cello; Adina Scheyhing, violone; Stefan Fritz, organ

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was the eldest son of Johann Sebastian. He was also his favourite son, and was given an thorough musical education. There is no doubt that he was highly gifted, in particular as an organist. At an early age he participated in the cantata performances in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, and Johann Sebastian composed his six technically demanding trio sonatas for organ as educational material for Friedemann.

In 1746 Friedemann was appointed as organist and musical director of the St. Marienkirche in Halle. In the latter capacity he was responsible for the performance of cantatas on every third Sunday and on all feast days. Apparently it was not expected that he himself would compose the cantatas. Even his predecessor often used cantatas by others, in particular Telemann. It seems likely that Friedemann did the same. From his time in Halle, which lasted until 1764, about 20 cantatas have come down to us. So far this part of his oeuvre has received little attention. In 1991 the German conductor Hermann Max recorded four cantatas which recently have been reissued on Brilliant Classics. But otherwise there is little to find. The probably best-known cantata is Erzittert und fallet for the first day of Easter. As part of the Wilhelm Friedemann Bach edition of Carus - which also publishes the scores - two discs have been released with some cantatas Max did not record, supplemented by some other sacred pieces.

It is not easy to characterise the idiom of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. He is a typical representative of a time when various fashions coexisted which are known as Empfindsamkeit, Sturm und Drang, rococo and the galant style. In the oeuvre of many composers we find elements of these styles alongside each other. That is also the case in Friedemann's oeuvre, but here we also find the strong influence of his father. As an organist he was rooted in the past, the contrapuntal style which he had become acquainted with in his education at home. It was this which led to his diminishing popularity as a composer of keyboard music which was increasingly considered old-fashioned and too complicated. In his sacred oeuvre the influence of his father is traceable as well. Peter Wollny may be right in pointing out in his liner-notes, that Friedemann further developed what he had inherited from his father, he nevertheless often refers to aspects of these cantatas which have their parallels in Johann Sebastian's cantatas.

The first disc contains four cantatas of various length. Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtet is the shortest, with a duet embraced by two choral movements. It was written to mark the beginning of the series of catechism sermons which was delivered twice a year in the Marktkirche. This explains that the text concentrates on the importance of the teaching of the Bible. The two choral movements are dicta - quotations from the Bible - expressing the "delight in his [God's] commandments" and the importance of hearing and keeping God's Word. The duet for soprano, alto and bc has the form of a trio sonata, in which the two upper voices frequently imitate each other. It is one of the highlights of this disc.

Ach, daß du den Himmel zerrissest and O Wunder, wer kann dieses fassen? are both written for Christmas. The opening chorus of the former begins with an instrumental introduction after which the choir enters in unison. Then follows a recitative for bass, turning into an arioso for soprano and alto, after which the orchestra closes this section. In the tenor aria Bach has set coloraturas on the word "jauchzet" (exults). The bass aria 'Rüstet euch' contains strong contrasts. The phrase "flee quickly away" is appropriate set in triple time. The second cantata begins with a sinfonia - something we know from other cantatas as well, in particular Dies ist der Tag - and includes another duet for soprano and alto. It is a rather restrained piece, with soft accompaniment of two transverse flutes, which can be explained by the text which expresses the incomprehensibility of Jesus' birth: "Jesus, great King of heaven, my understanding is far too little to comprehend this mystery". After a recitative for soprano which turns into an arioso for soprano and bass the aria 'Komm, du holdes Kind des Lebens' (Come, lovely child of life) is a sparkling piece for bass which expresses the joy of Jesus' coming. The cantata closes - like most of Friedemann's cantatas - with a simple chorale setting.

Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen was written for Ascension Day. Friedemann's contrapuntal skills come to the fore in the opening chorus. In the aria 'Erschallet, ihr Klüfte' (Sound, ravines) the bass is accompanied by the orchestra which includes two trumpets. It is followed by a recitative for soprano, in which Friedemann makes use of the echo - a practice which we also know from Johann Sebastian's Christmas Oratorio. It is used here in more or less the same way: "Ah, send me the teacher who is all knowing." Echo: "He will come". The soprano then sings a moving aria, with an instrumental texture of violin, viola and bc: "Come, ah come, on the limbs of Christ, good spirit". Next are a recitative and aria for alto and the closing chorale.

These are four splendid cantatas which are intriguing for the mixture of the tradition with more fashionable elements. Peter Wollny is absolutely right in underlining that Friedemann Bach's cantatas are devoid of any "formal and stylistic stereotypes". The performances are first-class. One could argue that a choir of 27 singers is too large for this repertoire, and I would have liked a smaller choir or even four singers with four ripienists (as in the second disc). But Ralf Otto achieves enough transparency and agility to make the tutti sections coming off well. The soloists are excellent throughout, both technically and stylistically. There is a great amount of coherence in these performances. The only regret is that the recitatives are rhythmically a bit too strict.

The second disc not only includes two further cantatas; it also contains three other sacred pieces which were written for the liturgy. In the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian we find various short masses, with only a Kyrie and a Gloria. Such masses were performed in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, and it was also practised in Halle. But whereas Sebastian's masses were on a Latin text, Friedemann's Missa in g minor has a German text. In 1695 a new version of the Halle Church regulation had been published, and in these the use of Latin in religious services was banned. Friedemann therefore used the German translation of the Mass as given in the Halle hymnbook of 1744. The Mass is divided into six sections, five of which are tutti movements which are dominated by counterpoint. The fifth section is an accompanied recitative for soprano. The Agnus Dei is the last section of a Mass in d minor. In Halle Heilig was part of the "Praefationes or thanksgivings, sung on the three principal feast days, at the morning service, after the sermon". We know a comparable piece from the pen of Friedemann's brother Carl Philipp Emanuel. In this setting a concertante setting is combined with a strict fugue. The orchestra includes three trumpets.

Der Herr wird mit Gerechtigkeit is a cantata for the feast of Visitation. The opening chorus - "The Lord will judge the poor with righteousness" - begins with an orchestral introduction after which the choir enters in unison, turning then to polyphony. Words like "Stab" (rod [of his mouth]) and "schlagen" (strike [the earth]) are singled out. The bass aria 'Die Wunderkraft des abgelebten Stammes' (The wondrous power of the lifeless trunk) is dominated by ascending figures, inspired by the words "revives and brings forth the noble branch". After an accompanied recitative for tenor the alto sings an aria whose text - "Jesus, do not judge as your eyes see us" - has inspired Friedemann Bach to use descending figures. A chorale setting closes the cantata.
,br> Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten is a cantata for Pentecost. It was performed just after Friedemann's arrival in Halle. Wollny suggests that it could have been performed together with Sebastian's cantata O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe (BWV 34). The opening chorus again begins with an orchestral introduction, and once again the choir enters in unison, then splitting into four imitative voices. Towards the end it returns to singing in unison, and an orchestral passage brings the opening section to an end. The bass aria 'Süße Liebe, hohes Glut' has an obbligato part for organ, which without any doubt was played by Friedemann himself. The vocal part is highly virtuosic, with frequent big leaps and coloraturas, and exploring the limits of the singer's tessitura. After a recitative for soprano the alto aria 'O herrliche Wohnung' is also quite demanding, with again many coloraturas. The cantata ends with a chorale setting.

As I already said the Rastatter Hofkapelle performs these compositions with one voice per part and four ripienists. That is to say: the solo parts are allocated to seven of the eight singers of the ensemble. There is just one short solo part for the tenor, a recitative in Der Herr wird mit Gerechtigkeit, which is sung by director Jürgen Ochs. The singing and playing of the ensemble is quite good, although I sometimes would have liked more dynamic accents, for instance in the chorales. The performances of the solos are more of a mixed success. Matthias Lucht and Johannes Happel are not fully up to the job in Wer mich liebet. Like I wrote their arias are virtuosic, and they seem to be a bit overstretched. Even so, this disc is an important addition to the discography of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach's oeuvre. One can only wish that all the other cantatas will be recorded in due course.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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