‘I don’t know if you are aware of the fact that J.S. Bach had between
twenty and thirty children; and I guess that goes for Mrs.Bach too’.
The immortal words of Victor Borge, but this Regis
issue serves to remind us that the Bachs were no mere family but a veritable
musical dynasty. None of the composers represented here was a child
of the great J.S., however. They are, briefly, Johann Bach, J.S.’s great
uncle, town musician in Erfurt; Johann Christoph Bach, a cousin of J.S.
who was based in Arnstadt and later in Eisenach; Johann Michael, another
cousin who was also J.S.’s father-in-law; and finally a third cousin,
Johann Ludwig, who spent most of his life as a court musician in Meiningen.
There is some very fine music on this disc, and it
receives performances from Brown and the Clare College Choir which do
it full justice. The opening J.C. Bach motet, Lieber Herr Gott, is
a good example. A short piece (4:05), it nevertheless contains much
that is of interest both rhythmically and harmonically, and builds to
a satisfyingly affirmative conclusion.
I found, though, the next track, the motet Unser
Leben ist ein Schatten (Our life is a shadow) by Johann Bach, the
earliest composer on the disc, to be the most interesting piece, with
its intriguingly furtive opening passage. The ‘shadowy’ quality is brilliantly
evoked with flitting duets in the solo voices and sudden pauses. The
accompaniment is most discreet – just a theorbo (bass lute) and string
bass, but quite adequate to support the very delicate singing. I particularly
appreciated the great sense of colour in the vocal writing, though I’m
not sure the abrupt ending actually works.
Johann Michael is represented by three pieces,
and Herr, du lässest mich erfahren will be of great interest
to those who already know, for example, the J.S. Bach motet Singet
dem Herrn. Johann Michael allows a chorale melody to emerge, whose
sturdiness is contrasted with more florid solo writing, as Johann Sebastian
was to do in the later work.
There are just two pieces here by Johann Ludwig. Unserer
Trübsal begins with a slow section in which the contrite opening
phrase is repeated over and over to great expressive effect. The quick
middle section contains vocal writing of considerable athleticism, a
quality which recurs in the dancing finale of Das ist meine Freude.
The motets are performed by a group of about twelve
voices. This sounds like a very small number, especially given the amount
of double choir music here; but it works superbly, mainly because the
voices are so good and so well matched. The singing is ‘well-mannered’,
but certainly not bloodless, and the instrumental support, though inconspicuous,
is always stylish. A fine issue.