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Johann Sebastian BACH
Apocryphal Cantatas II:

BWV 142 Uns ist ein Kind geboren (c.1711) (attrib. J Kuhnau: 1660-1722 )
BWV 141 Das ist je gewisslich wahr (c.1720) (attrib. G.P. Telemann: 1681-1767)
BWV 15 Denn du wirst meine Seele nicht in der Hoelle lassen (c.1710) (attrib. Johann Ludwig Bach: 1677-1741)
BWV 160 Ich weiss, dass mein Erloeser lebt (c.1700) (attrib. G. P. Telemann: 1681-1767)
Dorothee Mields (soprano)
Henning Voss (altus)
Henning Kaiser (tenor)
Ralf Grobe (bass)
I Febiarmonici, Alsfelder Vokalensemble/Wolfgang Helbich
Recorded 22–25 Feb, 6–7 June 2001, Radio Bremen Sendesaal
CPO 999 985-2 [58.48]


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It is possible to have a lot of fun with this CD. Let me explain. I was sipping a glass of Pinot Grigiot with a very good friend; she has listened to Sebastian since she was six. There can be few nooks and crannies of his repertoire that she has not explored – including the cantatas. I slipped this CD into the player and said laconically 'What do you think of this new recording of Bach’s ‘Uns ist ein Kind geboren?' By the time we got to the second chorus, she was enthusiastic; at the beautiful alto aria, she was ecstatic. It was then I dropped the bombshell. "It is not by Sebastian Bach but probably composed by Johann Kuhnau." She thought I was joking. Then the penny dropped. ‘Oh, but of course you can tell that it is not as subtle as J.S.B. Just listen to the choral harmony – it lacks the colour; the balance is wrong. The instrumentation does not have the facility of Bach, Bach…’

The debate about these works largely depends on how we define apocryphal. Technically, it means a ‘spurious work.’ Often it can be glossed as being sub-standard or perhaps even deliberately deceitful. But unlike theology and politics there is little polemical need to provide a dubious provenance for a spurious manuscript. It is a fact that these apocryphal works have characteristics very similar to the composer’s genuine works. Very often they can be written with a comparable skill to the attributed composer. And finally it is not unknown for the apocryphal works to have been copied out by the ascribed composer, hence the confusion.

We have to take it as axiomatic that at some stage a musicologist has assigned these works to Bach because they genuinely believed that they were written by Bach - no other reason.

Three of the present four cantatas could well have been written by Bach. They have many characteristics of the great man. Sometimes they may have been composed under his direction or aegis. We will never truly know.

What CPO has done is to re-introduce four excellent cantatas into the public domain. We are encouraged to judge these works on their merits and not on a dubious musical snobbery which denies validity to a work once it is discovered that it is not composed by whom we once thought it was. These four works were once popular and highly regarded when scholars believed they were by J.S.B. The fact that they are not does not lessen their quality or potential for enjoyment and spiritual uplift.

Perhaps the most immediately appealing is the Christmas Cantata BWV 142. This work is the only one on this CD which just may be composed by Sebastian. I do not know if Bach did write this, however, the pundits say it was probably a little known composer called J. Kuhnau. But does it really matter? The opening ‘concerto’ sets this work and the rest of the CD off to a good, if somewhat ‘catchy’ start. Just listening to this work on a hot summer’s day made me feel cool. I half expected the snow to be falling. This is pure Christmas: ‘To us a Child is born, to us a Son is given.’ This good, well-proportioned, tuneful and well-executed work deserves to be played more often. It is a small masterpiece.

The other three cantatas here are now all attributed to contemporary composers. The advent cantata ‘Das ist je gewißlich wahr’ (BWV 141), (This is certainly true and a word of great worth) is a fine addition to the record. It has been positively identified as belonging to the catalogue of Georg Philipp Telemann. This cantata does not have a closing chorus but ends with a lovely bass aria. Yet this does not upset the musical balance of this attractive work but contributes to its overall effectiveness.

The Easter cantata for tenor ‘Ich weiß, daß mein Erlöser lebt’ (BWV 160). (I know that my saviour lives) is for tenor solo only. Once again, this work has been identified as coming from the pen of Telemann. This composer is known to have set this text twice, the second time with large choral forces. This present work has a light, intimate, almost chamber quality.

The heart of the CD is taken up with a large and quite unusual cantata that has been attributed to Sebastian’s cousin, Johann Ludwig Bach: ‘Denn du wirst meine Seele’ nicht in der Hoelle lassen. Within a dozen bars of the opening aria, we realise that we are in strange territory. After a few quiet chords, the music explodes into huge brass flourishes followed by a short bass aria. Great stuff, but definitely not by the master! An intimate soprano recitative is followed by a truly beautiful duet: Yield, Fear and Horror,’ for soprano and male alto, which is actually quite operatic. This is followed by a dramatic tenor aria: ‘Do not be afraid.’ This is big, gutsy and brassy. Fantastic! The eighth movement is a short sonata that leads into the concluding recitative, aria and chorus bringing the work to a thumping conclusion. I will make it my business to explore the tiny corpus of recordings of works by Johann Ludwig B.

I can find no fault in the presentation of this CD – with the exception of the cover, which seems to have little relevance to the subject matter. However, the sound recording is perfect, the balance of the choral and orchestral forces is beyond reproach and the programme notes are more than adequate. Wolfgang Helbich and the Alsfelder Vokalensemble take these cantatas with all seriousness and present them in their full glory.

John France


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