Johann Christian Bach is one of the less popular sons of Johann Sebastian. Whereas the music of his brothers Wilhelm Friedemann and in particular Carl Philipp Emanuel is regularly performed on the concert platform and recorded on disc, Johann Christian's music has never become standard repertoire of orchestras or keyboard players. This is partly due to the fact that most of it is written in the galant idiom which is often considered rather superficial. It has to be said that many performances of, for instance, his orchestral music do his reputation more harm than good.
In 2009 Virgin Classics released a disc with opera arias, performed by Philippe Jaroussky. It was his personal wish to make this recording, because "(much) of his music has still not been recorded, yet it contains a freshness and originality that reflects an exceptional personality, charming, brave, rebellious and at the forefront of the musical developments of his time". The present disc sheds light on another, also largely neglected, aspect of his oeuvre, the sacred music he composed during his years in Italy. Listening to this disc it is striking how little the sacred music differs from his music for the stage. The Psalms on this disc reflect Johann Christian's talent for the theatre, and they also confirm the features Jaroussky mentions.
After the death of his father Johann Christian first went to Carl Philipp Emanuel in Berlin. In 1755 he made his way to Italy. Little is known about his first years there, but soon he became a pupil of Padre Martini in Bologna. In 1757 he converted to Catholicism, and after that he started to compose music for the liturgy. In 1760 he became organist of the cathedral in Milan, and as composing music was not part of his duties he ceased writing sacred works. In 1760 his first opera was performed, and from then on he concentrated on a career as a composer of operas.
The music on this disc was all written for the Vesper liturgy. But the recording is by no means a kind of reconstruction. That would be impossible as the various pieces were definitely not written for one specific occasion. They are written across various years - from 1758 to 1760 - and are different in texture and scoring. Most pieces are for solo voices, choir and orchestra, but Laudate pueri Dominum is for two solo voices - soprano and tenor - and orchestra, without participation of a choir. The Psalms are divided into a large number of sections, most of which consist of one verse from the Psalm. The Magnificat is much more concise: the twelve verses are divided into just five sections, and there are no arias.
Those appear in abundance in the other pieces. These have a strongly operatic character. In Beatus vir the 'Gloria patri' is written in the form of an aria for tenor. It contains extended coloraturas on "spiritui" (Holy [Ghost]). And in the verse 'Excelsus' in Laudate pueri Dominum the tenor sings coloraturas on "coelos" (heavens) and "ejus" (His [glory]). Most arias end with a cadenza. There are also some duets, and various tutti sections contain episodes for solo voices. In his programme notes Uwe Wolf states that some four-part episodes are assigned to a vocal quartet and that this proves that these Psalms were not meant to be performed with one voice per part.
There are few passages with a direct connection between text and music. One of the best examples of text expression is 'Peccator videbit' in Beatus vir: "The wicked shall see and shall be angry". Another is 'A solis ortu' in Laudate pueri Dominum: "From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same". Most text expression comes from the orchestra. It is especially used to create an atmosphere, to reflect the mood of the words. Several arias include instrumental solo parts. A striking example is 'Paratum cor ejus' (Beatus vir): after an orchestral introduction the violin has a solo which ends with a full-blooded cadenza. Only then does the soprano enter, and she is regularly interrupted by interventions by the violin. In 'Intellectus bonus' (Confitebor tibi Domine) Bach creates a strong contrast between voice and instruments: the violin plays lively figures to an accompaniment of two violas and two oboes, whereas the alto moves forward slowly on long notes.
In these Psalm settings Johann Christian is, to quote Jaroussky, "at the forefront of the musical developments of his time". Jaroussky’s own recording convincingly demonstrated the quality of Johann Christian's vocal writing in opera. These performances of Bach's Vesper Psalms is revelatory in its display of the quality of his sacred music. In no way is it inferior to the sacred music of Italian composers of his time whose music is more often performed. The soloists are all top-notch. Joanne Lunn has a beautiful and agile voice, and deals with the coloraturas with impressive ease. Elena Biscuola's voice has a nice warm timbre, and she sings with much expression. Georg Poplutz's light voice is flexible, and ideally suited to his sometimes virtuosic role. Particularly impressive is his delivery. Fairly recently I reviewed a recording of a mass by Jan Dismas Zelenka, and I was rather critical of Thomas Bauer's theatrical approach. Here this approach is much more appropriate, and his contributions are certainly apt.
The choir comprises just 17 voices, and sings with power and passion. Concerto Köln is in excellent form - better than I have recently heard from this ensemble - and the solo parts are given immaculate performances. So there is every reason to recommend this disc, which, it is to be hoped, will contribute to a more equitable assessment of Johann Christian Bach's oeuvre.
Johan van Veen