RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Johann Ludwig BACH (1667-1731)
Anna Prohaska (soprano); Ivonne Fuchs (alto); Maximilian Schmitt (tenor); Andreas Wolf (bass)
Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin/Hans-Christoph Rademann
rec. March–April 2010, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem
German text, English and French translations included.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902080 [77:27]
Johann Ludwig Bach was a distant cousin – a second cousin, I believe – of Johann Sebastian Bach. Born at Thal, near Eisenach, he was the eldest son of Johann Jacob Bach, an organist, who guided his son’s early musical studies. In 1699 Johann Ludwig entered the service of Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, as a violinist. Eventually, he attained the post of Kapellmeister in 1711, a role he fulfilled until his death. With over three decades of service to the ducal court it is unsurprising that he became known as ‘the Meiningen Bach’. As Kapellmeister he was required to compose for the duke and his output was sufficiently well regarded by his more illustrious cousin, Johann Sebastian, that, according to Christoph Wolff, the Leipzig Kantor had a number of Ludwig’s compositions in his personal music library and he performed no less than eighteen cantatas by Johann Ludwig at Sunday services in Leipzig between February and September 1726.
Between 1706 and 1724 the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen was Ernst Ludwig I. According to Peter Wollny’s very useful booklet note, the Duke was something of a religious poet, who produced many cantata librettos, which were used not only by Johann Ludwig but also by Johann Sebastian as well as by other composers. The Duke went so far as to write the sermon for his own funeral. He also chose the biblical text for his obsequies and composed a strophic song text, specifically to be used as the basis for his funeral music. On his death the text was expanded by an anonymous hand to furnish the text for Johann Ludwig’s Trauermusik.
It’s quite a remarkable composition, not least in terms of its scale and the forces required. In this performance it lasts for just short of eighty minutes. The scoring is luxuriant. There is a double choir. On this recording the singers of the RIAS Kammerchor comprise 11/7/8/8. The choirs are accompanied by two orchestras. The first consists of strings (here 3/3/2/1/1) and organ. The second boasts the same complement plus 4 flutes, 2 oboes, bassoon and lute - as well as timpani and three trumpets, which appear only in the third and final part of the work. Actually, I wonder if there’s a slight error in Harmonia Mundi’s exemplary documentation because in at least one number, the alto/tenor duet in Part II, I’m sure I hear a pair of recorders, which are not included in the list of performers – perhaps the flautists double on recorders?
The structure of the work is very logical and it’s divided into three parts. In the first, human life is depicted as a prison in which the soul is confined. In Part II the Soul, freed from this captivity, ascends to the gates of Heaven to which, in Part III, the Soul is admitted amid general rejoicing. All this is illustrated through a series of short arias and recitatives with the choirs commenting in choruses or chorales. In all, the work consists of twenty-six separate numbers.
Bach’s music, it must be admitted, doesn’t achieve the same profundity or level of technical innovation that one encounters almost as a matter of course in the music of his more illustrious cousin – but that’s no disgrace: we’re comparing here an evidently very proficient composer with a genius. Johann Ludwig’s music deserves to be judged on its own merits and these are far from inconsiderable.
Part I contains some fine movements. The arias here and elsewhere often seem to have quite an operatic feel. The first soprano aria, for example, which is dramatically delivered by Anna Prohaska, is quite florid in style. Even more florid is the tenor aria that we hear shortly afterwards – indeed, all the tenor arias are technically challenging though Maximilian Schmitt sounds to be well on top of his music. Right at the end of Part I comes an extended chorus, ‘Meine Bande sind zurissen’ in which the breakage of the Soul’s bonds is powerfully depicted: the work of the RIAS Kammerchor is very impressive here, as is the case throughout the performance.
The tone of Part II becomes increasingly optimistic as the music unfolds. Nowhere is this better illustrated than by Bach’s use of a chorale, which is first heard setting the words ‘Herr Jesu Christ, wahr’r Mensch und Gott’. At first we only hear two verses and both words and music are quiet and prayerful. A few minutes later, however, the same music - and, I presume, words from the same hymn - returns and this time five stanzas are set, each one becoming more confident. Finally, in the closing number of Part II we hear the chorale once more and this time its progress is frequently interspersed with ‘Hallelujah’.
This has taken us to Part III and to the gates of Heaven. Cue the trumpets and drums. These instruments are deployed in the opening chorus, to which they add suitable majesty. Later on, the last aria of the work is a proud bass example, the scoring of which is enriched by multiple trumpets. The final chorus, ‘In dir, Jerusalem, du neue Gottesstadt’ becomes increasingly jubilant and elaborate and it leads without a pause into a concluding chorale, which is as noble as it is festive.
This work is a revelation. I’ve never heard it before: it may well be receiving its first recording here. If this is the work’s recording debut then it could scarcely receive finer advocacy. The singing, both choral and solo, is uniformly excellent and the playing of Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin is agile and extremely skilful. Hans-Christoph Rademann directs the performance authoritatively, ensuring the appropriate gravitas is maintained, especially earlier on, but also encouraging the adoption of a lively and more extrovert tone later on, as befits the music.
Harmonia Mundi’s presentation is superb. The sound is wonderfully clear and full. The documentation is excellent, including some fine colour illustrations. Johann Ludwig Bach’s masterpiece has been splendidly served here and I urge collectors to investigate this very fine issue.
A revelation. Johann Ludwig Bach’s masterpiece has been splendidly served in this superb performance.