Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703)

Welt, gute nacht!
Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig [13:03]
Mit Weinen hebt sich’s an [5:23]
Wie bist du denn, o Gott [12:18]
Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitlich stirbt [4:15]
Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte [7:12]
Fürchte dich nicht [4:53]
Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben [6:52]
Meine Freundin, du bist schön [24:12]
Julia Doyle (soprano); Katharine Fuge (soprano); Clare Wilkinson (mezzo); Nicholas Mulroy (alto/tenor); James Gilchrist (tenor); Jeremy Budd (tenor); Matthew Brook (bass); Peter Harvey (bass); Maya Homburger (violin)
English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live 16-17, 19 April 2009, Cadogan Hall, London
German texts and English & French translations included

Having issued many recordings of music by J.S. Bach, Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his colleagues turn their attention to his first cousin once removed, Johann Christoph Bach. Unusually for an SDG release, the notes are not by Sir John. Instead the extensive and excellent essay is by the cellist and viola da gamba player, Richard Campbell (1956-2011). He took part in these performances but died prior to the release of the disc, which is dedicated to his memory. Campbell uses a wonderful phrase, describing thus the influence of Christoph Bach on his younger cousin: “one of the deepest tributary streams to the great river of music that was to flow from the pen of Johann Sebastian Bach.” It’s clear that Christoph’s music was highly esteemed within the Bach clan. Campbell quotes the verdict of J.S. Bach in 1735 that he was ‘a profound composer’. Christoph Wolff, in his biography, Johann Sebastian Bach. The Learned Musician, also carries this quote and adds a further tribute by C.P.E. Bach, who called Christoph ‘the great and expressive composer’.

J.S. Bach would have known his cousin well during his early years. Christoph was organist in the town of Eisenach from 1665 until his death and simultaneously served its Duke as his harpsichordist. In 1671 Johann Ambrosius Bach, father of Sebastian, successfully applied for a post as a Town Piper in Eisenach – the presence of Christoph in the town’s musical establishment surely helped – and remained there until his death in 1695. Thus the first ten years of Sebastian’s life were spent in close family proximity to Christoph Bach and Christoph Wolff is surely right to suggest that the older man may have been something of a role model for his young cousin.

This collection of performances gives us a good overview, I should think, of Christoph Bach’s vocal music and let it be said straightaway that there’s some good and interesting music here. The selection includes two pieces for solo voice, both styled ‘Lamento’. One, Ach, dass ich Wassers g’nug hätte (‘Oh that my head were waters’), is for alto and Richard Campbell says it is one of the few pieces by Christoph Bach that has received “extensive” performances in modern times; I believe Andreas Scholl has recorded it. Here the soloist is Clare Wilkinson and I enjoyed her performance very much. Her voice is warm but the tone is clean. She sings with poise and good expression and she makes a lot of the text – at the very end of the piece her singing is appropriately dramatic and forceful, as the words require.

Wie bist du denn, o Gott (‘Why are you then, O God’) is a more extensive piece; it’s for bass, here the excellent Matthew Brook. I was reminded while listening that a couple of years ago I heard Brook as a fine exponent of the title role in Elijah (review). To be honest, though Bach’s is much more modest in scale it requires a singer of sufficient calibre and range to undertake Elijah – Bach’s vocal line extends to over two octaves. In this performance, though the line goes very high at times, Brook’s voice is cleanly produced throughout its compass – including at the top – and he’s also equal to the challenges posed by some ornate passages. This is a tremendous piece of singing. Brook exhibits mastery of some difficult music and also projects the text with conviction.

The track list suggests that we hear Matthew Brook as soloist again in Meine Freundin, du bist schön (‘Thou art fair, my love’) but this is a misprint. The bass soloist is certainly not Brook; I’m sure it’s the equally estimable Peter Harvey. This piece was probably written for a Bach family wedding, possibly in 1679. Very briefly, the plot depicts a pair of young lovers (soprano and bass) seeking a secluded spot for a tryst. The man goes ahead and, after a while, his companion joins him, accompanied by a pair of men: in this performance a female alto and a tenor. The couple invite the men to join them for refreshments and all join in a concluding hymn of thanksgiving. We have all this detailed background because a copy survives on which Ambrosius Bach wrote a detailed commentary. Very helpfully SDG include this commentary along with the libretto; otherwise I suspect many listeners, like me, would find it hard to follow the action.

The performance is a very fine one with especially noteworthy contributions from soprano Julia Doyle and violinist Maya Homburger. Unfortunately, I find that the piece seriously outstays its welcome. In particular, there is a lengthy chaconne section, which occurs after the girl’s lover has departed and before she encounters the two men – it’s at this juncture that the violin part is particularly important. This section lasts some ten minutes (4:35 – 14:20) and, despite the artistry of the performers eventually I found it wearisome. A bit later, when the lovers and the two men settle down to enjoy their refreshments, the music depicts their merrymaking in exuberant fashion. There’s quite a rustic feel to this section and it seemed to me almost to be a precursor of Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten. Sadly, Bach’s music once again becomes garrulous and repetitive in this section, I feel. Other listeners may disagree and there’s much of interest in this piece, which is splendidly performed. If only it had been ten minutes shorter!

This is one of two ‘Dialogus’ pieces in the programme. The other is the opening item, Herr, wende dich und sei mir gnädig (‘Lord, turn unto me and have mercy upon me’). Four singers are involved here. The three high voices, who always sing as a trio, assume what Richard Campbell calls “the everyman role of the penitent” while the bass is vox dei. Brook is the bass and sings with fine authority while the writing for the trio is eloquent and very expressive. Bach’s music is inventive, as for example in the quite sprightly dancing music for the bass that begins with the words ‘Ich habe dich erhöret’.

Two pieces are styled ‘Aria’ but they are not, as one might suppose, solo items. Both are for vocal consort and they are well worth hearing. Mit Weinen hebt sich’s an (‘It begins with weeping’) is a death-aria and its three stanzas refer to the three stages of a man’s life – childhood, mid-life and old age. Richard Campbell says of this piece that it “could be said to deliver a masterclass in metrical word-setting.” The words don’t make very cheerful reading but the music is sung most expressively. The other aria, Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben (‘Now my life is ended’) is similarly a death-aria. Four of its seven stanzas are given in this performance. In essence it’s a simple strophic setting but it’s very beautiful, the more so since it’s sung here with polish and gentle fervour. There is no word repetition until the last line of each stanza is reached. These are the words, ‘Welt, gute Nacht!’ which give the album its title. These words are sung four times after each verse and the third time the sopranos have a lovely little upward run, which is most affecting. This piece is touching in its simplicity and directness of expression. Gardiner and his singers shape this consoling music exquisitely.

The programme is completed by two Motets. Der Gerechte, ob er gleich zu zeitlich stirbt (‘But though the righteous be prevented with death’) is an SATTB setting for a burial service and Bach’s music seems to be most effectively moulded to the words, so as to emphasise the meaning. Fürchte dich nicht (‘Fear not: for I have redeemed thee’) is another SATTB setting. However, the soprano line is deliberately and masterfully held back (until 1:54 in this performance). When the soprano line begins the entry of the voice is ethereal and it’s a genuine coup on Bach’s part. I found that this music – and the exemplary performance it receives here – put me in mind of Joshua Rifkin’s one-voice-to-a-part recording of J.S. Bach’s cantata Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106.

This disc just goes to show what an extraordinary amount of talent there was in the extended Bach clan. There’s much excellent and fascinating music here, which deserves to be better known. This disc should put that right and it would be impossible to imagine Christoph Bach’s music receiving finer, more committed advocacy both from the singers and from the small group of instrumentalists. The performances were recorded live in concert though there’s no distracting audience noise whatsoever. The recorded sound is ideal: there’s good bloom on the voices and the balance is excellent. The booklet is handsomely produced, as is usual with this label. This is a noteworthy release.

John Quinn

A noteworthy release of fascinating music, which deserves to be better known.