Johann Sebastian BACH (185-1750)
Trauer-Music: Music to mourn Prince Leopold BWV244a
Taverner Consort and Players/Andrew Parrott
rec. 27-30 November 2010, Church of St Michael & All Angels, Summertown, Oxford. DDD
German texts and English translation included
AVIE AV2241 [78:40]
Between 1717 and 1723 Bach worked as Capellmeister at the court of Prince Leopold in Cöthen. The Prince was a lover of music and, indeed, played the viola da gamba. He recruited a number of leading musicians to play in his court orchestra. As the very interesting booklet notes tell us, Bach remained in contact with the Cöthen court even after moving to Leipzig, making several return visits, in particular for the celebrations of Leopold’s birthday, which fell in December. In November 1728, however, the prince died suddenly, just before his 34th birthday. It fell to Bach to write music for his funeral, which did not take place until the following March and he composed a substantial Trauer-Ode. The music is lost though some copies of the libretto, by Bach’s frequent collaborator, Picander, have survived. Despite the fact that he had several month’s notice of the funeral, it appears that Bach did not write a brand new score for this occasion. Instead, scholars have concluded that he recycled music from two recently-composed major works.
These scores are the St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (1727) and the funeral ode Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl, BWV 198, written in the same year for the funeral of Christiane Eberhardine, wife of Elector Augustus the Strong. In fact it has been noted by various Bach experts that Picander’s words fit well the various arias that Bach is thought to have used, suggesting that the libretto was fashioned round the music rather than vice versa. Inevitably, however, what we have here is a conjectural reconstruction or, as Robert Mealy puts it in the booklet, “the result of much detective work and a certain amount of daring re-invention.” I presume that the latter part of that comment includes the recitatives which Mealy tells us “have been re-invented by Parrott, following Bach’s own practices, and drawing on material surrounding the original arias”. Incidentally, this reconstruction has not been created for this recording; the fruits of Parrott’s detective work were first performed in concert as long ago as 2004.
What we have here is a substantial work, lasting well over an hour and consisting of twenty-four separate items, though this includes one short chorus that is heard twice. There are nine solo arias and most of the rest is passages of recitative for there are just five numbers for chorus. One of the fascinations is hearing such familiar music as the arias ‘Buß und reu’,’Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’, ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ and ‘Erbarme dich’ not only sung to new words but appearing in a different context. I have to say that the results seem to me to be persuasive, especially since we know that Bach, like so many composers of the Baroque era, was an inveterate recycler of his own music – and that of others. Helpfully, the booklet includes a table showing the source of each of the thirteen musical “borrowings” from the two works. The recitatives may not be “authentic” Bach but Andrew Parrott has done a good and idiomatic job, based on his great knowledge of Bach, and these passages convince.
As to the performance itself, as usual Parrott follows his one-voice-per-part approach to Bach and his four soloists, Emily Van Evera, Clare Wilkinson, Charles Daniels and Thomas Meglioranza, do the chorus work as well. The only exceptions to this are the final chorus, which uses the music of the last chorus of the St. Matthew Passion, and the tenor aria fitted to the music of ’Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’. For both of these Parrott deploys extra singers so that he has two voices per part. I know there are many who dislike hearing Bach’s choruses sung in this way – generally I too am in that camp – but here the chorus work is so limited that it doesn’t really matter very much.
Of the soloists, I think Clare Wilkinson makes the best showing. I particularly enjoyed her expressive delivery of ‘Erhalte mich Gott’ (‘Erbarme dich’), which also benefits from a fine violin obbligato, played by Kati Debretzeni, I think. Emily Van Evera sings intelligently though to my ears there’s a slight edge to her tone that not all listeners may like. Charles Daniels is a highly experienced Bach singer and I enjoyed the sensitivity of his singing though I did wonder if he could and should have been a little more robust in his delivery of ‘Geh, Leopold, zu Deiner Ruh’ (’Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’). Having said that, perhaps Picander’s words justify a more intimate approach than might be the case in the St. Matthew Passion? Thomas Meglioranza is described as a bass but his is a pretty light voice, leaning very much towards a baritone. He opens the work with the aria ‘Laß, Leopold, Dich nicht begraben’ (‘Komm, sußes Kreuz’) and, frankly, I found his voice lacking in body here; I longed for the extra weight of tone that Peter Harvey or Peter Kooij might have brought to the proceedings. However, later on in ‘Bleibet nun in eurer Ruh’ (‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’) his voice has more tonal body, which is pleasing.
Incidentally, that first bass aria features a viola da gamba obbligato, surely a nod by Bach to his gamba-playing patron. It’s well played, as are all the obbligatos. Parrott’s team of a dozen instrumentalists acquit themselves very well indeed, providing consistently stylish and exert accompaniments.
We can never know exactly what music was heard at the obsequies of Prince Leopold but this reconstruction brings scholarship and highly informed speculation to bear and offers a convincing recreation of Bach’s final musical offering to his late master.
A convincing recreation of Bach’s final musical offering to his late master.