A little while ago I discovered a fine work, the Trauermusik
Johann Ludwig Bach, who was a distant cousin of Johann Sebastian Bach (review
). That discovery came courtesy of a fine and exciting
recording by Hans-Christoph Rademann and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.
Now Rademann has turned his attention to another of Sebastian’s relatives:
his most celebrated son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel. In the year that marks the
anniversary of CPE Bach’s birth I’m delighted that Rademann
has led me to another welcome discovery in the shape of his Magnificat.
The programme for this disc has not been chosen on a whim. On 9 April
1786, which was Palm Sunday in that year, CPE Bach put on a charity
concert in Hamburg in his capacity as the city’s music director. In the
first half he performed the Credo from his father’s B minor Mass and two
excerpts from Handel’s Messiah
. The second half was devoted to
Philipp Emanuel’s own music: the two choral works here recorded and a
symphony – probably, we are told in the notes, the one selected by
The Magnificat is a rather splendid work, cast in nine sections and
requiring SATB soloists and choir and what sounds like a substantial
orchestra. The choir is only involved in four of the movements but within
those sections it has a good deal to do. The opening chorus is very
energetic and celebratory, festive with trumpets and drums. In its drive and
excitement it recalls the D major Magnificat by Philipp Emanuel’s father,
Sebastian. This music reappears at the end, as happens in Sebastian’s
setting. However, Philipp Emanuel reprises his opening for the words of the
doxology whereas Bach père
used the old – but good – musical joke
of revisiting the opening music at the words ‘Sicut erat in prncipio’.
Philipp Emanuel sets those words instead to a substantial and elaborate
fugue of which his father would surely have approved and which brings the
work to a jubilant end. The other movement that involves the choir is a slow
and serious chromatic chorus, ‘Et misericordia eius’. In all these movements
the RIAS Kammerchor makes a splendid showing.
The remaining movements are in the hands of the soloists and Rademann has
a good quartet at his disposal. There’s only one soprano aria, ‘Quia
respexit humilitatem’ and that’s a pity for Elizabeth Watts sings it
gorgeously; it would have been good to hear more of her. The bass also makes
but one appearance. That’s in the dramatic aria, ‘Fecit potentiam’. Markus
Eiche projects the music forcefully – sometimes just a touch too
forcefully for my taste – and crisp drums and trumpets lend a martial air to
Tenor Lothar Odinius has a dashing and flamboyant aria, ‘Quia fecit mihi
magna’ which he sings strongly and with no little vocal athleticism. Later
he partners alto Wiebke Lehmkuhl in the duet ‘Deposuit potentes’. The very
opening of this number is slightly reminiscent of the tenor aria, setting
the same words, in Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat. Philipp Emanuel’s duet
version is a very good piece of writing; the two virtuosic lines intertwine
and strike sparks off each other very effectively in the first half; later
there’s a more relaxed and lyrical second half, setting the ‘Esurientes’
verse. Miss Lehmkuhl has what is arguably the plum movement in the work, the
solo ‘Suscepit Israel’. This is a beautiful, gentle aria. The music is
limpid and touching and the graceful accompaniment adds flutes to the
strings, suggesting a ‘Blessed Spirits’ ambience. Lehmkuhl sings with lovely
tone though her words are not always ideally clear.
Hans-Christoph Rademann gets some splendid playing from the Akademie für
Alte Musik Berlin and directs the performance with flair and evident empathy
for the music.
Heilig ist Gott
is quite a remarkable work, not least on account
of how much Philipp Emanuel Bach packs in to a fairly short space of time.
This was a work that he esteemed highly among his sacred music, it seems. It
is not a setting of the ‘Sanctus’, as might be thought from the title.
Rather, the text is drawn from the sixth chapter of the Prophecy of Isaiah.
There’s a short arietta for solo alto, representing the Prophet himself,
after which the more substantial second section is for double chorus. One
choir sounds to be placed at a distance – most effectively – in this
performance. The distant choir, which is heard quietly at first, represents
the Angels, while the second choir, which answers them loudly, represents
the People. After the two choirs have sung antiphonally the piece ends with
a fugue in Choir II against which Choir I sings, as a cantus firmus, words
from the German Te Deum: ‘Herr Got, dich loben wir’.
The short symphony is an interesting piece. It’s one of a set of four
which constituted Bach’s last essays in this genre. There are some strange,
innovative touches, not least the teasing, deceptive start to the first
movement. That movement gets a sparkling performance from Rademann and the
musicians of Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. The little slow movement is
graceful with the wind instruments dominating the textures; indeed, the
winds are prominent throughout the symphony. The finale is full of high
The disc is a little short in terms of playing time but I suppose that was
dictated by the very specific basis of the programme. However, that’s the
only drawback – if such it be – to this release. The performances are first
rate in all respects and the music is full of interest. The booklet is very
well produced and the sound is excellent. All in all, this is an early and
splendid contribution to the C P E Bach anniversary celebrations.