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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Köthener Trauermusik (Cöthen funeral music), BWV 244a (1729) [73.53]
Funeral Music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen
(Reconstructed by Morgan Jourdain in collaboration with Raphaël Pichon)
Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Damien Guillon (counter-tenor), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Christian Immler (bass)
Ensemble Pygmalion/Raphaël Pichon
rec. May 2014, Chapelle Royal, Versailles, France
Full German texts with translations in French and English
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC902211 [73.53]

The Ensemble Pygmalion directed by Raphaël Pichon commences its collaboration with Harmonia Mundi with this new recording of J.S. Bach’s lost music to the Köthener Trauermusik (Cöthen funeral music), BWV 244a.

Founded in 2006 at the European Bach Festival, Ensemble Pygmalion is a combination of choir and orchestra - all young performers with experience of authentic instruments and period-informed performance. Its repertoire concentrates primarily on Johann Sebastian Bach and Jean-Philippe Rameau. It does however play baroque music and also contemporary works. For this recording there are four vocal soloists. Pygmalion numbers seventeen singers and twenty-four orchestral players.

The work Köthener Trauermusik (Cöthen funeral music), BWV 244a also known as the Klagt, Kinder, klagt es aller Welt (Cry, children, cry to all the world) was composed in 1729 for the state funeral of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen who had died a few days prior to his thirty-four birthday. Almost five years earlier Bach served as Kapellmeister to the Prince at the Cöthen court between 1717/23. Two works were performed at the funeral service at the St. Jakobskirche, Cöthen but the music has not survived. First was mourning music heard on the evening of 23 March 1729 for the arrival at the church of the funeral cortège for entombment. The details of this music are not known but it is documented that “the mourning music was heard for some time.” It has been put forward by leading Bach scholar Peter Wollny in the booklet essay that the music is likely to have been instrumental but augmented by congregational singing.

The music for the next morning’s funeral service on 24 March was a large-scale cantata the Köthener Trauermusik (Cöthen funeral music), BWV 244a. Those participating were Bach, his wife Anna Magdalena and his son Wilhelm Friedemann plus musicians from neighbouring towns and cities. No music has survived, only the libretto to the four-part cantata in twenty-four sections prepared by Leipzig poet and librettist Christian Friedrich Henrici, known as Picander. Thanks to the work of musicologist Wilhelm Rust in 1873 it is now thought probable that Bach reused ten movements (nine arias and the final chorus) from his St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244 designed as part of the Good Friday Vespers for Thomaskirche, Leipzig. Another musicologist Friedrich Smend concluded in 1951 that for sections 1 and 7 Bach reused the opening and closing choruses from his Trauerode, BWV 198, a work composed for the funeral of Princess Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony.

Andrew Parrott has already recorded a reconstruction of the Trauer/Music - Music to Mourn Prince Leopold. Parrott’s 2011 account with the Taverner Consort and Players recorded at Church of St. Michael & All Angels, Oxford interpolates the music from the St. Matthew Passion and the Trauerode with his own recitatives. Employing one-voice-per-part, Parrott’s quartet of soloists are Taverner Consort choristers: Emily Van Evera (soprano), Clare Wilkinson (mezzo), Charles Daniels (tenor), Tom Meglioranza (baritone). The recording is on Avie.

For the present project Ensemble Pygmalion musicologist Morgan Jourdain, in collaboration with Raphaël Pichon, has also reconstructed the Köthener Trauermusik. In this, like Andrew Parrott’s recording, he has used as a basis the Matthew Passion and the Trauerode. For the absent Dictum, a lynchpin of the funeral service, Jourdain and Pichon at the suggestion of musicologist Klaus Häfner use the original version of the second Kyrie eleison of the Mass in B minor which Jourdain considers “such a smooth fit.” With regard to the lost recitatives, Jourdain and Pichon have decided that sung recitatives taken from Matthew Passion and the Trauerode feel the most persuasive. For those used to the Mass in B minor it will certainly feel strange to hear the music from the celebrated alto aria Erbarme dich, mein Gott (Have mercy, Lord) being sung in its new guise as Erhalte mich, mein Gott (Preserve me, My Lord); likewise the soprano aria Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben (Out of love my Saviour is willing to die) being sung to the text Mit Freuden sei die Welt verlassen (With joy let us leave the world).

Under the direction of Raphaël Pichon the singing and orchestral playing is absolutely first class. It is to Pichon’s credit that all the performers seem extremely well prepared. Part one of the funeral cantata is concerned with mourning the dead Prince Leopold; an employer that Bach admired so much. The trouble is that the chorus and soloists sing as if it was a celebration not a solemn occasion for deep mourning. This also applies to a slightly lesser extent to the serious second part which is concerned with beseeching God for salvation of the soul. Part three is about fond remembrance of the Prince for his benevolence and the concluding section marks the final goodbye to the Prince from his subjects praying for him to rest in peace.

The enriching alto aria Erhalte mich mein Gott with its lovely violin solo is sung by counter-tenor Damien Guillon who also performs Weh und Ach and Wird auch gleich nach tausend Zähren. Guillon is in remarkably fluid voice, displaying an attractive, crystal-clear tone and cleanly articulated vocals. I’m not sure that the first section aria Weh und Ach has a sufficient sense of pain and sorrow; nevertheless I look forward to hearing more recordings of this Frenchman’s excellent singing. Making fine progress is engaging French soprano Sabine Devieilhe displaying fine technique and attractive brightly-lit tone in her arias Mit Freuden sei die Welt verlassen, Hemme dein gequaltes Kranken and the uplifting Avec joie quittons ce bas monde. If her German enunciation was a touch disappointing Devieilhe’s reverential voice is well focused with an effortless slide to her high register.

I enjoyed English tenor Thomas Hobbs in his first section aria Zage nur du treues Land. He sings appealingly with clarity and impressive balance but where was the sense of shudder and torment as required by the text. It is hard to fault German baritone Christian Immler with his dark bass arias Lass Leopold dich nicht begraben and Bleibet nur in eurer Ruh. With clear tones the compelling Immer had little problem reaching his lower register and evincing sincere respect for the sacred text. Under the assured direction of Raphaël Pichon the Pygmalion choir is on outstanding form notably in the Dictum: Wir haben einen Gott der da hilft, the aria for two choirs Geh, Leopold, zu deiner Ruhe and especially the final chorus Die Augen sehn nach deiner Leiche which is sung decisively throughout with fresh and lucid delivery.

The Harmonia Mundi engineers excel in providing cool, clear, well balanced sound. I can report that full German texts are provided with translations in French and English together with several high quality articles.

This captivating recording of Bach’s reconstructed Köthener Trauermusik for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen is beautifully performed by the Ensemble Pygmalion under Raphaël Pichon. It's excellently recorded too.

Michael Cookson