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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]

Back in 2012 I reviewed a very good recording of BWV 244a directed by Andrew Parrott so the opportunity to assess a second recording was not to be missed.

Briefly, the story behind the Köthener Trauermusik is as follows. Bach served in Cöthen as Capellmeister at the court of the music-loving Prince Leopold from 1717 to 1723. Even after he moved on to Leipzig Bach maintained links with the Cöthen court and he made a number of return visits. In November 1728 Prince Leopold died suddenly, just before his 34th birthday. His funeral did not take place until March 1729 and for the funeral ceremonies Bach composed a substantial four-part Trauer-Ode. The music is lost though some copies of the libretto, by Bach’s frequent collaborator, Picander, have survived. 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 Matthäus- 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.

There are a few important differences between the new recording and the earlier one from Andrew Parrott. One lies in the ordering of the music in the respective presentations. Morgan Jourdain who, in collaboration with Raphaël Pichon, has reconstructed the score for this new recording observes the division of the libretto into four parts. So does Andrew Parrott but he has attempted a reconstruction of the obsequies, which would have been observed on the night before the funeral itself. So he places the five numbers of Part III at the start and designates these as being music to accompany the burial service. Jourdain, however, treats these same pieces as the third part of the funeral music and in his presentation these are numbers 15 – 19. Otherwise both versions offer the individual numbers in the same order. Andrew Parrott observes in a note that accompanies his recording that Lutheran funerals don’t always follow a prescribed structure so there may be validity in either approach. There’s one major difference in musical sources when it comes to the music that is used for the chorus ‘Wir haben einer Gott’ which opens and closes Part II in both recordings. Parrot presents these words set to music from BWV 198, which seems perfectly satisfactory. Jourdain, on the other hand sets them to the music that is familiar to us as the second Kyrie in the B minor Mass; his reasoning is explained in the booklet. Incidentally, the Harmonia Mundi booklet includes a chart which helpfully sets out the source material for each individual movement.

As well as these textual variances the other difference between the two performances – and it’s a major one – lies in the size of the forces involved. Parrott, as is his wont, opts for just four singers, one-to-a-part, though he deploys an additional quartet, also SATB, in two numbers and in the first of those two items the vocal ensemble is further enriched by a third tenor. Parrott’s band numbers 12 players plus an additional violin in one number. Pichon’s performance is on a larger scale. He has a quartet of vocal soloists plus a choir of seventeen (5/4/4/4) and his orchestra numbers 24. Though Parrot’s more slender vocal forces sing admirably my preference is to hear the contrast between solo voices and a more sizeable chorus.

Pichon fields a strong solo team, as does Parrott. Damien Guillon has some wonderful music to sing including the aria ‘Weh und Ach’, which is more familiar as ‘Buß und Reu’ from the Matthäus-Passion. Guillon’s performance is a fine one but to my ears the warmer tones of Clare Wilkinson, Parrott’s singer, are more persuasive in this music, as is Parrott’s slightly slower speed. Later, Guillon gets to sing ‘Erhalte mich’ (‘Erbarme dich’ in the Matthäus-Passion) and his plaintive tone is most expressive. However, I find Wilkinson both warmer of voice and more haunting in expression. Both singers benefit from the support of a marvellous violinist.

Each recording has a good bass. The aria which opens Part III, ‘Lass, Leopold, dich nicht begraben’ is more familiar to us as ‘Komm süßes Kreuz’ from the Matthäus-Passion. Here, though Thomas Meglioranza sings well for Parrott, I prefer the voice of Christian Immler, which has more roundness and body to it. Incidentally, Parrott has the usual gamba obbligato, familiar from the Passion setting, while Pichon opts for a lute, which is effective in a very different way.

In the Parrott performance the solo tenor, Charles Daniels, has several recitativo solos, all of which he does well, but no aria. Pichon allots the aria ‘Zage nur, du treues Land’ to his tenor and Thomas Hobbs makes a fine job of it. I admire both tenors but have a slight, subjective preference for the timbre of Hobbs’ voice. I can understand why Parrott gave that aria to his soprano because the music is that of the soprano aria from the Passion, ‘Blute nur, du liebes Herz!’

Mention of that aria brings us nicely to the respective claims of the two sopranos. Again, both are excellent but, for me, what clinches the deal is a comparison of the respective performances of ‘Mit Freuden sei die Welt verlassen’. Bach devotees will instantly recognise the source material: the aria ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’. Emily van Evera, who sings for Parrott, simply melts the heart with ravishing tone, intensity and an ability to float Bach’s long lines beautifully. This is a heart-stopping performance. Sabine Devieilhe also sings beautifully but her voice sounds a bit more ‘present’ and her performance doesn’t quite move me as much as does Miss van Evera’s. I think that one other factor that sways the balance in favour of the Parrott account of this aria is his slightly slower tempo, which gives the music more time to breathe and expand.

This is but one of several occasions where I think that Parrott is somewhat more judicious in his tempo selection. Pichon doesn’t get off to the best start, in my view, with the opening chorus ‘Klagt, Kinder, klagt es aller Welt’. The translation of that opening line in the Harmonia Mundi booklet is ‘Moan, children, moan to all the world’. You’d never know that from the incongruously brisk, very sprightly speed that Pichon adopts. Parrott’s pace is much more suitable both to the text and to the music itself, which is taken from BWV 198. That chorus comes at the start of Part I and I’m just as unsettled by Pichon’s swift pace for the chorus that closes Part I. Once again, Parrott’s speed is ideal in that movement, I think, though I prefer Pichon’s choral forces rather than having just four singers. Both conductors adopt an almost identical pace for the closing chorus of the work, which uses the music of the last chorus of the Matthäus-Passion.

In summary, I think honours are just about even between the two teams of soloists though if pressed to a choice I’d opt for Parrott’s ladies and Pichon’s gentlemen. On several occasions Parrott paces the music more felicitously but Pichon scores points with me for using a choir rather than one-to-a-part forces – other collectors may prefer the Parrott approach in that respect.

Both performances are presented in first rate, clear and well-balanced sound. In terms of documentation each recording comes with notes that are well-written, informative and interesting though the Harmonia Mundi booklet is particularly elegant.

Each of these fine recordings has many merits and I find it well-nigh impossible to say that one is “better” than the other. All Bach collectors will want a recording of this notable parody score in their collections. I hope my comments have enabled you to decide for yourself which one is likely to suit you best. For myself, I’m delighted on this occasion to sit comfortably on the fence with both versions in my collection as each one illuminates Bach’s music in different but very satisfying ways.

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson