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Johann Bernhard BACH (1676‒1749)
Ouverture in G [16:06]
Ouverture in E minor [19:31]
Ouverture in G minor [22:07]
Ouverture in D [19:06]
L’Achéron/François Joubert-Caillet (bass viol)
rec. Eglise Saint-Jean l’Evangéliste, Beaufays, Belgium, March 2016
RICERCAR RIC573 [76:50]

It is ridiculously early to start thinking about one’s possible ‘discs of the year’ for 2017, but this one has to go straight on to my short list. One of the pleasures it gives is, of course, that of new discovery: I was, I think, vaguely aware of the existence of Johann Bernhard Bach, but, given the sheer number of Bachs you read about, often with rather similar forenames, you can never be entirely sure. Certainly I had never heard any music by him ‒ not surprisingly, given that, as Jérôme Lejeune’s outstandingly useful booklet notes tell us, very little has survived. Apart from the four Ouvertures recorded here, there are only three chaconnes for harpsichord and some organ chorales. Moreover no-one knows for sure when the Ouvertures themselves were written, though there is fascinating evidence of their having been performed under Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig in 1729 or 1730. Some of the instrumental parts that have survived were indeed demonstrably copied by the great man himself or by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel.

Not very much is known about the life of Johann Bernhard Bach, the second cousin of Johann Sebastian’s father. He was clearly a distinguished organist, and performed that role in major churches in Erfurt, Magdeburg and Eisenach ‒ where, in 1712, he also succeeded Telemann as Kapellmeister of the local court. There is no hard evidence of Johann Bernhard ever having met Johann Sebastian, but given the geographical closeness of their spheres of influence, their mutual links with Telemann, and especially the fact that J. S. clearly knew and valued at least some of J. B.’s music, he surely must have done at some point.

Johann Bernhard’s four Ouvertures belong to the same tradition as the far more famous ones by Johann Sebastian (BWV 1066‒9) and, like those of his illustrious relative, they could just as legitimately be described as orchestral suites. Such works were, as Lejeune reminds us, “thoroughly German creations assembled from individual elements that were typical of French music” – especially, of course, French dances such as the gigue, the courante, the sarabande or the bourrée, but always preceded by a bipartite ouverture. Hence most of the movements recorded here bear titles we also find in the suites of J. S. Bach, with the exception of a rigaudon in the G major overture, a loure in the G minor, and a march and three caprices in the D major. Occasionally we also find titles that evoke a particular mood, such as Les Plaisirs or La Joye. In all there are 29 movements, whereas J. S.’s comparable works have a total of 24.

So is J. B. Bach’s music any good? Well, it doesn’t consistently plumb the depths of the human spirit, but it is always deft, elegant, rather soft-grained and, above all, splendidly melodious. If pushed to guess who had composed this music in an ‘innocent ear’ exercise, I probably would have said Telemann, but Johann Bernhard seems to have possessed a particular gift of his own for writing long-breathed, heart-easing melodies. No fewer than five movements here are entitled air, and that term is always interpreted as a cue for a genuinely beautiful slow or slowish tune. Nothing J. B. does even in such movements begins to match the profundities of, say, the Air on a G String from BWV 1068; but melodies such as that unfurled by a solo violin in the air of his G minor Ouverture are exquisitely crafted and give a great deal of pleasure. Nor do the works lack anything in variety. I would not say that the individual Ouvertures are, overall, hugely different from each other – though the E minor has a subdued and slightly melancholy (perhaps I mean nostalgic) feel, and the D major is marginally the most ‘military’ in character. Their composer is, however, well equal to the task of providing a wide variety of mood, colour, speed and rhythm within each suite of movements, and his music is never for a moment dull.

This sense of lively variety is for certain the product, in part, of L’Achéron’s only obviously controversial interpretative choice. The manuscripts to whose copying J. S. and C. P. E. Bach contributed have only four parts, all for strings. The performances here, however, quite often include other instruments ‒ such as flutes, a piccolo, oboes, a bassoon, a flageolet, or (most commonly) a harpsichord. Given the strong likelihood that the composer never envisaged a single, definitive version of his works, it would probably be pedantically anachronistic to condemn such a practice in principle; and in practice, the extra instruments are generally used with restraint and taste. Their purpose, Lejeune says, is “to emphasise the character of certain pieces” – so the piccolo, say, appears in the rigaudon and the oboes in the march. The various airs are particularly discreetly scored, for strings and an archlute or guitar; and the only occasions where the L’Achéron’s arrangements seem fussy or overdone come in certain gentle movements, like the sarabande of the G major suite and the loure of the G minor, where one’s enjoyment is impaired by some clunkingly over-busy figuration in the harpsichord. Even that, though, is probably a question of recording balance as much as of artistic taste.

Certainly these virtuosic but sensitive performances under François Joubert-Caillet do full justice to the music ‒ as indeed does the recording, which is both clear and agreeably warm, especially in the bass. Excellent documentation and attractive and appropriate artwork (a painting of a masquerade ball from the school of Nicolas Lancret) complete one’s impression that this is a most desirable issue of high quality. J. B. Bach’s music is well worth hearing; and I have no hesitation in commending this disc warmly to anyone with anything approaching a serious interest in the German (or indeed French) Baroque.

Nigel Harris



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