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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Angenehme Melodei - Homage Cantatas
Erwählte Pleißenstadt (Apollo et Mercurius) (BWV 216a, ed. A. Grychtolik) [22:56]
O angenehme Melodei (BWV 210a, ed. A. Grychtolik) [29:51]
Katja Stuber (soprano), Franz Vitzthum (alto), Daniel Johannsen (tenor)
Deutsche Hofmusik/Alexander Grychtolik
rec. 2016, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem
Texts and translations included
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 88985410522 [52:49]

One of the features of 17th and 18th century music is that often considerable parts of the composers’ output has been lost. Music was not written for eternity, and if compositions were no longer needed, they were destroyed, and sometimes the paper was used for other purposes. Additionally, music often fell victim to disasters, such as fire or war; during World War II many collections of music were destroyed or severely damaged. In the case of Johann Sebastian Bach, there is little doubt that his sons were partly responsible for the fact that parts of his oeuvre were not preserved.

The corpus of secular cantatas seems to have suffered especially severely, probably largely due to the fact that such pieces were written for specific occasions and mostly could be used only once. Sometimes we only have the textbooks and it is simply a matter of our good fortune if Bach recycled a secular cantata for performance with a sacred text. The most famous example is the Christmas Oratorio. In such cases it is possible to reconstruct the first conception of the cantata; the present disc includes two which have been reconstructed by Alexander Grychtolik.

The first piece is Erwählte Pleißenstadt (BWV 216a), which was intended as a homage cantata for the Leipzig city council and dates from 1728. Only the text and the two vocal parts of its predecessor, Vergnügte Pleißenstadt (BWV 216), have survived. The text of the latter was from the pen of Christian Friedrich Henrici (Picander) and intended for the wedding of the merchant Johann Heinrich Wolff and Susanna Regina Hempel from Zittau. In his text, Picander refers to the cities the bridegroom and bride came from: the Pleiße stands for Leipzig, the Neiße for Zittau. The text was adapted by Bach's private pupil and copyist Christian Gottlob Meissner. The roles of Pleiße and Neiße were changed into Apollo and Mercury, scored for tenor and alto respectively.

According to the booklet: "This cantata pays tribute to the city of Leipzig in the form of a dialogue between the gods Apollo and Mercurius (Mercury). The former, the lyre-playing god of light and art, represents the glory and self-confidence of a prosperous metropolis that celebrated its cultural achievements as 'Athens on the River Pleisse' (Pleiß-Athen). His brother Mercury, the messenger of the gods and the patron saint of merchants, stands for the city's economic success, the bedrock on which science and art are able to flourish."

Alexander Grychtolik, in his liner-notes, suggests that this cantata may have been written not as a result of a commission but on Bach's own initiative and performed in private circumstances. The same could well have been the case with the original cantata. This allowed for the music to be reused; it was hardly possible to use the same music for two different public occasions. In fact, part of the music was used three times; for two sections of the wedding cantata Bach turned to older music: an aria was taken from Ich bin in mir vergnügt (BWV 204) and the duet from Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft (BWV 205).

The reconstruction of BWV 216a comprises of the three recitatives and the instrumental accompaniment of the sections 1 (the duet 'Erwählte Pleißenstadt') and 5 (the alto aria 'Mit Lachen und Scherzen'). In the latter, Grychtolik has added an obbligato part for the violin and admits that we will probably never know what the original instrumentation was.

The second piece is a solo cantata for soprano, O angenehme Melodei (BWV 210a). The number in the Schmieder catalogue suggests that this is another cantata which exists in different versions. In this case it is the wedding cantata O holder Tag, erwünschte Zeit. It is not entirely clear when and for whom the latter was written, but it seems that it was in the 1740s. If that is correct, the latter is an adaptation of the cantata which is performed here; in fact, it seems to be the last of four versions in total. The surviving libretto indicates that it was originally written for a visit of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels to Leipzig in January 1729. Bach stood in contact with the Weissenfels court; his Hunting Cantata (BWV 208) was performed there in 1716. Grychtolik believes that the cantata was performed by Anna Magdalena Bach, who had acted as a singer in Weissenfels and was well suited to the demanding vocal part. Later, the cantata was adapted for an occasion somewhere between 1735 and 1740, as a homage to the Leipzig town commander Joachim Friedrich, Count of Flemming, for whom Bach had previously written at least two other cantatas (Verjaget, zerstreuet, zerrüttet, ihr Sterne, BWV 249b, and So kämpfet nun, ihr muntern Töne, BWV Anh I,10 - both lost).

Here, a third version is performed, which is another adaptation of the libretto. As per the booklet, “The occasion for this version is not known. The author "employs imagery familiar to listeners of the day, such as music as a legendary panacea, or the superiority of music to the physical strength of the Old Testament figure of Samson. Toward the end of the piece, the work's addressees are unmistakably lauded as patrons of 'science and art'".

The soprano part of BWV 210a has been preserved, and with the help of the later version it can be reconstructed, as Grychtolik believes that the instrumental parts of both versions were largely identical. That also goes for the solo part, although Grychtolik notes that in BWV 210a it is less elaborate. As Bach always composed new recitatives for cantatas he adapted for a different occasion, Grychtolik wrote the basso continuo parts for them himself.

Considering that the history and development of quite a number of secular cantatas by Bach are rather complicated, one must have the utmost respect for Alexander Grychtolik's attempt to reconstruct some of them. The result is quite interesting and musically convincing. That also goes for the performances. The singing and playing is outstanding. The three soloists are well versed in the historical performance practice of baroque music, and that results in interpretations which are free of an incessant vibrato and in which the text is always clearly intelligible. The recitatives receive appropriate performances. In some arias of O angenehme Melodei I would have liked a stronger differentiation between good and bad notes, in particular in the vocal part. Otherwise I listened with much pleasure to Katja Stuber's performance of the soprano part, which - even in this earlier version - is rather demanding. Franz Vitzthum and Daniel Johannsen do just as well in Erwählte Pleißenstadt. The instrumental ensemble leaves nothing to be desired.

This is a disc no Bach lover should miss.

Johan van Veen



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