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Christ lag in Todes Banden
Heinrich BACH (1615-1692)
Ich danke dir, Gott [8.22]
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707)
Passacaglia in D minor [6.34]
Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703)
Die Furcht des Herren [10.18]
Lieber Herr Gott, wekke uns auf [3.53]
Georg BÖHM (1661-1733)
Organ Prelude on Christ Lag in Todes Banden [4.50]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Cantata BWV4: Christ Lag in Todes Banden [20.28]
Bachplus/Bart Naessens
rec. 2018, Luca School of Arts, Campus Leuven, Belgium

I was especially delighted to receive this CD for various reasons, but one was more than pertinent because it arrived just as I returned from holiday.

It had been a joy and privilege to be in Leipzig in mid-September. The Schumann house was reopened on September 14th, the day of Clara’s bicentenary, and the day before my wife and I had visited the two churches in Leipzig associated with Bach’s long tenure there: the Nikolaikirchhof and more especially the Thomaskirchhof, where the master’s greatest works were first performed. Opposite the latter church is the Bach Museum and on the first floor, embedded in the wall is the huge Bach family tree, and if you press a button you can hear a piece by any member of the family that is available on CD.

The first track on this new disc is the only surviving vocal work by JSB’s great-uncle Heinrich Bach, Ich danke dir, Gott. The CD booklet, like the Bach museum, likes to call JS Sebastian, so I will do the same here. This motet was influenced by Schütz, who studied in Italy, which gave his music and the German Protestant composers in general a lighter touch, a greater willingness to indulge in more unconventional harmonic progressions and even to touch on divided choirs - cori spezzati.

The next track is an organ work, a Passacaglia in D minor by Buxtehude and, by a happy chance, as our son lives in Copenhagen, we revisited the Carmelite Priory Church of St. Mary in Helsingor, one of the most beautiful in Denmark and where the young Buxtehude was organist; a plaque to him is placed under the organ gallery. I had a good look at the instrument dating from 1634, although it has been partially reconstructed, and I have it on good authority that this Passacaglia might be an early work. Anyway, Bach considered Buxtehude so important that he walked from Arnstadt to the wonderful city of Lübeck about five hundred kilometres away to hear the great man play and particularly to improvise, and that was probably in 1706, the year before Buxtehude died.

The Schütz style would, however, have appeared rather ‘old-hat’ by the mid-18th Century, so why is it significant here? Sebastian was very aware of his ancestry being partly, as least, responsible for a family archive which despite various vicissitudes has come down to us as the ‘Alt-Bachisches Archiv’. Among the pieces and composers represented is one especially admired and loved by Sebastian: the Advent motet Lieber herr Gott, wekke uns auf written by his uncle Johann Christoph in the cori spezzati style, although rather restrained. Indeed, one of Sebastian’s last musical deeds was to prepare parts for a performance of it intended, it is thought, for his own funeral service.

It may be that Johann Christoph also composed Die Furcht des Herren, although Johann Michael (1648-94) is probably more likely. It is an odd work in which the voice of ‘Wisdom’ reminds members of the town council of the best ways to govern and lead, and features several soloists voicing various town officials. However, the music is not didactic but quite joyous and the text flows seamlessly. Like all of the pieces recorded here, it has eight voices including the soloists and a band of strings with some wind and organ, making a rich texture.

The main work on this disc and the piece which gives it its title is Sebastian’s Easter Day Cantata Christ lag in Todes Banden (Christ lay in Death’s Bonds), an astonishingly early work from 1708. It is preceded by an organ prelude on this Lutheran hymn by George Böhm (1661-1733) whom Bach may well have known and who may well have tutored him. Interestingly, Sebastian must have thought very highly of his own cantata as it was the first he put on in Leipzig in 1724 and again in 1725 - although rescored. The version here is the string-orientated original.

As Stefan Grondelaers points out in his excellent booklet essay, Sebastian’s respect for older masters and styles often led him to heights of old-fashioned polyphony, as in the lovely fourth verse for chorus only, but the cantata is also given solo and duet verses with the chorale melody always audible somewhere in the texture. There is a brief Sinfonia at the start and the fully harmonised chorale ends the work.

The performance is altogether pleasing and, to quote one of my students, ‘attention-grabbing’, with fine, clear voices and neat choral work not only in this cantata but also in the other pieces.

As mentioned above, the CD, which comes in a cardboard casing is accompanied by a very informative essay and all texts clearly set out and translated, with several photographs of the recording sessions. A little confusingly, the composers’ names are given only on the listing at the back of the case. The recording is close and vivid but also provides a good sense of the almost ideal, church-like acoustic of the building.

Gary Higginson

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