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Cantatas of the Bach Family
Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Stande, Wq/HWV deest [9:27]
Sinfonie in F major, Wq/HWV deest [7:26]
Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795)
Pygmalion, G 50, WohB, Wf XVIII/5 (c. 1770) [33:48]
Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784)
Sinfonie in B flat major, Falck 71/C5 [10:34]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Ich habe genug, BWV 82 (Leipzig version c. 1747) [18:16]
Benjamin Appl (baritone)
Berliner Barock Solisten/Reinhard Goebel
Christoph Hartmann (oboe & oboe da caccia)
rec. December 2019, Jesus Christus Kirche, Dahlem, Berlin
Sung German texts provided

Hänssler Classic is doing valuable work in the categories of Baroque and Classical music. Entitled ‘Cantatas of the Bach Family’, this new release is devoted to music from four members of the extraordinarily gifted Bach family. On this album, the Berliner Barock Solisten (the Berlin Baroque Soloists) directed by Reinhard Goebel and baritone soloist Benjamin Appl play a Bach-family programme ranging from the celebrated to the rediscovered. Of real interest are three world premiere recordings: one of the three cantatas and both the Sinfonien.

Of course, this Bach family theme is not new; I recall Goebel using a similar approach when directing the Musica Antiqua Köln with mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená on the 2005 release entitled Lamento of scenes, arias and cantatas on Archiv Produktion.

In 1995, Rainer Kussmaul, Raimar Orlovsky and other members of the Berlin Philharmonic founded the Berliner Barock Solisten and today the ensemble includes leading figures of the Berlin early music scene. The Berliner Barock Solisten website explains that its performance practice is to play works of the 17th and 18th centuries on period instruments, though modernised, with metal strings, and using bows from various periods, as determined by the work. This approach is described as resulting ‘in a modern interpretation, but without ‘modernization’.’ Here the ensemble comprises of sixteen players including a thirteen-strong string section. Depending on the work to be performed, the ensemble may be directed by the leader; however, on this album artistic director Goebel is conducting using a baton.

Baritone soloist Regensburg-born Benjamin Appl continues to make a positive impression on the music scene. He is active in opera, choral concerts and Lieder recitals - where I am most familiar with him. At the 2018 Music at Paxton summer festival in the Scottish Borders, I reported from a recital on the Picture Gallery given by Appl accompanied by pianist Graham Johnson in a programme of Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Maid of the Mill). It was a delightful recital, and I wrote that Appl was ‘uncommonly assured with notable fluidity.’

Master composer Johann Sebastian Bach was born at Eisenach, Thuringia in 1685 into a music dynasty of which he is irrefutably the kingpin. Johann Sebastian had close relatives going back several generations who were talented musicians. He fathered twenty children by two wives, ten of whom lived to adulthood. The boys were expected to follow their father’s employment in music and the four Bachs who inherited their father’s talent for music, including composition, were Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Christoph Friedrich and Johann Christian.

In 1727 Johann Sebastian wrote one of his best-known sacred works the church cantata Ich habe genug (I have enough), BWV 82 for the February Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary (Candlemas). The cantata appears in several adaptations and here Goebel has chosen the 1747 Leipzig version for bass, strings and basso continuo including an oboe da caccia and organ. The text is from the chapter concerning the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple of Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke. Here, Joseph and Mary encounter Simeon, the service officiant who recognises the baby Jesus as the Messiah and it is thought that the scoring for bass soloist represents the old man. The text holds out the hope that death frees us from the trials of life and offers the joyful anticipation of our entering into a better world.

Immediately noticeable in Appl’s performance is his probity and piety for the spirit of the text. Having listened for comparison to recordings of this cantata sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Thomas Quasthoff and a YouTube video of Christian Gerhaher, the tessitura of Ich habe genug seems a tad low for Appl. However, the renowned second aria Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen (Fall asleep, tired eyes) is an appropriate fit for him. Biographer Albert Schweitzer described Schlummert ein as ‘the lullaby for eternal sleep’ and here Appl’s engaging singing radiates a comforting feeling of tranquillity. The weaving and much-admired oboe da caccia part is here strikingly played by Christoph Hartmann, a member of the Berlin Philharmonic. The third aria Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod (I delight in my death), which concludes the work, is engagingly performed. Appl’s assured contribution and the Berlin ensemble’s adept playing combine with uplifting results to convey the profundity of the text describing how death frees us from the chains of life. In spite of Appl’s worthy endeavours, his performance does not compare to my first choice of recording with bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff who on Deutsche Grammophon gives what I can only describe as a masterclass in Bach singing. Recorded in 2004 in the Jesus Christus Kirche, Berlin, Quasthoff is also supported by the Berliner Barock Solisten with Raimar Orlovsky directing from the violin. Worthy of attention, too, is the 2018 Strasbourg account both sung and directed by countertenor Damien Guillon who is in inspiring form and accompanied on period instruments by Le Banquet Céleste on Alpha.

Weimar born in 1710, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was the second child and eldest son of Johann Sebastian and his first wife Maria Barbara Bach. From 1733 to 1746, he served as organist of the Sophienkirche at Dresden and for his work in the Saxon capital he is sometimes described as the ‘Dresden Bach’. Following his Dresden employment, from1746 to 1764, he was music director and organist also teaching at the Liebfrauenkirche (Marienkirche) Halle and is dubbed the ‘Halle Bach’. Insecure employment and limited finances meant that he died in penury. His output includes a number of sinfonies and Wilhelm Friedeman authority Peter Wollny unearthed the Sinfonie in B flat major for strings & basso continuo, Falck 71/C5, a work thought to have been written prior to 1740. Here, the Sinfonie is receiving its first recording. Employing the Allegro - Andante - Presto design this is an appealingly lyrical work that deserves hearing. Especially memorable is the solemn undercurrent discernible in the Andante and in the outer movements the fluid and upbeat quality provided is marked by Goebel’s exemplary pacing.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was born at Weimar in 1714 the fifth child and second surviving son of Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara. Emanuel’s music is acknowledged as exhibiting a progression from the baroque to the classical era. He is probably best known for his sets of Sinfonien but my particular fondness is for Emanuel’s solo keyboard music, an interest that began in 2001 after hearing an album of ‘Sonatas & Rondos’ by Mikhail Pletnev on Deutsche Grammophon.

Soon after graduating in law, Emanuel turned his back on the legal profession to focus entirely on music. His first appointment was in Berlin as a harpsichordist at the court of Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia (soon to be Frederick the Great) later becoming a member of the Royal Orchestra, a position where he was able to compose prolifically. In 1768, Emanuel was released from the Prussian court to succeed Georg Philipp Telemann as Kapellmeister and Musikdirektor at Hamburg. Emanuel had a heavy workload, being responsible for music at the Lateinschule and five main churches, the Michaeliskirche, Jakobikirche, St. Katharinen, Nikolaikirche and Petrikirche, giving particular focus to sacred works. His choral music is almost entirely a product of his time in Hamburg (1768-88). For his accomplishments in the two cities where he was employed, he is sometimes known as the ‘Berlin Bach’ and later the ‘Hamburg Bach’. I notice on the website that Emanuel is listed as going on to compose twenty-plus Passion settings, around seventy cantatas and numerous other liturgical pieces.

Emanuel is represented on this album by two works, first the church cantata Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Stande (I am content with my standing). Disappointingly, most of Emanuel’s early vocal music is destroyed or lost, but fortuitously in 2009, musicologist Peter Wollny discovered the autographed score of Ich bin vergnügt mit meinem Stande in the St. Johannis archive at Mügeln, Saxony. A captivating and rare early work, the church cantata, a setting of a Picander text, was written around 1733-34 during his Leipzig years for Septuagesima Sunday. Given here as a first recording, this short work is cast in three movements with two arias flanking a central recitative and scored for solo bass, strings and basso continuo. There is an overall buoyancy to the playing of the Berlin soloists especially in the title aria that opens the work. The text concerns the striving for contentment and working hard to provide for family with the help of God’s blessings. Appl is at one with the spiritual message providing an effective blend of sincerity, piety and elation. Less convincing in both arias is the unappealing quality of the baritone’s ornamentation. Included too is the Sinfonie in F major that is marked ‘Mons. Bach de Berlin’ and is attributed to Emanuel. A short work in three movements, the Sinfonie is scored for strings and basso continuo and this is its first recording. The endearing charm of the unaffected playing of the Berlin soloists in the outer movements is immediately striking. Especially effective, too, is the somewhat dark in character, communicating a heavy sense of longing, of the central Adagio movement. 

Born in 1732 in Leipzig, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach was the sixteenth of Johann Sebastian’s twenty children and the ninth child from his second marriage to Anna Magdalena. He was known as the ‘Bückeburg Bach’, after the town in Lower Saxony where worked at the court of William, Count of Schaumburg-Lippe. He was a prolific composer and although many of his works archived at Berlin were destroyed in World War 2, a considerable number survive today.

The legendary figure from Greek mythology Pygmalion is widely known through Roman poet Ovid’s epic narrative poem Metamorphoses. A sculptor, he fell in love with the sculpture of a beautiful woman he had carved which comes to life, and they marry. Capturing the imagination of many, Pygmalion has been the subject of numerous adaptions over the centuries. Christoph Friedrich chose to set the weightily-worded German text to Karl Wilhelm Ramler’s poem Pygmalion, eine Kantate (pub. 1768) for his secular cantata for bass, strings & basso continuo. Although his score is undated, it is known to have been performed in 1772. Here, the Pygmalion Cantata is divided into eleven index points and at almost thirty-four minutes is the longest work on the album. Christoph Friedrich employs a form of melodrama which for its single voice is termed a monodrama, sung here by baritone Appl. Goebel expresses the view that the Pygmalion Cantata is ‘acknowledged as a masterpiece of the ‘empfindsamer stil’ (sensitive/tender style) of writing. Appl gives a fine performance and I admire the way he entirely engages with the text, giving emphasis to significant words. Indeed, he sings splendidly in all three cantatas, projecting his voice well with fluidity and control. These are performances of utmost sincerity and appropriately reverential in these sacred works. As stated above, I cannot appreciate Appl’s style of ornamentation and his baritone can seem rather lacking in colour, yet the positive attributes of this performance outweigh any drawbacks. The Berliner Barock Solisten do not put a foot wrong, providing alert and unified playing which ranges from deeply reverential and contemplative to uplifting ebullience. The sound of the ‘modernised’ period instruments is gratifying and the instrumental soloists, especially Christoph Hartmann on oboe and oboe da caccia, are on peak form.  

Recording for Hänssler in the renowned acoustic of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, the engineering team provides first-class sound, achieving an effective balance between the chamber orchestra and bass voice. In the booklet essay, early music specialist Goebel has written a helpful essay about this programme of works by the Bach family which is a joy to read. Only German sung texts are provided which, for an album jointly aimed at the English-speaking market, is most disappointing.

This fine album of works from four Bach family members should delight both baroque admirers and specialist Bach-dynasty enthusiasts. Hänssler Classic can be justly proud of the insightful programme of this rewarding album which includes three world premiere recordings.

Michael Cookson

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