|These two discs of sacred cantatas by Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann, make a valuable contribution towards a fuller understanding of this highly gifted but complex and somewhat enigmatic member of the Bach clan. The cantatas also remind us both that the Bach tradition was kept very much alive in Saxony after J. S. Bach's death in 1750. |
In the mid-1740s Wilhelm Friedemann was appointed Director of Music and organist at the Marienkirche at Halle. He remained in the post for almost 20 years, a period which witnessed the composition and performance of all the cantatas represented here. Among the many delights to be found in this music are those occasioned by Friedemann's disparate, even opposing terms of reference. In other words the stylistic vocabulary is both rich and varied, often harking back to a strong paternal influence—what better one has there ever been?—but with equal fluency reflecting the current galant style, fragrantly seasoned from time to time with the spirit of the more northerly German empfindsamer Sill. J. S. Bach's idiom, for instance, is startlingly apparent in the opening chorus of the Advent cantata, Lasset uns ablegen die Werke der Finsternis ("Let us cast off the works of darkness"). Here, both the scoring for four-part chorus with trumpets, drums, flute, oboes and strings, and some of the musical content itself have an affinity with the opening chorus of 0 ewiges Feuer (BWV34). Both the arias of this fine cantata are of high quality, the first, for soprano with obbligato flute ably demonstrating how carefully Friedemann thought out his declamation. This is a movement of real distinction, lyrical, poignant and admirably well sustained.
The remaining three cantatas are rich in points of interest. The athletic trumpet and vocal writing of the opening chorus of the St John's Day cantata, Es ist eine Stimme eines Predigers in der Waste ("The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness") are immediately arresting; so too, is the wonderfully rhapsodic organ obbligato which accompanies the galant, virtuoso soprano aria of the same work. By contrast, the cello part of the following continuo aria for bass, though virtuosic, has its foot firmly in baroque phraseology. The cantatas, Dies ist der Tag ("This is the day") and Erzittert und fallet ("Tremble and fall") probably date from the late-1750s and are less Janus-like in their musical stance, The Whitsun cantata, Dies ist der Tag is a particularly festive piece which is prefaced by a three-movement Sinfonia scored for horns, flutes, oboes, bassoon and strings. This in fact replaces the more usual elaborate choral movement, choral writing being confined to a sim ple concluding hymn verse. The two arias, one with limpid writing for two flutes, the other with horns, are beguiling and thoroughly au courant with the developing style of early classicism. Erzittert und fallet was composed for Easter Day and begins with a vocally demanding chorus foreshadowing Telemann's "Es rauscht" at the beginning of the second part of his oratorio, Der Tag des Gerichts (1762). The three arias are in strong contrast with one another. One, for tenor, is lightly accompanied by two flutes, the second, a ravishing pastoral duet for soprano and baritone with oboe d'amore, the third, for soprano, a turbulent evocation of "floods and thunderous lightnings". What of the performances? Well, for the most part they are excellent, discovering with eloquence and stylistic assurance the multifarious details and subtleties of Friedemann Bach's skill in this medium. The four soloists are first-rate with Barbara Schlick and Wilfried Jochens qualifying for special mention: and I found the singing of the Rheinische Kantorei effective, too, though just occasionally its component 16 voices sounded under threat from Bach's sometimes exacting requirements. Das Kleine Konzert under Hermann Max is strongly supportive throughout and its obbligato players sensitive to the needs of its vocal partners.
Imaginative programming, sympathetic performances and, for me, something of a musical revelation. Full texts and informative notes set the seal on recordings of distinction. Very strongly recommended.--Gramophone