In 2011 I reviewed
a recording of Johann Ludwig Bach’s Trauermusik
conducted by Hans-Christoph Rademann. I counted the piece as a major discovery. Indeed, I made Rademann’s exciting disc one of my Recordings of the Year. I speculated that perhaps this was the first recording of the work but I now find that I was wrong for this set of three reissued discs from Capriccio includes Hermann Max’s 1994 recording.
Johann Ludwig Bach’s name may be unfamiliar so it may be worth just giving a little background. He was a distant cousin of Johann Sebastian Bach. Born at Thal, near Eisenach, he was the eldest son of Johann Jacob Bach, an organist, who guided his son’s early musical studies. In 1699 Johann Ludwig entered the service of Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, as a violinist. Eventually, Johann Ludwig attained the post of Kapellmeister in 1711, a role he fulfilled until his death twenty years later. Since he spent his entire working life at the Saxe-Meiningen ducal court it is unsurprising that he became known as ‘the Meiningen Bach’. For much of his time in Meiningen Bach’s master was Duke Ernst Ludwig I, who was duke between 1706 and 1724. It was for the obsequies of Ernst Ludwig that the Trauermusik
was composed, utilising an expanded version of a libretto compiled by the duke himself. For more information about the piece itself may I refer readers to my review of the Rademann disc?
It’s been interesting to compare the two recordings and at the end of the process I find that honours are about even. Time and again I noted down a slight preference for one version over the other in a particular movement only to find that preference being balanced by a verdict the other way shortly thereafter. I think I would summarise the position thus. Both teams of soloists do well. On balance I prefer the Capriccio soprano (Maria Zádori) who strikes me as being just a little less flamboyant than her Harmonia Mundi rival. I also have a slight preference for the Capriccio alto, Lena Suzanne Norin. Both pairs of men are good and I don’t really have a preference. The choral singing and orchestral playing on both discs is very good. As to the conducting, I think that Max is more persuasive than Rademann in one or two movements. In other instances each conductor presents a movement in a different way and I can see the attractions of both – for instance in the closing chorus of Part II, where I like Max’s somewhat delicate, intimate approach though this is not to decry Rademann’s different way with the music. Where I think Rademann has a slight edge is in the celebratory choruses of Part III. His approach is a bit more extrovert than Max’s; for instance when the trumpets and drums make their first appearance – we have to wait for this until the opening chorus of Part III – these instruments are more prominent and celebratory in Rademann’s reading. Both performances are suitably jubilant in the closing chorus and chorale but I think Rademann generates a bit more adrenalin. It’s a question of swings and roundabouts. I think my advice would be that if you have Max’s recording, either in its original issue or through acquiring this box you probably don’t need Rademann also. On the other hand, if your appetite for Johann Ludwig Bach’s music was whetted by the Rademann disc then the purchase of this Capriccio box is probably affordable as well.
If you invest in this Capriccio box you’ll add some more interesting music by Ludwig Bach to your collection even if, overall, the best music is contained in Trauermusik.
Eight of his choral motets are offered on the second disc. To be frank, none of these motets remotely approaches the invention and eloquence of the motets by Ludwig’s illustrious cousin but they are well worth hearing. Most have eight choral parts plus continuo though Gott sei uns gnädig
is cast in nine parts – the sometimes sketchy booklet note doesn’t say in which voice the extra part occurs. Uns ist ein Kind geboren
is a fairly straightforward Christmas motet in eight parts; very pleasing but unremarkable. However, Wir wissen, so unser irdisches Haus
displays some interesting use of two choirs – a more pronounced left/right split between the two could have emphasised that more in this performance, perhaps. There’s further imaginative use of two choirs in Ich habe dich ein klein Augenblick verlassen
where sometimes Bach just uses some of the voices from one of the choirs – tenor and bass, for example; once or twice on these occasions we hear just one voice to a part but I suspect that’s an editorial decision – and a good one - by Hermann Max. These motets, which are thought to date from 1710 at the latest, may not break any new ground but they are good examples of North German choral writing of the period and are well worth hearing.
The third disc offers us the chance to hear Ludwig Bach’s Missa sopra ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’
. This dates from 1716 and it’s an interesting piece for chorus and instrumental accompaniment. There’s a short Kyrie in E minor but the main interest lies in the five-movement Gloria in G major. Here Bach sets the Latin text for SATB choir but, with the exception of the concluding ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, a second soprano choir sings, as a ‘Canto in ripieno’ the verses of the Lutheran hymn, ‘Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr’. I’ve not come across this device before but there’s logic to it since the hymn is a German versification of the Gloria. Much of the four-part choral writing is flamboyant, which may suggest that the Mass was written with a specific celebratory liturgy in mind. It’s an attractive work and Sebastian Bach is known to have performed his cousin’s Mass in Leipzig in around 1727.
The other three works on the third disc, though all styled “Concerto” are, in fact, cantatas. I don’t know how many such works Ludwig Bach composed but Christian Wolff, the leading scholar of Sebastian Bach says that the Leipzig Kantor performed no fewer than eighteen cantatas by Johann Ludwig at Sunday services in Leipzig between February and September 1726. There’s one oddity about these Capriccio performances. According to the booklet the alto arias are sung by Suzanne Norin but I’m pretty sure that the singer is, in fact, a male alto – and a rather good one, too. We’re not told for which Sunday of the year these cantatas were composed though, according to the notes, the texts were compiled for the church year 1704/5; it’s speculated that the anonymous librettist might have been Duke Ernst Ludwig himself. It’s thought that Bach composed the music in 1714/15. As with the motets the cantatas are not desperately innovative – though I like the use of a pair of horns in Ich will meinen Geist in euch geben
– but they are all well worth hearing. One suspects that Bach must have had a very good treble at his disposal at the time of writing this music for both Der Herr wird ein Neues im Lande erschaffen
and Die Weisheit kommt nicht in eine boschafte Seele
include soprano arias that are rich in florid, athletic passagework, all of which is confidently dispatched by Maria Zádori.
I enjoyed all these performances. The standard of playing and singing – both solo and choral – is excellent and Hermann Max seems to direct proceedings with great understanding and no little flair. The sound is good throughout though I believe three different recording venues were used and the sound on the Motets disc is evidently derived from a quite resonant church acoustic, which suits the music rather well.
That neatly leads me on to the documentation. Capriccio has provided a lot of information but unfortunately the booklet has been set using wretchedly small typefaces. This is particularly true of the track-listings. I’m afraid I simply can’t tell you where the recordings were made – or not without guessing – because the typeface is so minuscule as to be illegible to those without 20/20 vision. It seems pointless to include the names of performers, for example, in such small type that the information is hard to decipher. It’s also uncomfortable to follow the texts. I’m sorry to say that this aspect is a significant blot on an otherwise well-presented release.
However, this shouldn’t deter collectors from investigating Ludwig Bach’s sincere and interesting music in these very good performances.