Notes and Editorial Reviews
An interesting disc documenting the interpretation of Bach's music by his 'own' choir during the 20th century.
In 1212 Dietrich the Oppressed, Margrave of Meissen, established a choral foundation run by members of the St Augustine Order at the church of St Thomas in Leipzig. It included a school where clerical musicians were trained. Soon it became accessible to other boys as well. This has developed into what is today the Thomanerchor of Leipzig. Its present
Thomaskantor Georg Christoph Biller, appointed in 1992, has many illustrious predecessors, like Johann Hermann Schein, Johann Kuhnau, Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Adam Hiller, and in the 20th century internationally renowed masters like Karl Straube and
Kurt Thomas. The latter became an authority on choral conducting after his defection to the West in 1960.
This event bears witness to the trials and tribulations of the choir during the 20th century. Günther Ramin, who became
Thomaskantor in 1939 during the Nazi era, put much effort into keeping the choir independent from the newly founded secular 'Artistic Grammar School of Leipzig'. After the war he concentrated on restoring the former quality of the choir. When he died in 1956 he was succeeded by Kurt Thomas, who during a visit to the West decided to stay there as he couldn't live with the restrictions imposed by the regime of the GDR in regard to foreign concert tours. From 1961 to 1972 the position of
Thomaskantor was held by Erhard Mauersberger, whose brother Rudolf was
Kantor of the other famous all-male choir of Eastern Germany, the
Dresdner Kreuzchor. In 1972 Mauersberger was succeeded by Hans-Joachim Rotzsch who had frequently performed with the choir as a tenor soloist. After Communist rule had come to an end in 1989 a process of democratization and squaring up to history took place. Many people in high places were exposed as former secret informants of the Ministry of State Security of the Communist era. Rotzsch was one of them, and he resigned in 1991. This episode shows the problems confronted by artists, scientists and others living under a totalitarian regime: how to follow what you consider your vocation, without losing your integrity. Many were unable to find the right balance and failed in one or other department.
The political situation also had artistic implications. As artists didn't have the freedom to travel at will, developments in the West in regard to the performance practice of early music had little impact in East Germany. Recordings of period instrument ensembles were hardly available and only sparingly played by public radio. Some were able to listen to West German radio channels and became acquainted with performances by the likes of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Gustav Leonhardt. These circumstances mean that some performances of Bach's music by the Thomanerchor collected on this disc seem to be older than they actually are.
Johann Sebastian Bach was the most illustrious predecessor of the above-mentioned
Kantors, and his oeuvre forms the core of the Thomanerchor repertoire. That justifies a disc which specifically documents how his music has been performed during the 20th century. Obviously the sound of the choir can only be assessed on the basis of recordings. The booklet fails to mention the dates, but the Bach Cantatas Website provides us with these missing pieces of information. The oldest recording dates from 1954: the
St John Passion, directed by Günther Ramin. The fact that the sound is not very transparent is partly due to the mono recording; the recordings from the 1970s and 1980s are far better in this respect. But it is also due to the performances which are slow and rather romantic. With today's conventions in mind this recording is hard to swallow. The opening chorus of the 4th cantata from the
Christmas Oratorio dates from 1958 and was conducted by Kurt Thomas. It is not fundamentally different from Ramin's approach. The two motets, also under the direction of Thomas, show more difference in that considerably more attention has been paid to the text. Moreover, the motets are not performed
a cappella, but with instruments playing
colla voce. The liner-notes state that this is the only recording of the motets by the Thomanerchor which is available on disc. That is incorrect: Archiv reissued recordings of all the motets under Günther Ramin and these date from between 1951 and 1955.
At that time the performances of Bach's vocal music by the Thomanerchor were not that different from those in the West. However, with time performance practice in East Germany increasingly fell behind. The recording of the
St Matthew Passion bears witness to the fact that the music scene in East Germany was missing the change in performance practice in the West. The recording dates from 1970 and was a unique collaboration between the two 'rivals', the Thomanerchor and the Dresdner Kreuzchor, thanks to the fact that they were directed by the Mauersberger brothers. Stylistically it is old-fashioned, and as this recording was only released in 1975 the contrast with the ground-breaking recording by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, released in 1971, is all the more striking. It is only in the choruses from Cantatas 1 and 140 - recorded between 1981 and 1983 - that some influence of historical performance practice can be traced. The tempi are swifter, there is more differentiation between the notes and there are some cautious dynamic accents. The Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum played on modern instruments, and stylistically still lag behind West European ensembles in baroque music. But it is a clear advantage in comparison with the thick and romantic sound of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. These choruses also show some improvement compared with the three excerpts from the
Magnificat which were recorded in 1978.
The Thomanerchor is an institution in Leipzig and the eastern part of Germany in general. It is understandable that the rich history of the choir is documented on disc. Outside Germany those who have a special interest in matters of performance practice or who are interested in all-male choirs may be tempted to purchase this disc. It is a shame that the booklet gives no information as to the recordings from which these excerpts were taken. Those who want to hear more after listening to this disc should go to the Bach Cantata Website mentioned above which is a rich source of information about virtually any recording of Bach's music ever made.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Komm, Jesu, komm!, BWV 229 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Written: circa 1725-1749; Leipzig, Germany
Length: 9 Minutes 50 Secs.
Magnificat in D major, BWV 243: Magnificat by Johann Sebastian Bach
Neues Bachisches Collegium
Written: circa 1728-1731; Leipzig, Germany
Length: 3 Minutes 23 Secs.
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