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J. C. Bach: Missa Da Requiem, Miserere / Rademann, AAM Berlin

Bach,J.c. / Ruiten / Rias-kammerchor / Rademann
Release Date: 10/11/2011 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 902098   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johann Christian Bach
Performer:  Lenneke RuitenRuth SandhoffColin BalzerThomas E. Bauer
Conductor:  Hans-Christoph Rademann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin RIAS Chamber ChorusAcademy for Ancient Music Berlin
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

J. C. BACH Requiem. Miserere Hans-Christoph Rademann, cond; Lenneke Ruiten (sop); Ruth Sandhoff (alt); Colin Balzer (ten); Thomas E. Bauer (bs); RIAS C Ch; Acad for Ancient Music Berlin (period instruments) HARMONIA MUNDI 902098 (74:55 Text and Translation)

Requiem lovers, rejoice. Here is a rarely heard, only twice-before recorded Requiem Mass—or at least the main torso of one—by J. S. Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, the so-called “London Read more Bach.” Filling out the disc is the composer’s even rarer Miserere in B?-Major, cataloged as T 207/5.

First, let me say that these performances are refreshingly far from the impoverished one-to-a-part affairs so common among modern recordings of large concerted choral works that pretend to historical authenticity. We have here in the RIAS Chamber Choir a choral contingent of some three dozen singers—and that’s not counting the four vocal soloists—and in the Academy of Ancient Music Berlin, an orchestra of some 26 players. In fact, in a review of another Harmonia Mundi release featuring this same ensemble in a program of Vivaldi concertos, I mention just how rich and vibrant is the sound these players produce and how virtually indistinguishable from modern instruments is the sound of their period models.

Two prior recordings of J. C. Bach’s unfinished Requiem, one led by Jos van Veldhoven on Channel Classics, the other by Helmuth Rilling on Hänssler Classic, appear to have been submitted for review, but in both cases, J. C.’s work was glossed over in favor of other works on the discs. So it would seem that some background information is in order.

Bach apparently produced both his Miserere and the partial Requiem in 1757 or thereabouts while in Italy. It was there that he converted to Catholicism and at 25 took up his first permanent post as organist at the Milan Cathedral. What exists of the Requiem are the Introit and Kyrie in F Major and the entirety of the Sequenz, which begins with the Dies irae and ends with the Lacrimosa. And that’s all she wrote. Missing of course are the expected movements that follow: the Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, etc. Did Bach write them and they’re now lost, or was there some reason he decided to stop where he did?

If one can forget for a moment about the liturgical context, the music itself can be quite beautiful, arrestingly so in several places. But putting it together with the text, there’s an odd disconnect between mood or affect—i.e., the melodic shapes and rhythmic patterns—and the words. It may not be quite the giggle that Rossini’s Stabat Mater is, but there’s a definite unsettlement of styles and a mismatch between music and words. The opening Introit and Kyrie, for example, still sound very much under the influence of J. S. Bach, almost as if they could have come from a pastoral chorus in one of the elder Bach’s cantatas or perhaps from one of his motets. But J. C.’s F Major sounds just a bit too serene to have the supplicatory feeling of a plea for mercy.

The Dies irae opens with somber-enough C-Minor chords, but immediately morphs into an almost jaunty, joyful orchestral overture that wouldn’t be out of place in one of J. C.’s sinfonias. Moreover, it bears no relation to the chorus’s entrance it introduces. The wonderful Tuba mirum, beautifully sung by soprano Lenneke Ruiten, is another example. Bach seems genuinely giddy to be summoned before the throne—no trembling or portent of judgment here; this could be an aria from a nonexistent early opera by Mozart.

Much of this, I think, can be chalked up to Bach’s youth, relative inexperience, and, up to this point, his unfamiliarity with the liturgical music of the Catholic Church. Still, as music, the score possesses all of the earmarks of the stil galant and the early Classical period, and it’s tremendous fun to listen to if you just put its text and purpose out of your mind.

The Miserere , divided into nine sections, is cut from much the same cloth as the Requiem, except that it’s even more florid and operatic. Listen for example to the alto and tenor duet, “Asperges me hyssop.” It bounces right along like an aria from an opera buffa by Niccolò Piccinni.

In the realm of Requiems and other liturgical church music, these are not great or particularly important works, but they are, if nothing else, highly entertaining. J. C. Bach was a fine composer, perhaps not quite as talented as his older brothers Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, and certainly nowhere near the genius of his father, but still, he played a significant role in the transition to the high Classical period, and his sinfonias and symphonies, in particular, are always a real delight to the ear.

The vocal soloists are all superb; the choral and orchestral forces are alert, focused, eager, and energetic; and the recording and booklet are up to Harmonia Mundi’s usual high standards. Recommended on all counts, but especially for two unfamiliar works we’re not likely to hear again anytime soon in such committed and excellent performances.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Missa da Requiem by Johann Christian Bach
Performer:  Lenneke Ruiten (Soprano), Ruth Sandhoff (Mezzo Soprano), Colin Balzer (Tenor),
Thomas E. Bauer (Baritone)
Conductor:  Hans-Christoph Rademann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin RIAS Chamber Chorus,  Academy for Ancient Music Berlin
Miserere by Johann Christian Bach
Performer:  Lenneke Ruiten (Soprano), Ruth Sandhoff (Mezzo Soprano), Colin Balzer (Tenor),
Thomas E. Bauer (Baritone)
Conductor:  Hans-Christoph Rademann
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Berlin RIAS Chamber Chorus,  Academy for Ancient Music Berlin

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