Notes and Editorial Reviews
The composition of occasional music formed an essential part of the work of composers appointed by civic authorities in 18th-century Germany. Just as neither Bach nor Telemann had been exempt from such duties in Leipzig and Hamburg, neither was C. P. E. Bach when he took over his godfather Telemann’s duties in Hamburg in 1768. The demands on his time were immense, the composer himself recording that he had “composed a rather large number of vocal pieces for the church and various festivities, but none of these has been published.” Among this “rather large number” are 18 festive cantatas composed for the induction of new pastors in Hamburg churches, two of which form the main content of the present disc. Like some liturgical cantatas, these are large-scale pieces in two parts that were performed either side of the sermon. Their festive character is enhanced by the inclusion of trumpets and drums, although in the instance of the cantata composed for the induction of Pastor Schäffer in August 1785, they are used only in the first part, perhaps for financial reasons, since a new pastor paid for the music at his induction ceremony. The survival of considerable documentation regarding these inductions includes Bach’s invoices, which in the case of Pastor Friderici’s 1775 service obviously caused the composer payment problems, the invoice being marked “Was paid with reluctance.” Doubtless that caused annoyance to a man who retained a love of money throughout his life, ending it a comparatively wealthy man.
As Ludger Rémy laments in an interesting, if at times somewhat tortuous note, the label “occasional music” has led to these works being largely either ignored or peremptorily dismissed. Although written some 50 years ago, the verdict of the scholar Karl Geiringer remains fairly typical: “Little among this music is of any importance. It is routine work using stereotyped patterns . . .”; and so forth. Leaving aside questions as to how many of these works men like Geiringer actually studied, far less heard, it overlooks the fact that the autographs apparently show that Bach approached the composition of such pieces with great conscientiousness. As the anecdote quoted above suggests, their composition and performance formed an important part of Bach’s Hamburg income, so it was in his own interest to produce good work.
The truth of the matter, as so often, probably lies somewhere in between. No, these cantatas are not masterpieces, but equally on the evidence here they are far from worthless. Neither is helped by the quality of its text, which manage to haphazardly introduce various biblical topics (Schäffer’s cantata includes arias concerned with the Day of the Judgment, Pentecost, and the good shepherd, perhaps a pun on the pastor’s name?) before making any direct reference to the new incumbent. Despite his apparent reluctance to pay up, it was Friderici who got the more ambitious cantata, not only in terms of length, but also scoring that includes two horns in addition to the trumpets and drums. Bach must also have been able to employ a more capable soprano, and bass on this occasion, the former being given an elaborate, high-lying da capo aria requiring a level of virtuosity not called for anywhere in the more straightforward 1785 cantata, while the two bass arias are also demanding pieces with horn parts, the angularity, fierce tremolandos, and generally stormy nature of the first paradigmatic of Bach’s writing at its most dramatic. Regrettably, the solo singing in this cantata, which also includes a splendidly festive opening chorus with a fugue for its second half, is not quite on the same level as it is in the later work. The Himlische Cantorey consists of eight singers (it is known that Bach wrote these cantatas for SATB soloists and a ripieno ensemble of four voices), who share the solos in one or the other cantata, and produce some very fine ensemble singing in the choruses.
Of the three short liturgical choruses that make up a generously filled disc, the most striking is Mein Heiland, a mournful plea to God to answer the endless fight and fear of struggling mankind. The minor mode, chromatic dissonance, and extraordinary harmonic twists all serve to pronounce this a miniature masterpiece. Ludger Rémy’s performances of all this are informed with the idiomatic commitment he brings to all his music-making, and he obtains spirited playing from his own band, Les Amis de Philippe (named in tribute to C. P. E. Bach). The sound is good, if a little constricted; it does seem perverse that when we get so many recordings made in an inappropriate church acoustic, music that belongs there is recorded in a hall. The rarity value alone should be enough to ensure that all Emanuel Bach aficionados will want to acquire this disc, but there’s enough fine music here for it to appeal to a wider audience as well.
FANFARE: Brian Robins