Leipzig 1723
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, BWV 22 (1723)
Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23 (1723)
Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Ich muß auf den Bergen weinen und heulen TVWV 1:591 (1723)
Christoph Graupner (1683-1760)
Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden, GWV 1113/23b (1723)
Aus der Tiefen rufen wir, GWV 1113/23a (1723)
Isabel Schicketanz (soprano), Stefan Kunath (alto), Florian Sievers (tenor), Martin Schicketanz (bass)
Capella Jenensis
rec. 2022, Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig, Germany
German libretto and commentary in German and English included
Accentus Music ACC30598 [77]

The concept behind this release is ideal for period-instrument specialists, which is why I am surprised that none of the high-profile pioneers in this field (e.g., Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Christopher Hogwood, or Trevor Pinnock) recorded this programme in the 1980s. Whereas recordings of the two cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 22 and 23) are readily available, the present disc presents contemporaneous works by Georg Philipp Telemann and Christoph Graupner, performances of which are not easy to find.

The ‘application cantatas’ for the position of Thomaskantor show how our aesthetic values differ from those on the selection committee in 1723. It is not surprising that Bach was ‘only the third choice’ as a successor to Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722). Telemann’s services to music in Leipzig during his tenure as a university student (1701-1705) made him a very obvious first choice. The city council members in charge of appointing the next Thomaskantor knew Telemann’s work and were impressed by the reputation he had developed as a composer during his subsequent appointments (e.g., in Eisenach, Frankfurt, and Hamburg). Graupner, a former member of the Thomanerchor and a pupil of Kuhnau, was another reasonable choice after Telemann refused the post.

Bach, on the other hand, was an outside candidate: some city council members probably neither knew who he was nor had heard a single note of his music prior to his audition. Based on the five cantatas on this CD (the music for one of Telemann’s cantatas is lost), the committee’s preference for Telemann and Graupner is understandable because these two candidates demonstrated their mastery of liturgical music in the required format. Graupner recommended Bach after failing to obtain a release by his employer in Darmstadt, which raises an interesting possibility: without Graupner’s suggestion, the committee might have ignored Bach’s application altogether.

As it stands, the committee voted unanimously for Bach when they finally heard the two cantatas presented on this CD. What comes across strongly in the surviving documents, some of which are cited in the accompanying booklet, is that the counselors involved in the selection process were frustrated and wanted the position filled so that they could turn their attention to other matters.

To put the contest for this job in Leipzig into perspective, these three composers’ contemporary from Halle, Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1759), was well established in London by 1723. His career had already reached a level that none of the applicants to become Thomaskantor ever achieved in their lifetimes. Händel’s stature as the most famous German composer of his generation is another indicator of how tastes have changed in terms of how Baroque composers are ranked against each other. The reverence with which Bach is treated today, thus, contrasts with the opinions of his contemporaries. Posterity has canonised Bach’s surviving output in toto, including many masterpieces that he had not yet written (e.g., the Passion settings and the ‘Goldberg Variations’).

Juxtaposition of cantatas by Telemann, Graupner, and Bach with texts by the same ‘anonymous’ poet demonstrates that Graupner arguably had the firmest grasp of this genre in 1723. Bach’s inclusion of the Lutheran choral version of Agnus Dei ‘Christie, du Lamm Gottes’ at the end of BWV 23 sounds like an attempt to impress the committee because it is not well integrated into the preceding movements. Graupner’s writing, not only here but in other cantatas that I have reviewed, had a level of grace and confidence that Bach had yet to achieve; individual movements (and sections within them) flow together smoothly without ostentation (the Da capo alto aria in FWV 1113/23b ‘Ein Christ, der Christum liebet…’ is an acquired taste, however). Bach should have been grateful that a composer of Graupner’s stature recommended him!

The performers on this disc have adopted Joshua Rifkin’s one-voice-to-a-part format. I will not attempt to refute Rifkin’s thesis here, but will suggest that it is implausible on logical grounds (why would a prospective cantor, whose responsibility it would be to train the Thomanerchor, compose for a quartet that excludes most of the choir?). The challenge with this approach on record is that the absence of a choir places enormous responsibility on the soloists. Paul McCreesh, for example, has made recordings for DG/Archiv that withstand repeated listening because he had some of the finest singers (e.g., Magdalena Kožená and Mark Padmore) who specialise in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century repertoire at his disposal. Rifkin’s own recordings of selected cantatas for Decca in the 1980s had an attractive intimacy that could have been the basis for satisfactory home listening if not for his mediocre (to put it charitably) vocal quartet.

On the present recording, the soloists fare better than Rifkin’s, in part, because they are native speakers who enunciate the texts with ease and clarity. At the same time, the four singers comprising Ælbgut cannot prevent a monochrome feeling from setting in as the disc goes along. A small choir for the choruses might have added some variety and colour to the proceedings. This applies especially to the two Bach cantatas for which several alternatives are available. Ælbgut’s contributions to the Telemann and Graupner works are harder to evaluate because no other versions of these works are at my disposal. The instrumental ensemble Capella Jenensis plays with passion and a sense of abandon that may resemble what audiences in the Thomaskirche would have heard in 1723 when these works were new.

A clear recorded acoustic from the Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche in Leipzig-Connewitz that is free of reverberation lends immediacy to these small-scale performances. Overall, this recording has many virtues, especially its programme and the vigorous, committed instrumental playing that vitalises these cantatas more than the ‘polished’ accounts by other period-instrument specialists.

Commentary in German with an English translation and sung texts in the original language are included in the booklet, which is glued into the right side of a cardboard diptych with a historic illustration of the Thomaskirche and Thomasschule on the front; the disc is stored on a plastic tray in the left side. If the numerous photographs and biographies of the performers had been omitted, the booklet could have fit into a standard jewel case that would make this product more durable. The core elements of a Classical music package are intelligent commentary and, where applicable, the sung texts at least in the original language.

This release encourages speculation about what might have happened if Bach had not been appointed Thomaskantor. Although Bach’s musical output would be different than what we know, not becoming Thomaskantor might have been better for his personal well-being (he wasted an enormous amount of time arguing with the authorities in Leipzig). Bach’s cantatas, moreover, were conceived for performance in early-eighteenth-century Lutheran liturgical contexts (Bach may have found our practice of listening to these works on recordings and in concert bizarre and sacrilegious). If Bach had remained in Köthen as a Kapellmeister for at least a while longer, he might have developed even further as an instrumental composer. He could have proceeded to a more prestigious court and even had an opportunity to write operas. The selection committee’s judgement in 1723 should not be interpreted as an indictment of Bach’s compositional abilities, but rather as evidence that talent and genius do not always correspond to the formal requirements for a particular position.

Daniel Floyd

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