Bach Sterbens GEN22800

Die Kunst des Sterbens – Ars moriendi
Franz Vitzthum (alto)
Ensemble il capriccio
rec. 2022, Martinskirche, Müllheim, Germany
Texts and translations included
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Naxos
Genuin GEN22800 [59]

Two events span every human being’s life: birth and death. Both have been and are the subject of products of art, books and music. In the course of time much music has been written at the occasion of someone’s death, especially the Requiem Mass. In Protestant Germany death also was the subject of many compositions. They could be very different, but they were connected by one thought which is a central issue in Christian thinking: death as a transition to life everlasting. That manifests itself probably more clearly in the oeuvre of Johann Sebastian Bach than in that of any of his contemporaries. In his cantatas the faith in a life after death could take the form of a longing for death, as we find it, for instance, in the last aria from his famous cantata Ich habe genug: “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod” – With joy I anticipate my death. This longing for death cannot be fully understood without knowing of what often preceded it: a life full of trials and tribulations. The phrase from Acts 14 (vs 22), which opens Bach’s cantata BWV 146, “Wir müssen durch viel Trübsal in das Reich Gottes eingehen” (We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God), was a reality in many people’s lives, and certainly Bach’s own.

If one wants to put together a programme on the ‘art of dying’, there is much to choose from. The performers have focused on Bach’s oeuvre, but started with a piece by Johann Christoph Bach, son of Bach’s great uncle Heinrich. He was highly respected within the Bach family. He left music for keyboard – both free works for harpsichord and chorale-based organ pieces – as well as motets and cantatas. Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben is ranked among the motets, but Johann Christoph called it an aria. That is understandable as the soprano part has marked soloistic traits, especially in the closing lines. Therefore the adaptation for solo voice and instruments performed here does sound quite natural, as if it was written for this scoring.

The core of this recording is Bach’s Kunst der Fuge. It has been selected because it is connected to the last stage of Bach’s life. It may well be the last work he took care of, although one should be careful not to make too much of it. Many myths have been woven around this work, and some of them were brought into the world by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Bach started to compose this cycle of fugues in 1742, and revised it in the last year of his life. In its definitive form it was published in 1751, one year after the composer’s death. Part of the myth roots in the last fugue, called Fuga a 3 Soggetti, which is unfinished. That is to say, it is in the printed edition. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has suggested that originally it may well have been finished, not as a fugue with three, but with four themes. The second myth concerns the chorale arrangement which was added to the edition, known as Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit. In the preface, CPE Bach claimed that “the blessed author” dictated the chorale “extemporaneously from his pen” on his deathbed. That is unlikely, as the piece was written at least ten years earlier, and this was a reworking of a piece from the Orgelbüchlein, with the title Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen sein. It is performed here on the organ; the cantus firmus is played on the violin.

The last fugue is performed here after the chorale, and then in a version with a text, sung by Franz Vitzthum. The performers follow a suggestion of Harry van der Kamp, who with his own Gesualdo Consort Amsterdam recorded (Sony, 2005) an eight-part arrangement with the text of the last stanza of Vor deinen Thron, “Ein selig Ende mir bescher”: “Grant me a blessed end, awake me on the Day of Judgement, Lord, that I may behold you for all eternity: Amen, Amen, hear me!”

The selection of fugues is performed by a string quartet. The late Gustav Leonhardt convincingly argued that the Kunst der Fuge was conceived as a work for the harpsichord. However, because of its polyphony, it perfectly lends itself for performances by an ensemble of instruments. Many such versions are available on disc, by string quartets, recorder quartets and even orchestras. In this performance on four period instruments the different parts in the polyphonic web are clearly discernible, and the work gets a different dimension. The performers explore the possibilities of their instruments by creating a dynamic shading that is not possible on the harpsichord.

The longing for death manifests itself also in the closing chorale from Cantata BWV 56, where death is called the brother of sleep: “Come, O Death, thou brother of sleep, come and lead me away. Loosen my ship’s oars, bring me to the safe port! Those who will may shun thee, Thou canst but make me glad, because by thee shall I come to my dear Saviour.”. In the remaining vocal items, it is especially sin and worldly life that is presented as opposed to what the Christian should be aiming at, and which was the cause of death in the first place. In the chorale Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, the believer asks for mercy, as he has sinned against God. The organ part is performed by strings, whereas Vitzthtum sings the cantus firmus. The tempo seems a bit too slow. In the aria ‘Stirb in mir’, taken from the Cantata BWV 169, Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, worldly pleasures are presented in opposition to the love of God: “Die in me, vanity, wealth, lust, you corrupt carnal instincts!”

All the pieces performed here are rather well-known, and that goes even for Johann Christoph Bach’s aria. However, the way the music is performed and the concept in which the various pieces are presented, makes this disc an interesting addition to the large Bach discography. Van der Kamp’s arrangements adds to the value of this disc. Franz Vitzthum is responsible for sensitive and expressive performances. His experience in this kind of repertoire and the fact that he is a native German speaker result in fully idiomatic interpretations. I can’t remember having heard the Ensemble il capriccio before. I hope to hear more from them in the near future, as they give here a very good account of themselves.

I have very much enjoyed this disc and Bach lovers should not miss it.

Johan van Veen

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Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703)
Es ist nun aus mit meinem Leben
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080):
Contrapunctus I
Contrapunctus V
Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (BWV 169):
Was ist die Liebe Gottes – Stirb in mir, rec & aria
Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080):
Contrapunctus IV
Contrapunctus VIII
Ich will den Kreuzstab gerne tragen (BWV 56):
Du, o schönes Weltgebäude, chorale
Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080):
Contrapunctus IX
Contrapunctus XI
Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (BWV 721)
Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (BWV 668)
Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080):
Fuga a 3 soggetti (Ein selig Ende mir bescher)
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170):
Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, aria