BACH: Köthener Trauermusik, BWV244a (Funeral Service for Leopold d’Anhalt-Köthen) – Sabine Devielhe (soprano)/ Damien Guillon (alto)/ Thomas Hobbs (tenor)/ Christian Immler (bass)/ Pygmalion/ Raphaël Pichon – Harmonia mundi HMC 902211, 73:53  [9/23/14] ****:

Bach’s love and respect for the Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen must have been profound; he was to idealize this time of his life forever more, and indeed even after financial considerations forced the Prince to scale back the duties of the brilliant master whom he had brought to Cöthen (in 1716, fresh from Weimar), Bach remained committed on several fronts, and returned often. While Leopold’s reign was generally unremarkable, and his impact on history negligible, he was a confirmed music lover, attended opera often, and played at the amateur level with a great deal of respectability. The ties between him and Bach were genuine and reciprocal.

So it’s no surprise that upon Leopold’s sudden death (most likely brought on because of a health decline due to the death of his two small children not much earlier) not long after Bach left, Bach was asked to compose the funerary services. Picander delivered a poem of twenty-four stanzas divided into four parts, and Bach set about creating a memorial cantata. But the music is lost, and what we have here may in fact have never existed; we do have Picander’s poem, and musicologist Morgan Jourdain has made some assumptions about “what might” have occurred, with Bach taking music from the St. Matthew Passion (most likely first performed in 1727 a year earlier) and his Trauerode, BWV 198, also composed in 1728 for a reposed princess. The idea really began in 1873 when another musicologist noticed that ten of the twelve arias from the Trauermusik matched the prosody of ten movements of the Matthew Passion, and off to the races we go. Since Picander created both texts, there is some method to the madness, though the recitatives still present a problem of authenticity, and in fact the suppositions involved might be completely false—we will never know.

What we do know is that since the music was lost, this attempt may prove the only viable means of ever hearing what must have been a very important composition in Bach’s mind. Though the music will be very familiar to everyone, Bach’s use of parody is hardly something new, and the fully integrated and well-read performances of Raphael Pichon’s Pygmalion ensemble recorded in splendid stereo sound make for an engrossing hour of listening.

—Steven Ritter