CARL PHILIPP EMANUEL BACH: Die Letzten Leiden des Erlösers (The Last Sufferings of the Savior), Wq. 233 – Christina Landshamer, sop. 1/ Christiane Oelze, sop. 2/ Anke Vondung, mezzo-soprano/ Maximillian Schmitt, tenor/ Roman Trekel, bar./ Ch. Orch. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach/ RIAS Ch. Choir/ Hartmut Haenchen – Berlin Classics (2 discs), 46:56, 47:07 [Distr. by Naxos] *****:
In case you missed it, 2014 was the tercentenary of C.P.E. Bach, second oldest son of Johann Sebastian, and the year saw the release of a number of savory offerings by purveyors of classical recordings large and small. Most of them focused on C.P.E. Bach’s vast catalog of works for keyboard and chamber ensemble, as well as his concerti and symphonies. Choral music didn’t figure so prominently among celebratory releases, but two deserve special mention, I believe. One is a DVD featuring a re-creation Bach’s 1786 Hamburg charity concert lead by Hans-Christoph Rademann (Accentus ACC20320). The high point is a complete performance of C.P.E. Bach’s own forward-looking Magnificat, and there are also excerpts from Daddy Bach’s B-Minor Mass and Handel’s Messiah. This is a must-have for C.P.E. fanciers. The other choral recording that deserves special mention is the one currently under consideration. Soprano Christina Landshamer lends her talents to both recordings and is a pure-voiced ornament to both.
The inclusion of choruses from the Messiah in C.P.E. Bach’s charity concert represents a significant gesture since, as Detmar Huchting points out in his notes to this recording, “as Handel had done in London in Hamburg, Bach aimed to provide a broad audience with religious edification and dramatic entertainment through concertante performances of oratorio.” Bach’s first such work served up for his Hamburg audiences was Die Israeliten in die Wüste (The Israelites in the Desert) in 1769, a year after he replaced Telemann as music director of Hamburg. Like Handel’s oratorios, Bach’s was first performed in the concert hall and intended by the composer as a broadly public entertainment. However, he balked at calling his next such choral work an oratorio and instead dubbed Die Letzten Leiden des Erlösers a Passions-Kantate (Passion cantata), intending it for presentation as part of church services. This is true as well of Bach’s later Passion, The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus (1778).
Unlike the Passions of Johann Sebastian and other masters of the earlier eighteenth century, however, both of these works by C.P.E. Bach represent a new type of Passion, based not on the Scriptures but on texts supplied by contemporary poets. In the case of Die Letzten Leiden des Erlöser, the poet is a rather remarkable woman named Anna Luisa Karsch (1722-1791), who was born in poverty (her father was a brewer) yet whose work came to be admired by the likes of Lessing and Goethe. To our modern sensibilities, the text that Karsch supplied is maudlin, overly sentimental, but it accorded with Bach’s aesthetic known as empfindsamer Stil, the “sensitive style,” whose object was the portrayal of human passions and emotions. (Detmar Huchting reminds us that C.P.E. found his brother J.C. Bach’s elegant Rococo music superficial, engaging the ear but not the heart.)
I have to say that in the early going, C.P.E. and Frau Karsch lay the sentiment on too thickly for me. The music is attractive but sullen, and it tends to plod. I perked up during the stirring tenor aria Wie rhig bleibt dine Angsicht and at a few other high points in Part 1, but the acres of recitative started to become a bit much for me. However, Bach manages to find drama in the text as well; and the pace—and quality of Bach’s inspiration—picks up considerably toward the end of Part 1, a baritone aria (Donn’re nur ein Wort der Macht) with dashing contributions from the horns. Even the orchestration becomes increasingly colorful: early in Part 2 there’s a lovely duet for the sopranos (Must der Geduld und Liebe) to which flutes and bassoons add a delicate filigree. The final choruses and arias have a celebratory air to them as they recount Jesus’s Resurrection, including a grand choral fugue (No. 14) in the best tradition of the House of Bach. In all, this is a powerful and important work.
Hartmut Haenchen and his aptly named chamber orchestra have been serving the interests of C.P.E. Bach for some twenty-five years now, as the conductor reminds us in his autobiographical sketch. The very first recording of C.P.E.’s Berlin Symphonies came courtesy of Hartmut Haenchen (Capriccio, NLA). In Die Letzten Leiden des Erlöser Haenchen and his orchestra do C.P.E.’s music full justice, performing with verve and color. They obviously believe in this music fervently. I’ve already praised Christina Landshamer’s tender and characterful soprano. The other soloists are almost as good though in the later going I notice a bit of a wobble in Christiane Oelze’s soprano, and there’s a noticeable edit in her final aria, Mein tiefgebeugtes Herz wirft sich. Well, this is a live recording, and it was a long evening of music making.
Except for that small flub, the sound from the Berlin Konzerthaus is full, rich, and detailed. The hall adds an attractive resonance without any acoustic smudging. For the C.P.E. Bach enthusiast, this recording is a must, and if you’re unfamiliar with his choral music, this would be an excellent place to start an acquaintanceship.