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Wilhelm Friedemann Bach Cantatas
22 Dec 2011

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach Cantatas

In Wilhelm Weitsch’s well-known painting of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the eldest son of Johann Sebastian seems far distant from the cantorial world of his father.

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach Cantatas

Bachchor Mainz; L’arpa festante; Dorothee Mields, soprano; Gerhild Romberger, alto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass; Ralf Otto, Director. Recorded live at the St. Augustine's Church, Mainz, 1 June 2010.

Accentus Music ACC-20103 [DVD]

$22.99  Click to buy

His hat and fur-lined coat suggest a degree of fashionability, his posture is relaxed and at ease, his eyes seem soft and his smile is warm—perhaps even inwardly amused. Little of this suggests the earnestness of his father’s Lutheran orthodoxy nor the serious striving of his father’s musical endeavors. Yet, if personalities differed—and scholars now acknowledge that later accounts of the son’s life are prone to exaggeration—there is much that nevertheless allows us to see the father in the son. Vocationally, Friedemann spent close to twenty years in the employ of Halle’s Liebfrauenkirche, and in that capacity produced a significant number of church cantatas, the genre that his father had brought to new expressive and formal heights. This brilliant DVD presents four of these cantatas—“Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtet,” “O Wunder, wer kann dieses fassen,” “Ach, dass du den Himmel zerrissest,” and “Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen”—in stunning performances by the Bachchor Mainz with the baroque orchestra, L’arpa festante, under the direction of Ralf Otto.

The tutti movements for choir and orchestra tend to reveal Friedemann’s musical formation at his father’s hand, with a substantial fugal component deftly on display. And these movements, such as the first chorus of “Wohl dem” or “Gott fähret,” are performed with highly effective choral articulation and sensitively shaped vocal phrasing. Other instances reveal an engaging programmatic touch, as in the first movement of “Ach, dass du den Himmel zerrissest,” where the rending of heaven is dramatic, heightened by the tension of choral unisons. (The movement is formally interesting, as well, fashioned as a composite movement with chorus, accompanied recitative, and arioso all in one fluid section.)

Of the soloists, Klaus Mertens, well-known for his Bach collaborations with Ton Koopman, is especially fine. He possesses the rare ability to sing with an easy lightness of tone that is nevertheless wonderfully resonant; this serves him well in both recitative and virtuosic arias, of which those with obbligato trumpets and horns are especially fine here. The wind playing of L’arpa festante—prominently paired flutes, paired horns, and paired trumpets—is highly accomplished and brings a richness of color and dynamism to the cantatas’ more affective moments. The recording also includes an instrumental Sinfonia in d minor that is partly an exercise in moody darkness and partly an exercise in spirited counterpoint. The affective vividness and the interplay of emotional contrasts are dramatically compelling, with the orchestra performing with notable elegance.

Filmed amid the decorative richness of the Augustinerkirche in Mainz, this concert of music by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach offers performances of high polish in a contemporaneous setting that beckons to the eye, much as the music beckons to the ear. Surely this is something else about which Friedemann might smile!

Steven Plank

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