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Fabrice Fitch
Gramophone, March 2011

An opulent setting for newly discovered works by the quirkiest of Bach’s sons

In 1999 lost works by members of the Bach family were rediscovered in Kiev. Among them were cantatas by Wilhelm Friedemann, whose tercentenary last year was the occasion for a sumptuous concert at which they were revived. The live recording was made in the beautiful Augustinerkirche in Mainz, whose proportions impose a welcome, restraining harmony on the ornate rococo decoration. I mention the building first because its visual impact is integral to this project’s success, matching the splendor of the music. For it is truly splendid music, and this recording a worthy successor to the cantatas recorded 20 years ago by Herman Max and the Rheinische Kantorei (Capriccio, 11/94). The usual cliché that these works reveal a new side to the composer is here amply justified, for whereas some of the choral numbers on the Capriccio discs seemed a tad undernourished, even perfunctory, the opening choruses here are elaborate and richly wrought, full of the incident that make Friedemann such an endearing figure (albeit an of the misunderstood one). The text of the Christmas cantata Ach, dass du den Himmel zerrissest (“Ah, that you might rend the heavens asunder!”) inspires him to particular boldness, as the choir sing a single line (not, incidentally, a chorale melody) entirely in octaves, and are suddenly interrupted, aptly illustrating the opening words, by the soloists. …some stunning instrumental writing, too, for the bass aria of the same cantata, in which the horns display quite astonishing athleticism. Many of the arias feature a pair of the same kind of obbligato instrument, at various times horns, violins and flutes, and as the band also includes trumpets, oboes, a bassoon and a continuo group boasting a lute, there is variety in abundance.

The Mainz Bach Choir is in every sense a full participant and the instrumentalists of L’ Arpa Festante acquit themselves with distinction. The soloists are evenly matched…The collective sense of commitment, even of enjoyment, is palpable, however. On balance, this may just be the best way to get to know a fascinating composer.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, March 2011

What an absolutely delightful disc this is, not only in capturing the gorgeous ambience of the St Augustine Church in Mainz, but in the presentation of the music! Chief among its glories is conductor Ralf Otto, whose aesthetic in early music exactly reflects my own. These are not chopped, clipped, unemotional performances, but beautifully sculpted and polished musical gems revealing the full emotional impact of these pieces. Otto’s musical philosophy insists on “flexibility of timbre, the use of varied tone color, and textural translucency.” For him, the ability to throw light on a work’s compositional textures is an essential precondition for a deeper musical understanding—and it shows. Even in the earliest cantata presented here, Wohl dem, der den Herren fürchtet, which sounds so much like one of his father’s pieces that only an astute student of J.S. Bach would know that it’s not by him, Otto brings out the full richness and power of the music, and in the later cantatas he is positively transcendent.

Aiding him in his musical exercises are L’Arpa Festante, the famed Mainz Bach Choir, and a quartet of soloists who have it all: beautiful tones, musical sensitivity, interpretive rightness, and flawless technique. Following the J.S.-styled opening cantata, Otto plunges into one of W.F. Bach’s darkest and most enigmatic works, the Sinfonia in d, in which even the faster tempo of the concluding fugue allows virtually no light to brighten the mood. This piece is so dark that even the audience in attendance doesn’t know whether to applaud or not at the end. Then we get a succession of more interesting and innovative cantatas. O Wunder, wer kann, with its almost symphonic opening sinfonia, a well-developed duet for soprano and alto, and a bass aria that fairly bursts with peasant energy and bucolic good humor. The orchestral-choral opening of Ach, dass du den Himmel reminds me very much of his brother C.P.E.’s music, full of Sturm und Drang before leading into the choral section. Here again the arias and duets, though extremely well composed, have a forward-looking style, as does Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen. In this last cantata, Bach wrote a bass aria almost as difficult as Handel’s “Nell’Africana selve,” but far more richly scored and dramatically effective, with contrapuntal trumpets during the interludes. Behind the soprano aria, we get two violins in counterpoint, playing with lute and gamba ground bass. Of the four singers, pride of place goes to bass Klaus Mertens, whose consistently dramatic delivery enlivens every solo and ensemble in which he appears. Dorothee Mields has a very sweet, Emma Kirkby-like timbre, and alto Gerhild Romberger has a wonderful range and richness without resorting to hammering notes on either end of the scale. Georg Poplutz doesn’t have much to sing, but what he does perform also has style blended with a fine energy.

And look, Virginia! There is a Santa Claus…and he brought us texts for all of these pieces without our having to go online and dig them up! This is one of the finest W.F. Bach releases I’ve ever heard, on CD or DVD. If you enjoy this style of late-Baroque music, you owe it to yourself to hear (and see) this magnificent concert. Go for it!

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