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Uncle Dave Lewis, August 2009

Johann Sebastian Bach’s penultimate son, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach, was the longest lived of the musical Bachs and was placed, just before his father died, in the Bückeberg post in which he served for the rest of his life. This Bach’s posthumous reputation took a heavy hit when a World War II airstrike wiped out the library that held his personal manuscript collection, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen to the part of his output left behind; Christoph Friedrich drew from the galant style of younger brother Johann Christian, had the taste for drama and eccentricity exemplified by his elder brother Carl Philipp Emanuel and, yes, retained some of the rigor and surface features common to the music of his father. Another thing he held in common with his dear old dad was the opportunity to write secular cantatas, and judging from the librettists in these works—Karl Wilhelm Ramler for Pygmalion and Ino and arch-Sturm und Drang author Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg for Die Amerikanerin (The American Girl)—Bach son No. 19 was also drawing upon Carl Philipp Emanuel’s literary friends to provide texts for his cantatas. This Capriccio disc, Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach: Secular Cantatas, contains the best of the bunch; it also features the superb band Das Kleine Konzert led by Hermann Max, and two great talents in terms of singers, soprano Barbara Schlick and bass Harry van der Kamp.

All three works are solo cantatas, and to Harry van der Kamp falls the distinction of performing Pygmalion, a heavily worded Ramler text with emphasis on the oneiric and even some measure of narcissistic overtones; Bach keeps it light through providing a transparently lovely, very active, and athletic musical setting that nevertheless traces the inconstant moods of his character, while making them seamlessly conform to his musical design. One wonders, though, if Bach’s patron, the uncompromisingly macho Wilhelm, Count of Schaumburg-Lippe—the man who coined the phrase “Only defensive warfare is justified!”—might have thought this entertainment a tad light for his court. Nevertheless, Harry van der Kamp musters up enough macho in this fine performance that it seems though it would be enough to please the legendarily picky Count himself.

Die Amerikanerin is just plain weird: the unnamed protagonist goes out into the wild to seek out his fair lover, Saide, only to find her under siege from monsters, giant snakes, and a scorpion. He does not get to her in time and dies along with her after “drink[ing the poison] from her veins”—shades of Count Dracula, or Crocodile Dundee, perhaps. Yuck; but once again Bach keeps the music light and elegant, only hinting at the tragedy unfolding before the spectator and moving into a mode of piquant poignancy with the final scenes. The title of this cantata was originally Lied eines Mohren (A Moor’s Song), but apparently changed—and its locale moved to America—upon publication in 1776, hoping to plug into European interest in the New World resulting from the unbelievable news that America had decided to separate itself from England. Die Amerikanerin also ties into the well-documented European notion of the time that Americans lived in no more than a land of savages, wild animals, and countless dangers, though as it turns out, not the tigers dogging at the heels of the protagonist in this cantata; when America finally drew up its Federal Constitution in 1787, this work appeared in print once again.

Ino stands apart from the other two owing to its seriousness and far superior libretto; Hera and Ino, in flight from Athamas, who has gone mad, fling themselves into the sea and encounter Neptune, who saves Ino from certain death by transforming him into a sea god. This effort—boldly colored and muscular from the very start of it —cannot have failed to impress Count Wilhelm, and it is just as impressive today. As these modest dramatic efforts of Bach son No. 19 go, in the congenial atmosphere of the first two cantatas Bach may have been drawing upon the example of his father’s cantata Herkules auf dem Scheidewege with its empty, silly portrayal of Hercules, painted in heroic histrionics. However, the better text and more interesting content of Ino spurred Bach into a higher level of interest and activity and really demonstrate what he was capable of.

Barbara Schlick was at the peak of her powers in this recording, and the playing by Das Kleine Konzert is crisp, alert, and energetic…a wealth of such good performances in such rare and interesting literature.

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