Thursday 27 April 2023

Leipzig 1723: we know Bach won, but the fascination of hearing the application cantatas for the Thomaskantor position from Telemann, Graupner and Bach in superb performances

Leipzig 1723: Application cantatas for the Tomaskantor position - Bach, Telemann, Graupner; Ælbgut, Capella Jenensis; Accentus
Leipzig 1723: Application cantatas for the Thomaskantor position - Bach, Telemann, Graupner; Ælbgut, Capella Jenensis; Accentus

Cantatas from the top three composers who applied for the position ultimately taken by Bach in 1723; beyond the historical fascination of the programme, this a most musical and rewarding performance.

In 1722 the composer Johann Kuhnau died, after 21 years of service as St Thomas Cantor in Leipzig. The role was a municipal one, the St Thomas Cantor was the music teacher at the most famous boarding school in Protestant Germany, as well as being required to arrange for his students to sing at the four Leipzig churches, perform his own cantatas at the two largest churches using the said students, and be director of music for Leipzig. Kuhnau had been much beloved, and the city councillors were on the lookout for a replacement, someone who could fulfil the role including writing good church music which would reflect well on the city.

The search was a protracted one. One complication was that the candidate had to be able to teach Latin, though, in fact, two of the candidates gained permission to use a substitute. First choice was Georg Philipp Telemann, but his existing employer (the city of Hamburg) increased his salary and he withdrew. Second choice was Christoph Graupner, but he was kapellmeister at the Darmstadt court and Graupner was not released by the court. Finally came Johann Sebastian Bach, who was Kapellmeister in Köthen, and as we all know, the role went to him. Each composer came to Leipzig for an audition, performing two new cantatas at a service. Only one cantata by Telemann survives.

On this fascinating and enterprising disc from Accentus, Leipzig 1723Ælbgut and Capella Jenensis perform the five surviving cantatas, Bach's Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe, Graupner's Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden, Telemann's Ich muss auf den Bergen weinen und heulen, Graupner's Aus der Tiefen rufen wir and Bach's Du wahrer Gott und David's Sohn. Ælbgut is a chamber music ensemble founded by soprano Isabel Schicketanz, alto Stefan Kunath and bass Martin Schickentanz, and these three singers are joined on the disc by tenor Florian Sievers. The period instrument ensemble, Capella Jenensis features 21 players on the disc led by concert master Yves Ytier.

Telemann was a logical first choice, not only did he already hold a similar municipal position in Hamburg but he had studied in Leipzig from 1701 to 1705, where he had held music director positions and composed cantatas for the Thomaskirche. Graupner had a similar link, he had studied at the school in Leipzig under Kuhnau. At Darmstadt, he was responsible for writing music for the court chapel, though he would presumably have to understand to modify his style to suit the more sober tastes of the Leipzig burgers. Bach was an intriguing choice as his position at Köthen involved no church music, the court was Calvinist, and Bach's output was largely instrumental apart from a pair of secular cantatas each year.

Leipzig 1723 recording session - Ælbgut, Capella Jenensis - Accentus (Photo: Linda Muller)
Leipzig 1723 recording session - Ælbgut, Capella Jenensis - Accentus (Photo: Linda Muller)

Bach's Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe is compact yet sophisticated and without any element of theatricality, which would have pleased the more conservative members of the council. It opens with a lovely arioso for tenor and bass, moving yet gloriously musical, showing off tenor Florian Sievers and bass Martin Schickentanz to their best. The whole disc is sung by just the four, as may well have been the case in Leipzig, though you can't help feeling that perhaps the singers would have felt on show as much as the candidates and that each candidate was probably faced with a three-line-whip ensemble. Alto Stefan Kunath has a soft-grained voice and gracefully duets with an oboe in his aria. Sievers' second aria is full of swagger whilst is one of those where Bach surrounds a simple four-part chorale with elaborate instrumentals.

Graupner's Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden begins in far grander style, with oboes and trumpets in positively Handelian mode, with a joyful chorus that seems made for larger forces. The perky alto aria does have its showier elements, though Kunath's performance has its careful moments in the passagework. Sievers is elegant in a solo that though not bravura does have a whiff of the theatre about it. We return to grandeur for the final chorus.

Telemann's Ich muss auf den Bergen weinen und heulen begins with a graceful alto aria, with a lovely flute solo. The rather chromatic solo line takes us closer to Bach than Graupner, perhaps not surprisingly. The bass aria has a nice swagger to it, with a bit of bravura. This is the only bass aria in the whole set of cantatas, were the composers warned away from bass solos? The flute is back with a busy line in the rather galant soprano aria, engagingly sung by Isabel Schickentanz. And her second aria rather continues the mood, and we realise this is a da capo aria, despite an interrupting recitative from alto as the first aria returns. A typically sophisticated piece of Telemann construction. The concluding chorale is simple and effective.

Graupner's second cantata, Aus der Tiefen rufen wir, is also rather idiosyncratic in construction, featuring three longer movements. The striking opening chorus again seems aimed at larger-scale forces, again the adjective Handelian springs to mind. The middle movement is an accompanied recitative for soprano, tenor and bass, striking and moving but also a tad operatic? The second chorus is full of imaginative touches and goes with a rather nice swing.

The disc ends with Bach's second cantata, Du wahrer Gott and Davids Sohn, again compact and sophisticated. We open with a long soprano and alto duet, featuring extensive writing for oboe solos, which intertwine and alternate with the voices in Bach's finest manner. sophisticated, moving and arresting. After a tenor recitative, comes a pair of choruses, the first extended and sober with the vocal writing complemented by fine instrumental writing, and then another extended chorus, this time a treatment of Luther's hymn Christe, du Lamm Gottes. Here was Bach showing the utmost musical imagination whilst mixing in with sophistication and sympathy to text and to local sensibilities. Nothing showy here, this was music in the service of God.

The disc was recorded in Leipzig, though at at more recent church rather than one Bach would have known. The disc includes texts and an excellent article on the music and historical background.

Whilst we know what the result of the auditions was, it is fascinating to hear the music from the three composers side by side, to hear the different qualities that each was trying to bring out. I also enjoyed the performances, we might only have four singers but at all times they give a rich and well-rounded performance so that voices take their place in the instrumental textures. Beyond the historical programme, this is a most musical and rewarding performance.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwolfe
Christoph Graupner: Lobet den Herrn alle Heiden
Georg Philipp Telemann: Ich muss auf den Bergen weinen und heulen
Christoph Graupner: Aus der Tiefen rufen wir
Johann Sebastian Bach: Du wahrer Gott und David's Sohn
Aelbgut (Isabel Schicketanz, Stefan Kunath, Florian Sievers, Martin Schicketanz)
Capella Jenensis
Recorded at Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig, July 2022

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