Bach and his Rivals – Cantatas for audition at Leipzig 1722/3, and for 30 January 1724 in Hamburg, Darmstadt, Leipzig

Georg Philipp Telemann, Christoph Graupner, Johann Sebastian Bach
The Bach Players, dir Nicolette Moonen, Rachel Elliott S, Sally Bruce-Payne A, Simon Wall T, Matthew Brook B
132:11 (2 CDs)
Hyphen Press Music 008
Georg Philipp Telemann: Laß vom Bösen und tue Gutes TWV 1:1038, Wer sich rächet TWV 1: 1600, Overture in F sharp minor, TWV 55: fis 1
Christoph Graupner: Aus der Tiefen rufen wir GWV 1113/23a, Gott führt die seinen wunderbar GWV 1115/24, Ouverture in C minor GWV 413
J.S. Bach: Jesus nahm zu sich die Zwölfe BWV 22, Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen BWV 81

The interesting idea behind these two CDs packaged together is to give us a snapshot of what three jobbing musicians were producing at a fairly pivotal moment in their careers. Two and four years older than Bach respectively, both Graupner and Telemann were schooled at Leipzig, outlived Bach and both produced far more that the Bach output that has survived. Telemann, C.P.E. Bach’s godfather, was Leipzig’s first choice in 1722 but didn’t want it, Graupner couldn’t be released from his post at Darmstadt, so they called Bach for interview. It is instructive to hear how ‘modern’ Graupner’s music already sounds at this stage – more melodic and ‘orchestral’ in a modern sense. Telemann has obviously been influenced by the Italian and French music to which he had been introduced. Beside them, Bach’s unusual scoring, free way of illuminating the texts both Biblical and poetic, shaping them with recitative, aria and duet as well as chorus all vary the texture and intrigue us. Bach’s theological creativity makes the others seem less imaginative about the text; they already have half a foot in a symphonic future where the general mood of a piece can be reflected, rather than each word or theological concept prized.

Each CD contains an instrumental piece – by Telemann on the first and by Graupner on the second. Otherwise the Telemann cantata on the first, probably written in 1719, was performed in the Thomaskirche in 1725, while those by Graupner and Bach were their audition pieces. The link between the three on the second CD is that they were all written for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in 1724 – three treatments of Jesus stilling the storm, the gospel for that day.

These two CDs – recorded a year apart – offer us a chance to stand back and question our settled assumptions about Bach’s magisterial primacy, but at the same time to reaffirm what a very distinctive and unique voice – as well as a somewhat old-fashioned one – he offers. The players in the Bach Players – one to a part strings, with a pair of oboes/recorders and a bassoon and a keyboard – cultivate a beautifully clean tone, which some of the singers match better than others. Simon Wall is the cleanest, and it is easiest for his kind of light tenor voice; but both Matthew Brook and Sally Bruce-Payne are equally convincing both when singing singly and as part of the vocal ensemble and suggest hidden depths. Rachel Elliott as always draws the short straw: it is so much more difficult for a soprano to match the clean and almost steely tone of the violins and still sound both interesting and musical: she does really well but has to work hard to give that clean clarity in the chorus passage work and a steady tone in the homophonic passages before switching to a more soloistic vocal style in her (rather few) arias. This is my only uncomfortable moment with these quality performances, and perhaps it is because Nicolette Moonen herself gives no quarter. I like it, but it is very hard to match vocally.

The recording is close – you can hear every bow stroke as it was played; and the balance between strings and wind, instruments and voices is beautifully judged. The photographs showing how they stood in live performances may not reflect how the recordings were achieved, but a group like this, performing cantatas as intimate chamber music, never has to force their sound. This is a huge advantage over large-scale performances directed ‘at’ rather than performed ‘among’ their listeners.

As always with this group’s production there is a minimalistic package, concealing a very well researched and intriguing essay by Hugh Wood with Stephen Pedder giving both the background to these auditions and a detailed analysis of the music. This is programme planning of a high order, and we are lucky to eavesdrop on their performances.

David Stancliffe