Emanuel Bach’s Marvelous Mag

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

“Magnificent”. Far from just a convenient, catchy word to identify a setting of the Magnificat, in this case it perfectly describes a masterpiece, a 1749 setting of this oft-scored text by J.S. Bach’s arguably most talented son that rivals the father’s own realization, which remains the finest of the German Baroque. Emanuel Bach’s work apparently was submitted in hope of succeeding his father at Leipzig, and on hearing this performance you have to wonder why it didn’t totally blow away any competition. From the very opening bars, especially in this stunning recording, the bright blare of trumpets and horns, the scurrying strings, driven by a charging, purposeful rhythm, make Mary’s opening exclamation–“Magnificat anima mea Dominum”–a truly joyful, exuberant one.

Emanuel studied with his father, and there is plenty of evidence throughout the work’s nine movements of lessons well-learned and artfully applied (the alto aria “Suscepit Israel”, the great final fugue “Sicut erat in principio”), but there are also many stylistic differences: the marvelous chorus “Et misericordia eius”, while containing a Sebastian-like treatment in the bass, with its homophonic texture, soprano-oriented melodic structure, slow-and-steady pulsing rhythm, and striking chromatic harmony shows a clearly different expressive direction and a more “modern” sensibility.

In an unmistakable nod to his father’s Magnificat setting, Emanuel sets the very opening of “Deposuit potentes” (He hath put down the mighty)  for tenor solo with an uncannily similar line, melodically and rhythmically, albeit in a different meter (father’s in 3, son’s in 4). But then, Emanuel goes father “one better” by making his version not a solo but an equally feisty duet with alto trading and/or interweaving lines with the tenor, including within the duet the next portion of the text “Esurientes implevit bonis” (He hath filled the hungry with good things), which Sebastian set as a separate aria–for alto. So, the son does a neat trick, combining Sebastian’s two separate texts and soloists into one duet movement. At the risk of making too much of this, it’s also interesting to note that, clearly the elder Bach wished to distinguish the opposing sentiments of these texts with music of a completely different mood and style–and he fittingly provides one of his most tender arias. Emanuel also considers this textual issue, and for the “Esurientes” section the music abruptly yet somehow seamlessly changes mood, into a sweetly lyrical expression by the two voices, reminiscent of and as affecting as something Mozart might later imagine.

It would be easy to spend much more time expounding and illustrating all the wonderful aspects of Emanuel Bach’s Magnificat music–his command of the orchestra, his masterful aria accompaniments (his father taught him well), his exceptional melodic sense, his absolutely right sense of proportion, not to mention terrific choral writing (he wasn’t only a keyboard and symphonic composer!). Which leads to the other choral work on the disc–the rarely-heard Heilig ist Gott (Holy is the Lord), a somewhat odd but great piece–the text is from the biblical book of Isaiah–that begins with a gentle, short “ariette” for alto, who sings Isaiah’s words from his vision of the Lord on his throne, accompanied by a deftly punctuating orchestra. Suddenly–a chorus enters, softly, distantly. There are two choirs, actually–the first is the choir of Angels, the second the voices of the People. It’s no exaggeration to say that Bach spares nothing in bringing to life the scene and fully expressing the text, of angels and people–of heaven and the whole earth–praising God.

This is also a perfect example of Emanuel Bach’s “style”, in which he’s clearly of his time, employing elements of empfindsamer Stil–particularly the mood and dynamic contrasts–along with an expanded harmonic palette and orchestral effects, while at the same time devoting (in this case) considerable resources to the “old fashioned” grand fugue, complete with cantus firmus (Herr Gott, dich loben wir–We praise thee, O Lord). The lead-up to the fugue is one of the more remarkable moments–from a calm, quiet background the orchestra and chorus erupt, a long crescendo builds, the timpani rumbles and roars. Bach wrote that this work, written in 1776, was his “swansong of this kind…” and would ensure he “would not soon be forgotten” after his death, which came 12 years later. Indeed, as with audiences in his own time, you won’t soon forget this unusual and exciting work.

The D major symphony is another excellent place to start if you want to get to know one of the greatest composers of the 18th century. It’s part of a set of four late symphonies (published in 1780) containing the title “for an orchestra in twelve obbligato parts”. A strange, stop/start introduction in the strings is followed suddenly by the full-orchestra entrance–and subsequently we hear how Bach uses various wind instruments in solo and in combinations that give them a uniquely prominent role. Again, Bach writes with unusual melodic facility and infuses the fast movements with the kind of rhythmic energy that captivates and keeps you happily returning.

I haven’t said much about the performances–perhaps because these singers and players–and conductor–are so in touch and in tune with the music, it all seems so perfectly judged, well-articulated, correctly paced, stylistically pertinent, the nuances and overall expressive elements so profoundly felt in both ensemble and among the very fine soloists, captured in ideal sound at Berlin’s Jesus-Christus-Kirche, that nothing more need be said.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Magnificat; Heilig ist Gott; Symphony in D major: This one

  • BACH, C.P.E.:
    Magnificat Wq 215; Heilig ist Gott Wq 217; Symphony in D major Wq 183/1

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