J.B.BACH Orchestral Suites. Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/Hengelbrock (Veritas) – INKPOT

Johann Bernhard BACH (1676-1749)
Four Orchestral Suites (too)
Suite No.1 in G minor
Suite No.2 in G major
Suite No.3 in E minor
Suite No.4 in D major

Freiburger Barockorchester (Freiburg Baroque Orchestra)
directed by Thomas Hengelbrock
performing on period instruments

VIRGIN VERITAS VER5 61485-2
[74:22] mid-price

by Chia Han-Leon
And the answer to the first question is: it’s his cousin. Born in Erfurst in 1676, Johann Bernhard Bach was nine years older than his famous cousin, Johann Sebastian. They both shared the same great-grandfather. An official organist at various churches throughout his life, Johann Bernhard died in 1749, the year before Sebastian himself passed away. Apparently, very few of Bernhard’s compositions survive.

How is the music? As with much Baroque music, it is instantly, recognizably Baroque. Looking for an original voice, I don’t really find one (another Baroqu-ish trait). Is it different from J.S.’s Orchestral Suites? Yes, actually. And did I enjoy these Orchestral Suites? Oh yes I did!

Bernhard’s Orchestral Suites (or Overtures) are mainly scored for a four-part string orchestra, and were much praised by his contemporaries. One wrote simply, “Johann Bernhard composed many attractive overtures, arranged in the Telemann manner”. Even more indicative of their quality is the simple fact that Johann Sebastian considered them worthy of performance and prepared individual parts of Suites Nos.1, 2 and 4 for his Leipzig orchestra. Sebastian’s son, Carl Philip Emanuel (1714-88), helped with the copying. It is through this spirit of “family support” that these wonderful Suites have survived today. [Info derived from the CD notes.]

As Baroque suites (orchestral or otherwise) go, the French element of dance is essential. But as the Telemannian remark above suggests, Bernhard also used the stylistic ingredients of the Italian concerto in these suites. You can hear this immediately in the Orchestral Suite No.1: there is an Italian energetic angularity either fused with or written next to episodes of French dance. The simple but very musical results themselves may have inspired Telemann and J.S. Bach, the latter of whom I think brought the Orchestral Suite genre to another high plane.

The Orchestral Suite No.1 in G minor is scored for string orchestra. After an assertively energetic Overture, there is a beautiful and meditative Air. The mood of confidence returns in the ensuing Rondeau, with its highly memorable themes. Then, names you don’t quite see in Sebastian’s Orchestral Suites appear: a courtly Loure, an urging Fantaisie and a spiritedly serious Passepied. I found the work very satisfying, demonstrating to aural perfection the serious but energetic key of G minor.

The Flying Inkpot Crash Course in Frenchisms of Baroque Music Air: Melody, especially one of singable character. Related to the Italian “aria”.

bathe: Something the French were well-known for NOT doing during the 17th century.

Boure: From Old English “borry” or “borree”. A lively dance style like the Gavotte, in quadruple time beginning on the up-beat.

Caprice: From Italian “capriccio”. Any light quick movement. “Capriccio” means “according to the fancy (i.e. caprices) of the performer”.

femme Nikita, Le: I think Peta Wilson is cute.

Gavotte: an old French dance in common time beginning on the third beat of the bar. Comes from the Pays de Gap region where the people were called “gavots”.

Loure: a type of French bagpipe, but also a slow jig dance accompanied by the instrument.

Passepied: “Pass-foot” A lively dance in 3/8 or 6/8 said to have originated from sailors and spread to the city and courts in the late 16th century.

Sarabande: From the Spanish “zarabanda”. A dance form in 17th and 18th centures which originated from Latin America, reaching Spain in 16th century. Philip II thought it “excited bad emotions” and banned it in 1583.

Oboes appear in the Orchestral Suite No.2 in G major, adding a trumpety presence to the finely-crafted Overture. Listen to how unobstrusively at 2’38”, a secondary singing theme, so brief yet effective, refreshes the quickly moving outer music. Fabulous. The Gavotte en Rondeau is first spritely skipping; then the Rondeau, picking up its companion’s theme, plays with it before returning it, “gavotte”. A solemn Sarabande (III) and a soothing Air: Grave (V) follows, with a solemn Sarabande in between and ending with hopping Gigue.

Back to a minor key goes the Orchestral Suite No.3 in E minor, scored for strings. The Overture gets really exciting after the obligatory slow intro. Listen to the interplay of the strings for its many interesting turns and details. There are two beautifully sad Airs here, matched by a philosophical Courante, ending confidently with another court-serious Gavotte en Rondeau.

In both the Third and Fourth Suites are more specifically “French” movements: the Les plaisirs: Vitement of the Third (with its staccato pa-pap-pum “William Tell” phrase), or the two merry Passepieds of the Fourth. The Orchestral Suite No.4 in D major is very French in character, sporting the ornamentation, turns and phrases you’ll find in, say, Rameau’s Orchestral Suites.

It opens with an Overture that bursts into tutti fanfare frequently – I wonder why Bernhard didn’t include trumpets (and the Suite is already conveniently in D!). There are three lively Caprices in this Suite, plus a very French Marche (i.e. more show than militant). Even more French is the Air: Lentement, sentimental and perfumed. I did not hear the bassoon in these performances until La joye, where it takes centrestage with the oboes. The triumphant Caprice III brings this 74’22” disc to a close.

The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra under Thomas Hengelbrock play everything like they know it from heart, and are enjoying every minute of this music. The recorded sound is gorgeous and immediate. Made in 1990-1, I wonder why it took Virgin so long to issue/reissue this wonderful collection. Three cheers to the Bach family!

CHIA HAN-LEON left all his suitehearts in the 18th century.

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249: 26.7.1998 Chia Han-Leon

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