ALTBACHISCHES ARCHIV–Sacred music by the ancestors of J.S. Bach

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

This fascinating set will be essential listening for fans of the most famous Bach, for it helps put in perspective Johann Sebastian’s historical position–but more importantly, it clearly demonstrates his unapproachable preeminence among members of one of the world’s most distinguished and talented musical families. While most of these cantatas, motets, and arias written in the generation before Sebastian show a similarity of style–largely homophonic, declamatory, straightforward dialogues between chorus and orchestra or between sections of the chorus–there are some notable exceptions. Foremost among these is Johann Christoph’s (a first cousin of Sebastian’s father) strange and wonderful cantata Es erhub sich ein Streit im Himmel, a work for 22 voices. Once performed in Leipzig by J.S. himself, its text is “a depiction of St. John’s vision of the war of the angels”, and Christoph’s exuberant, trumpet-laden setting is reminiscent of the most vivid and boldly scored battle pieces (Biber’s Battaglia, for instance) that were enormously popular during the 18th century.

The cantatas by Johann Michael and Johann Christoph are vastly different from those later, transcendent works by Johann Sebastian, lacking the conceptual sophistication and devoid of the often extended, profound musical explications of the texts. Rather, the layouts tend to adopt a more overtly accessible, conspicuous presentation that eschews thematic development and polyphonic devices in favor of clearly stated, rhythmically square structures that in many cases have more in common with the style of viol consort music of the previous century than with the flashier concoctions of, for instance, Schütz or Gabrieli.

Not surprisingly, the musicians of Cantus Cölln and Concerto Palatino take to this music with sincerity, focused enthusiasm, and appreciation for both the stylistic nuances and occasions for expressive abandon. These scores, which resided in Johann Sebastian’s library and were missing for more than 50 years following World War II, are a priceless legacy from a period of unsurpassed musical creativity, and we are fortunate to have these significant works performed and preserved in such thoughtful, polished, and sonically respectable form. [6/20/2003 & 10/15/2006]



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Recording Details:

Album Title: ALTBACHISCHES ARCHIV--Sacred music by the ancestors of J.S. Bach

Cantatas, motets, & arias by Johann Michael Bach, Johann Christoph Bach, Georg Christoph Bach, Johann Bach, & J.S. Bach -


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