Altbachisches Archiv

Cantus Cölln, Concerto Palatino, Konrad Junghänel
153:00 (2 CDs)
harmonia mundi HMG 501783.84

A collection assembled – and in a number of cases, performed – by Johann Sebastian of works composed by the older members of the remarkable Bach family was recognised after his death as an important testament to J. S. B.’s reverence for his ancestors’ musical genius and came to be known as the Altbachisches Archiv before the end of the 18th century. Ending up in the Berlin Sing-Akademie library, the collection was first published in 1935, but went missing in the course of the 1939-45 war, re-emerging in Kiev. After being restored to Berlin at the end of the last century the pieces were worked on by Peter Wollny, a frequent author of Bach CD liner notes, whose essay here gives a detailed account of their contents as well as provenance.

Konrad Junghänel recorded them in 2002 with Cantus Cölln and Concerto Palatino, and these two CDs contain all the material in the Archiv together with a couple of additional motets by J. C. Bach (1642-1703), the most represented member of the ancestral clan, and the composer of the spacious 22 voice Michaelmas cantata where a choir of four trumpets and drums vies with two five voice vocal choirs and a string group of two violins and 4 violas, fagotto and continuo to represent the war in heaven which C. P. E. says his father performed in Leipzig to astonishing effect.

It is excellent to have the whole Archiv performed together, and with such fine singing and playing.The eleven singers are variously accompanied but the useful page detailing the exact instrumental and vocal registration of each piece is hidden in the middle of the substantial booklet; nor does this page follow the performing order given in the two title pages. And while we are given the scoring, we have no details of the actual instruments, pitch or temperament. But the substantial nine-page essay by Peter Wollny is given in French, English and German.

One gem among many is the last track of CD 1, a substantial wedding cantata by J. C. Bach, Mein Freundin, du bist schön, for which the parts are in the hand of Johann Ambrosius – the father of J. S. B. – which suggests that it may well have been performed at the marriage of J. C. B. in 1679. Much of the cantata is a dialogue between the lovers, and there is a long soprano aria over a ground bass where the accompanying instruments – a single violin, three violas with violone and continuo – perform remarkable ‘divisions’; this is followed by a chirpy fagotto obligato before a final gigue-like finale involving all the instruments, the voices of the choro and the four-part ripieno group.In other numbers, the inner parts in the string ensemble are often performed by a number of violas and sometimes violas da gamba, and frequently there is an independent fagotto part, as in J. S. B.’s cantata 150 or 131.But although these pieces illuminate the young J. S. B.’s technique and instrumentation as what we have come to know as ‘the orchestra’ was evolving out of the chori of different families of instruments and voices, they are nearly all fine compositions in their own right, and even the simpler motets for four voices or two four-part chori with organ (and sometimes cornetto and sackbuts) show us the range of styles that surrounded the growing J. S. B., and illuminates the background of his struggles with the church authorities in Leipzig to try and achieve groups of singers and players who could do justice to simpler homophonic and contrapuntal motets alongside the more adventurous demands of his cantatas and the Passions. Who, hearing these earlier pieces so convincingly performed with one voice or instrument to a part, could imagine the similarly scored Weimar cantatas sung or played in any other way?

So what happened in the Köthen and early Leipzig years to incline him to increase the number of (especially violin) players per part? And – the number of surviving singing parts notwithstanding – under what circumstances did he double or treble or even quadruple the number of voices per part with ripienisten, as the distinction in some later cantatas between solo and tutti as well as his desideratum in the famous Memorandum (Entwurf) of 1730 for a choir ‘pool’ of 12 or even 16 voices, suggests? For some of these motets, J. S. B. added doubling string and wind parts. There are questions that still need addressing, and this recording of the Altbachisches Archiv raises them sharply.

This is a finely performed and important collection: singers and players alike cultivate a clean and matching style, where each listens to the shaping of the other. No-one who is serious about learning how J. S. B.’s style of choral writing evolved from the time of Schütz through his distinguished ancestors can afford to miss this; and no-one can fail to enjoy these affective settings of texts that often have a personal – a wedding or a funeral – association; or even a family reunion, as in Georg Christoph’s cantata setting of Psalm 133, (CD 2.7) which Wollny convincingly argues was written for 16 September 1689, when G. C.’s twin brothers visited him in Schweinfurt to celebrate his birthday, joining their two tenor voices to his bass.

David Stancliffe