New Bach Series from Les Arts Florissants

This is the first release in a new series. According to director Paul Agnew, he wants to “understand the life and the personality of Johann Sebastian Bach through his music.” Each volume presents music composed during a particular phase of Bach’s life. 

The goal isn’t to do a complete survey of Bach’s music. Rather, it’s to present representative compositions that illustrate Bach’s personality.

Volume one starts with Bach’s first post as an organist and composer. In 1706, at age 22 he became the organist at the Blasius Church in Mühlhausen. Selections include “Christ lag in Todes Banden” BWV 4, which he submitted with his application.

Agnew and Les Arts Florissants perform this work with modest forces. The musicians available to Bach in Mühlhausen were limited. It was a factor in the music he wrote. These performances provide context by matching the forces Bach had available. 

Benjamin Alard provides some interludes. He plays Bach’s organ settings of the hums used in the cantatas. These also inform. At this time, Bach was better known for his performing abilities than his compositions. These give us an idea of just how advanced his playing technique was at the time. 

Also included is a setting of “Christ lag in Todesbanden” by Johann Kuhnau. Agnew does a little foreshadowing here. Kuhnau was kapellmeister at Thomaskirche, Leipzig. Bach would succeed him in 1723. Kuhnau held his position for over 20 years, and was considered almost irreplaceable. 

Hearing this work, written around 1720 is enlightening. Kuhnau’s textures are more transparent. His counterpoint is a little simpler than Bach’s. But it’s not an inferior work. Kuhnau was one of the most respected composers of his generation and with good reason. Kuhnau’s work gives us the state of music at the time. Bach’s music hints at what was to come.

I’m very much looking forward to Volume 2. 

Johann Sebastian Bach: Early Cantatas, Arnstadt & Muhlhausen (1703-1708)
A Life in Music, Vol. 1
Les Arts Florissants; Paul Agnew, conductor
Benjamin Alard, organ
Harmonia Mundi HAAF 8905364

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