BACK BEFORE BACH, the latest Navona Records release from the Philadelphia-based ‘Renaissance band’ Piffaro, is an exceptional compendium of sixteenth and early seventeenth century German and Franco-Flemish music. As the album’s title suggests, the group of composers Piffaro features can be seen as the precedent for the luminaries of the German baroque era, specifically Johann Sebastian Bach. With BACK BEFORE BACH simultaneously drawing from a wide variety of genres, yet also focusing on a geographically and temporally limited group of composers, Piffaro succeeds wildly in presenting the musical foundation from which Bach and his contemporaries emerged.
Piffaro specializes in historical performance, and they bring a multidimensional approach to the works on this album. First, Piffaro showcases at least a half dozen different types of Renaissance-era instruments on BACK BEFORE BACH, from shawms and dulcians (early oboes and bassoons), to sackbuts (ancestors of the modern trombone), as well as recorders, krumhorns and bagpipes. Second, each set of pieces is arranged differently, sometimes homogenously but more often heterogeneously, featuring a mixture of the instruments described above. This flexible instrumentation is representative of consort-style performance, which defined instrumental music in the sixteenth century.
This is one way BACK BEFORE BACH is a persuasive time capsule; the other lies in the album’s programming, which illustrates many of the important trends in the era’s sacred and secular music. Consider the album’s dance pieces, for instance, especially Michael Praetorius’ “Volta.” Piffaro’s performance transports us to a noble court and through its driving rhythms and percussion accompaniment beckons us to dance. It is also particularly noteworthy that Piffaro includes a set of German popular songs on the album. Vernacular music from this period was rarely written down and, as a result, tends, unfairly, to be lost to history. The inclusion of these popular tunes is a rare and special treat for those who listen to BACK BEFORE BACH and adds valuable detail to Piffaro’s depiction of the musical world of sixteenth century Germany.
The works that most clearly demonstrate the lineage of German music leading up to Bach are the settings of Christ ist erstanden by seven different composers, including Bach himself. Curated brilliantly, these pieces clearly exemplify the evolution of European composers’ approach to harmony during the transition from the Renaissance era to the Baroque. Along these lines, the earliest of these works feature harmony as an important, yet incidental consequence of thick, contrapuntal webs, while – once we get to Praetorious and Bach – the central thematic material is treated with less rhythmic independence, resulting in a generally clearer, more vertically organized musical construction.