Critic’s Notebook: What Does It Mean to Play the ‘Best’ of Bach?

So there was the Ring, which dominated the festival’s opening weekend — astounding, exhilarating, exhausting, a major artistic and audience success. 33 cantatas, some 18 hours of music performed within 48 hours by top-flight interpreters. The list was unquestionably impressive in variety and dramatic range, as fellow completists can attest, especially as brought to life by Mr. Gardiner.

Bach’s cantatas, exalted as some of them seem, were utilitarian creations. As Thomaskantor, Bach was responsible for music in the city’s major churches, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. Each week he presented a cantata by himself or by another composer — a “sermon in sound,” as it was often called at the festival — relating to the Gospel text for the particular Sunday.

During his first years in Leipzig, Bach, though busy with teaching and family, usually presented his own works, developing several annual cycles. He often wrote from one week to the next. What that meant, Mr. Wollny said, was that Bach typically had to write a cantata in three days — from, say, Sunday afternoon to Wednesday morning — before turning it over to copyists to prepare the parts for rehearsal.

Given such stringent demands, the level of workmanship and imagination in these works is remarkably high. But how to choose one work over another for today’s listeners? (They are already somewhat falsified, as was pointed out by several speakers, by being presented three or four at a time in a concert setting.)

Mr. Maul, for his part, backed off the notion of “best” a bit in a conversation after the Ring weekend, allowing that these selections might more properly be called merely personal favorites (on whatever basis).

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