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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Concerti à Cembalo concertato - Harpsichord concertos, vol. 1"

Aapo Häkkinen, harpsichord
Helsinki Baroque Orchestraa

rec: June 2010, Karjaa, S:ta Katarina kyrkaa; Espoo, Sellosalib
Aeolus - AE-10057 (© 2012) (65'17")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list
Scores BWV 1052, 1053 & 1056;
Score BWV 971

Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1052)a; Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in E (BWV 1053)a; Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in g minor (BWV 1056)a; Concerto nach Italiaenischen Gusto for harpsichord in F (BWV 971)b

Riccardo Minasi, Minna Kangas, violin; Petri Tapio Mattson, viola; Heidi Peltoniemi, cello; Mikko Perkola, violone; Anna-Maaria Oramo, organ

The concertos for harpsichord and strings constitute a part of Bach's oeuvre which has been the subject of many musicological investigations. The reason is that neither of them was originally conceived for this scoring. They are arrangements of concertos which Bach had written in either Cöthen or Weimar and which he adapted for performances during public concerts in Leipzig. Since the original versions have been lost musicologists have speculated about their scoring. Attempts have been made to reconstruct them, and these reconstructions have also been recorded. But in the end these are the result of much speculation and assumptions. The versions for harpsichord are the only ones which are authentic for sure.

There is no lack of recordings of these concertos, both on harpsichord and on piano. The accompaniment varies from one instrument per part to a full-blown chamber orchestra. The present disc is the first of two with the six concertos BWV 1052 - 1057. There are several features of these interpretations which make them an interesting addition to the discography, independent of their artistic qualities.

First of all a performer has to establish the version he wants to use. The concertos have come down to us in an autograph score, but this has undergone several corrections, "sometimes to the point of illegibility", Aapo Häkkinen writes in his liner-notes. "We have done our best to establish the "final" variants of all these instances". This had its most obvious effect in the Concerto BWV 1056. In the autograph score it is in the key of F minor, but in Bach's revised version it was transposed to G minor. Häkkinen expresses his surprise that the Neue Bach-Ausgabe used the latest revision as its primary source, but transposed it back to F minor. As a result that is the version one is used to hear in previous recordings. This is probably the first recording in G minor.

The second aspect concerns the choice of the harpsichord. In recent times musicologists and performers have shown great interest in the phenomenon of the harpsichord with a 16' register. Several recordings with music by in particular Bach have been released in which such a harpsichord was used. These were confined to music for keyboard solo. The present disc is the first in which the 16' is used in keyboard concertos. In my reviews on previous recordings I have expressed my skepticism towards the use of a 16', for musical reasons but also because it seemed to me not quite clear how common such instruments were in Bach's time. In his extensive liner-notes Aapo Häkkinen discusses this subject and refers to various books and articles which seem to lead to the conclusion that such instruments were indeed rather common. So I probably should overcome my skepticism and accept it as a plausible option. Even so, whether Bach himself indeed performed the harpsichord concertos on such an instrument remains a matter of speculation.

The scoring of the instrumental ensemble with one instrument per part, as in this recording, is not new. The first complete recording of the harpsichord concertos on period instruments, by Gustav Leonhardt, already practised this scoring. He used a double-bass in the ensemble, and that instrument is omitted here, on the basis of musicological research. Here the ensemble includes a violone as a rule playing at 8' pitch, in order to reinforce the tuttis. Leonhardt - and most later interpreters - omitted an additional keyboard instrument for the basso continuo. Häkkinen uses an organ in his ensemble. He states that positive organs and portable chest organs were common at the time. Because of the fact that a harpsichord was sometimes used in sacred music "the idea of a continuo organ in harpsichord concertos does not seem far-fetched". Among all the interesting ideas in this recording this one seems to me the least convincing. I don't see the need for an organ when the harpsichord - which is also involved in the tuttis - is played with a 16' stop.

I have to admit that I needed to get used to the sound which the ensemble and the harpsichord produce here. As I have noticed in previous recordings of a harpsichord with 16' register the descant seems to be a little dull and lack presence. This impression was corfirmed here, in particular in the Concerto in d minor, although my experience was a bit more positive when I listened for a second time. It is probably a matter of perception, caused by the fact that the lower part of the harpsichord is much stronger. I still don't like the sound very much, though. But if this is indeed the way Bach wanted his concertos to be played, so be it. Aapo Häkkinen delivers good performances of the solo part. I am less enthusiastic about the strings. I don't find their performances always very subtle; especially in the Concerto in d minor their playing is sometimes too abrasive, even rude. The tempi of the Concerto in E are surprising: the opening allegro is rather moderate, and as a result there is hardly a difference in tempo between this movement and the following siciliano.

As a kind of bonus we get the Italian Concerto (BWV 971), which is part of the Clavier-Übung II. It makes sense to choose this piece, as we have here a solo concerto with soli and tutti played on a single instrument. In the fast movements we hear the harpsichord with its 16' stop in full fling. It certainly results in a highly dramatic performance, but I am not sure whether it would make less impression without the 16'. Interestingly Aapo Häkkinen uses a harpsichord which was owned by the late Igor Kipnis, built in 1970 after an original instrument by Johann Adolph Hass of 1760.

Whatever one's assessment of the artistic merits of this disc, it certainly is an intriguing contribution to the Bach discography.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

Relevant links:

Aapo Häkkinen
Helsinki Baroque Orchestra

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