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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Concertos for one and two harpsichords

[I] "Concerti à Cembalo concertato - Harpsichord concertos, vol. 2"
Aapo Häkkinen, harpsichord
Helsinki Baroque Orchestraa
Dir: Aapo Häkkinen
rec: Sept 2011, Rauma, Pyhän Ristin Kirkko*; May 2010, Karjaa, S:ta Katarina kyrka**
Aeolus - AE-10067 (© 2013) (62'30")
Liner-notes: E/F/D
Cover & track-list
Scores BWV 1054, 1055 & 1057

Johann Sebastian BACH: Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in D (BWV 1054)*a; Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in A (BWV 1055)*a; Concerto for harpsichord, 2 recorders, strings and bc in F (BWV 1057)*a; Fantasia for harpsichord in c minor (BWV 906)*; Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784): Concerto for harpsichord in G (F 40 / BR WFB A 13)**

Julien Martin, Hanna Haapamäki, recorder; Sirkka-Lisa Kaakinen-Pilch, Minna Kangas, violin; Petri Tapio Mattson, viola; Heidi Peltoniemi, cello; Anna-Maaria Oramo, organ

[II] "Concertos for Two Harpsichords"
Masaaki Suzuki, Masato Suzuki, harpsichord
Bach Collegium Japanb
Dir: Masaaki Suzuki
rec: Jan 2013, Tokyo, Saitama Arts Theatre Concert Hall
BIS - BIS-2051 (© 2014) (71'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list
Scores BWV 1060-1062

Johann Sebastian BACH; Concerto for 2 harpsichords, strings and bc in c minor (BWV 1060)b; Concerto for 2 harpsichords, strings and bc in C (BWV 1061)b; Concerto for 2 harpsichords, strings and bc in c minor (BWV 1062)b; Johann Sebastian BACH, arr Masato SUZUKI: Overture No. 1 in C (BWV 1066), arr for 2 harpsichords

There are many recordings of Bach's harpsichord concertos available. One would think that there is hardly a need to add a new recording to what is already on the market. However, the performances by Aapo Häkkinen are unconventional in several respects. Most of these were already present in Volume 1.

There are eight concertos for harpsichord and instrumental ensemble, BWV 1052 to 1059. The first six of these have been preserved as a set and date from 1738-39. The two remaining concertos are of an earlier date and were not included. All of these are transcriptions of concertos which Bach wrote for different scorings - especially oboe/oboe d'amore or violin - and which he prepared for performances as part of the concerts of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig.

Aapo Häkkinen's performances are different from what is common today in historical performance practice. Firstly, he uses a copy of a harpsichord with a 16' stop. In his liner-notes he gives much evidence of such instruments being quite common in Saxonia. I have always been quite sceptical about this issue; it is probably too early to tell whether the use of such a harpsichord is historically justified. Let us treat it as an interesting option which is open for debate. I am a little puzzled by the way the harpsichord sounds here. In the two solo pieces it are alright, but in the concertos I find the balance between the harpsichord and the strings unsatisfying. The harpsichord seems poor in overtones and sounds rather muffled; in the tutti episodes the strings almost drown it out. I wonder whether this problem has to do with the instrument Häkkinen plays: a copy of a Johann Adolph Hass of 1760, made by Frank Rutkowski and Robert Robinette in 1970 and once owned by Igor Kipnis.

The second aspect is the scoring of the basso continuo. Häkkinen uses an organ here; he delivers some arguments neither of which seems conclusive. I am not convinced that this makes sense. To be honest, I hardly heard the organ play, and I didn't miss it. Moreover, if the harpsichord which also participates in the tutti plays with a 16', why use an organ? Häkkinen also states that the concertos were intended for a performance with one instrument per part, without a 16' string bass. The former part of this statement is not new; Gustav Leonhardt, in the first recording of all the concertos on period instruments, followed the same practice. That is different with the second part: Leonhardt used a double bass, and most recordings since include also a violone or double bass. Häkkinen writes that in BWV 1055 the violone seems the only string bass and that "Bach's refined octave adjustments to the bass lines of Concerto VI [BWV 1057] clearly show the violone to play a 8' pitch". So far so good. But: the list of performers doesn't mention a violone player, only a cellist.

An aspect which seems new to this second volume is the pitch of a=440 Hz. This issue is not mentioned in the liner-notes to the previous volume. Again Häkkinen points out that historical evidence shows that the common low pitch (a=415 Hz) of today's historical performance practice can not be considered the standard at the time. He quotes Bruce Haynes who stated that the period around 1740 was marked by a "bewildering variety of pitch standards". Häkkinen refers to woodwind instruments by the Denner family which were pitched between 430 and 450 Hz. He also mentions extant woodwind instruments of a little later which have a pitch of around 440.

The performances of the three concertos don't convince me, but this disc is certainly interesting in regard of performance practice. It makes one think again about things which are taken for granted, and that is not a bad thing. The two solo pieces come off much better, and here the harpsichord also sounds better. Bach's Fantasia in c minor dates from the late 1730s, and has been preserved in two autographs. In one of them it is followed by a fragment of a chromatic fugue which has been omitted here. The most interesting item is the Concerto in G by Bach's eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann. It is in the tradition of the concerto transcriptions as they were written by Johann Sebastian, but also by Johann Gottfried Walther and Christian Petzold. There is certainly also a similarity between this piece and Johann Sebastian's Italian Concerto which is part of the Clavier-Übung II. It exists in two versions; Häkkinen doesn't reveal which of the two he plays. I have never heard it before, and I assume there are very few, if any, recordings of this concerto.

The second disc has little to offer in regard to performance practice. We get here the three concertos for two harpsichords and strings two of which are also transcriptions of previous compositions for different scorings. BWV 1060 is assumed to be a transcription of a concerto for oboe and violin, and in this scoring it is one of Bach's most popular concertos. The Concerto BWV 1062 is a transcription of the Concerto for two violins BWV 1043. The Concerto in C seems to be conceived from the start as a concerto for harpsichords. However, it has survived in two versions, one with and one without string accompaniment. It is assumed that the latter is the first, and that the string parts were added later.

The Concerto BWV 1060 is the best of the three as far as the performance is concerned, whereas BWV 1062 is the most disappointing. Obviously father and son Suzuki are excellent keyboard players and the Bach Collegium Japan is a first-rate ensemble. It is a matter of style: I would have preferred a sharper articulation, a stronger contrast between good and bad notes and - generally speaking - a more speechlike performance. This is too smooth for my taste, and that also goes for the string parts which lack colour and should have more dynamic accents.

The most interesting part is the arrangement of the Overture in C (BWV 1066) for two harpsichords. As we have seen arrangements of instrumental works for keyboard was quite common. Therefore this transcription is an interesting addition to the repertoire, especially because it is scored for two keyboards; such repertoire is rather rare. The Suzuki's deliver a fine performance, and I hope that the other overtures will also be recorded in this scoring.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Bach Collegium Japan
Aapo Häkkinen
Helsinki Baroque Orchestra
Masato Suzuki

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