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Johann Sebastian & Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH: Solo Concertos & Symphonies

[I] Johann Sebastian & Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH: Solo concertos & symphony
Johannes Rostamo, celloa; Luca Guglielmo, harpsichordb
Orfeus Barock Stockholm
Dir: Luca Guglielmi
rec: Dec 2018, Stockholm, Konserthus (Grünewaldsalen)
Alba - ABCD 448 (© 2019) (61'31")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in a minor (Wq 170 / H 432)a; Symphony in e minor (Wq 178 / H 653); Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1052)b; Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (BWV 76) (sinfonia, arr for violin, cello and bc)abcd

Cecilie Hesselberg Løken, Magnea Arnadottir, transverse flute; Jesper Harryson, Guido Campana, oboe; Hans Larsson, Kerstin Ripa, horn; Jens-Christophe Lemke, bassoon; Elin Gabrielsson (soloc), Amus Kerstin Andersson, Emma de Frumerie, Henrik Peterson, Sten-Johan Sunding, Emma Nyman, Katarina Begtsson, Rena Kimura, violin; Christopher Öhman, Ppascal Siffert, Micke Sjögren, viola; Johannes Rostamo, Daniel Holstd, Valur Pálsson, cello, violone

[II] Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "The Cello Concertos"
Roel Dieltiens, cello
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century
rec: March 2019, Amsterdam, Keizersgrachtkerk
Glossa - GCD 921127 (© 2019) (74'10")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/NL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for cello, strings and bc in A (Wq 172 / H 439)a; Concerto for cello, strings and bc in a minor (Wq 170 / H 432)a; Concerto for cello, strings and bc in B flat (Wq 171 / H 436)

Marc Destrubé, Kees Koelmans, Franc Polman, Irmgard Schaller, Annelies van der Vegt, Sophie Wedell, Dirk Vandaele, Matthea de Muynck, Hans Christian Euler, Guya Martinini, Dirk Vermeulen, Gustavo Zarba, violin; Emilio Moreno, Marten Boeken, Yoshiko Morita, viola; Albert Brüggen, Rainer Zipperling, cello; Margaret Urquhart, double bass; Pieter-Jan Belder, harpsichord

[III] Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Oboe Concertos, Symphonies Wq. 180 & 181"
Xenia Löffler, oboe
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
rec: March 2018, Berlin, Teldex Studio
Harmonia mundi - HMM 902601 (© 2020) (63'12")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in E flat (Wq 165 / H 468); Concerto for oboe, strings and bc in B flat (Wq 164 / H 466); Symphony in F (Wq 181 / H 656); Symphony in G (Wq 180 / H 655)

Gergely Bodoky, Laure Mourot, transverse flute; Xenia Löffler, Michael Bosch, oboe; Erwin Wieringa, Miroslav Rovenský, horn; Christian Beuse, bassoon; Georg Kallweit, Kerstin Erben, Elfa Rún Kristinsdóttir, Emmanuelle Bernard, Verena Sommer, Dörte Wetzel, Gudrun Engelhardt, Thomas Graewe, Irina Granovskaya, Yves Ytier, violin; Clemens-Maria Nuszbaumer, Anja-Regine Graewel, Monika Grimm, viola; Piroska Baranyay, Constance Ricard, cello; Walter Rumer, double bass; Raphael Alpermann, harpsichord

Scores CPE Bach
Scores JS Bach

One of the main genres of instrumental music in the late baroque period is the solo concerto. It emerged in Italy around 1700 and in particular the concertos of Antonio Vivaldi, many of which were printed, attracted much attention and inspired composers across Europe to write pieces for a solo instrument with an accompaniment of strings. Johann Sebastian Bach was one of them: he thoroughly studied concertos by Vivaldi and other Italian composers, which resulted in a number of arrangements for harpsichord or organ. Soon he started to write solo concertos himself, such as the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with solo parts for harpsichord, transverse flute and violin. In addition he composed concertos for violin, oboe and oboe d'amore. Some of them have been preserved, others are only known through later adaptations for harpsichord, which were to be performed at the concerts of the Collegium Musicum in Zimmermann's Coffee House in Leipzig.

His sons also embraced the genre of the solo concerto, but stylistically those are mostly quite different from those of their father. The role of the soloist is expanded; he is mostly more than just a primus inter pares. That is also due to the fact that such concertos were often written for a specific virtuoso, who was not necessarily a member of a chapel. Concertos from the time of Bach's sons also bear witness to the growing popularity and dissemination of instruments. In his early years, Bach did not write any concertante music for the cello. Even in the oeuvre of Telemann, who was open to new developments like no other, this instrument plays a minor role. The fact that Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach composed three virtuosic solo concertos for the cello shows that it was becoming a fixed part of music life, and that its role was not confined anymore to that of a basso continuo instrument.

The first production under review here brings together concertos by father and son Bach. Johann Sebastian is represented by one of his most beloved harpsichord concertos, the Concerto in d minor (BWV 1052. It is often assumed that it is the transcription of a concerto for violin. Not by Luca Guglielmo who, in his liner-notes, states that this view "is to be dismissed in the realm of musicologists [sic] rich fantasy and well known [sic] need to express their opinion". Therefore he believes that the harpsichord concerto is an arrangement of movements from cantatas BWV 146 and 188, whereas those who assume that the concerto was first intended for the violin, think that these cantata movements are arrangements of a concerto from Bach's time in Köthen.

Whatever is the case, it is one of Bach's great concertos, which can become a bit tedious, if it is not played really well by both the soloist and the ensemble. That is not the case here: Guglielmi and Orfeus Barock Stockholm deliver a compelling performance. It is a bit odd, though, that Guglielmi decided to include the cadenza which Johannes Brahms wrote for the last movement. Johannes Rostamo takes a comparable amount of freedom in his cadenza in the first movement of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach's Concerto for cello in a minor (Wq 170). "Since I, as soloist, function as a link between the history and today - and to emphasize my personal connection to this piece - I was inspired to write the cadenza of the first movement combining the elements by Carl Philipp Emanuel with motives by favourite band Radiohead, one of the most innovative and honest bands of our time. I hope you enjoy it!" I have to disappoint him: I do not. The result is rather strange and musically unsatisfying. I don't see any reason for a lenghty passage in pizzicato. This is all the more disappointing, as overall I quite appreciate his performance of this concerto. He is very much part of the ensemble, of which he is also the artistic director. He acts more as a primus inter pares than as the virtuosic soloist.

He and his ensemble show a good feeling for CPE Bach's idiom. That also comes to the fore in the Symphony in e minor. The sudden changes in tempo and character within this piece come off to perfection. This is one of the lesser-known symphonies by Emanuel Bach. An earlier version of this work is scored for strings. The disc ends with a piece by Johann Sebastian, as a kind of bonus. Guglielmi writes that during the recording it "was performed here as a sort of 'Hommage to a friendship' ... It was an occasion to show the common point of view in term of musicianship and music interpretation of four Orfeus members: Elin Gabrielsson (leader) at the violin, Johannes Rostamo (principal cello and artistic director) at the cello concertato, Daniel Holst at the cello continuo and Luca Guglielmi (guest soloist and conductor) at the harpsichord." This Sinfonia is the opening of the second part of Cantata BWV 76. It was originally scored for oboe d'amore, viola da gamba and basso continuo. Later Bach arranged it for organ and as such it appears as the first movement in the Trio sonata in e minor (BWV 528). It receives a nice performance here.

Orfeus Barock Stockholm was founded in 2015. This is its first recording. I would have liked it to present itself with a less conventional programme. The two main works are very well-known and available in quite a number of recordings. Fortunately we also get a less common symphony by CPE Bach. I hope to hear more from this ensemble, as I like its sound and its lively style of playing. The cadenzas are disappointing and prevent me from unequivocally recommending this disc.

As I already mentioned above, CPE Bach wrote three cello concertos. They were probably written for the Bohemian cellist Ignaz Frantisek Mara. Ernst Ludwig Gerber, in his Historisch-biographisches Lexikon der Tonkünstler (1790-92), wrote about him that "in his youth he was an excellent soloist on his instrument, and his tone and execution were extremely impressive". He entered the service of Frederick's court in 1742 as a chamber musician. He also composed concertos and sonatas for his own instrument. These concertos are written in the ritornello form which had been developed by Vivaldi. The Concerto in a minor is the most dramatic and reflects the Sturm und Drang which is so typical of Bach's idiom. In the Concerto in A we find the traces of the Empfindsamkeit, especially in the slow movement, with its many sighing figures. The most galant of the three is the Concerto in B flat. However, the many features of Bach's style, such as sudden pauses, unexpected modulations and a kind of nervosity, manifest themselves in all of them. Technically they are quite demanding and every concerto offers the chance to play a cadenza.

Exactly this is where I have strong reservations regarding the performances by Roel Dieltiens. His approach to the cadenzas is very individualistic. They are rather long, and I find them not always stylistically convincing. It seems to me that in several of them he moves too far away from CPE Bach's style. I also don't see the need to explore the outer ends of the cello's tessitura. The balance between the soloist and the orchestra is different from that in the recording of Orfeus Barock Stockholm. Dieltiens is much more the soloist, and that fits his individual interpretation of the solo part. The playing of the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century is excellent, but in the opening movement of the Concerto in A the articulation is not crisp enough and dynamically the tutti sections are a bit flat. In the opening movement of the Concerto in a minor, Rostamo and his colleagues take a faster tempo (10'05" vs 11'39"); the former is the more satisfying of the two. Dieltiens' recording took place in a church; although there is no real reverberation, there is a little too much space around the instruments, and especially the miking of the orchestra should have been a bit closer. As the reader may have gathered by now, this is not going to be my favourite recording of CPE Bach's cello concertos.

Whereas his cello concertos are frequently performed and are available in several recordings, his oboe concertos belong to the lesser-known part of his oeuvre. According to the composer's own catalogue, they date from 1765. Both are reworkings of keyboard concertos. It is not entirely clear for whom Bach composed them. Jörn Boysen, in his liner-notes to the recording by Anna Starr and Musica Poetica, suggests that they were adapted for Johann Christian Fischer, an oboe virtuoso, who at the time these versions were created, was a member of the chapel of Frederick the Great, in which CPE Bach played the keyboard. However, in the liner-notes to the Harmonia mundi production reviewed here, Peter Wollny states: "We do not know whether Bach wrote his two concertos for a specific occasion or, perhaps, on commission from a Berlin oboist. In any case, they cannot have had any connection with his work at court; rather, one might imagine performances in one of the private 'musical societies' that were established in Berlin on the initiative of well-to-do citizens and acquired great importance for the musical life of the Prussian metropolis from around the middle of the eighteenth century." If they were indeed performed during concerts in Berlin, that does not exclude that Fischer may have been the soloist. Members of Frederick's chapel were free to perform outside the court, when they were not needed during the private concerts by Frederick himself.

It is hard to imagine better performances of these concertos than those by Xenia Löffler, one of the finest players of the 18th-century oboe of our time. She has made quite some impression in previous recordings, and this disc is another great achievement. The beauty of her tone, her well-judged articulation and tempi and the effective dynamic shading all contribute to performances which make a lasting impression. This is the best recording of CPE Bach's oboe concertos available right now. That is also thanks to the energetic and dynamic playing of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. It shows its qualities also in the two symphonies, which show the composer's experimental side in their melodic and harmonic surprises and dynamic contrasts. In short, this is a superb disc.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Roel Dieltiens
Luca Guglielmi
Xenia Löffler
Johannes Rostamo
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century
Orfeus Barock Stockholm

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