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"The Bach Dynasty"

Jocelyn Sakaï, transverse flutea; Guillaume Cuiller, oboeb; Atsushi Sakaï, celloc; Christophe Rousset, harpsichordd
Les Talens Lyriques
Dir: Christophe Rousset

rec: Jan 2007, Paris, Temple Saint-Pierre
Ambroisie - AM 125 (© 2007) (61'26")

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Concerto for harpsichord, oboe, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1059)bd; Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in A (Wq 172 / H 439)c; Symphony for strings and bc in C (Wq 182,3 / H 659); Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784): Concerto for transverse flute, strings and bc in D (BR WFB C15)a

The title of this disc is well-chosen: the Bach's were a large family, and they were active as musicians for four generations. The fifth is represented by just one musician: Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst, son of Johann Sebastian's second-youngest son, Johann Christoph Friedrich. But he was of relatively little importance and with him the name Bach disappeared from the music scene.

Reinhard Goebel once described Johann Sebastian Bach as "a great German oak, who cast a mighty shadow – a shadow that enshrouded not only his contemporaries but the rest of the Bach family in darkness". That is certainly right in that for most people 'Bach' means 'Johann Sebastian'. Even though the members of the Bach family of previous generations and Johann Sebastian's sons are getting more and more attention, they are still in the oak's shadow. And Bach's sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel themselves felt being overshadowed by their father too. The latter told Johann Sebastian's first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, that they had "necessarily to choose their own kind of style because they never would have matched their father in his style".

This disc demonstrates the changes in style between the father and these two sons. The programme opens with one of Johann Sebastian's harpsichord concertos. There are eight of them (apart from six concertos for two, three or four harpsichords), and they are mostly arrangements of concertos which Bach originally wrote for, in particular, the violin and the oboe. Christophe Rousset has chosen the Concerto in d minor (BWV 1059), which is the most problematic of all, as the autograph is very incomplete: only nine bars have been preserved. But those are enough to conclude that Bach has arranged here the Sinfonia which opens his cantata Geist und Seele wird verwirret (BWV 35), and there is general agreement that the Sinfonia at the beginning of the second part of this cantata has been the model for the concluding fast movement. It is assumed Bach arranged the first aria with obbligato organ from this same cantata as the slow second movement, but as here too much reconstruction is needed, in most modern performances a transitional cadence is played, like in the 3rd Brandenburg Concerto. That is also the case here.

Christophe Rousset is an accomplished harpsichordist and his ensemble has demonstrated its quality in a number of fine opera recordings. But in this work by Bach I find them disappointing. The main reason is that the ensemble is too large: five first violins, four second violins, two violas and four cellos. The harpsichord concertos are assumed to be performed by Bach in Leipzig, mostly in rather small venues, like the Café Zimmermann. It is likely the number of players was generally very small, probably just one player per part. The sound of the ensemble is even further blown up by the large reverberation of the church where this recording was made. I also find the playing of Christophe Rousset too mechanical. Gustav Leonhardt, with his Leonhardt Consort, still is the first choice here.

In the other works the size of the orchestra is much more appropriate, but here the acoustics also have a negative influence on the performance. Under such circumstances the articulation has to be sharper than it is here. That is a general problem in these performances anyway. That also means that the performance of the Concerto for cello, strings and bc in A (Wq 172 / H 439) is not ideal. It has a bit of a slow start, as the first movement is too bland. The other two movements are better, but even though Atsushi Sakaï plays well, in particular in the last movement, Alison McGillivray (with the English Concert on Harmonia mundi) is definitely better, because of a clearer articulation, more differentiation and a much better acoustical environment.

The best part of this disc is the performance of the Symphony for strings and bc in C (Wq 182,3 / H 659), the third from a collection of six. These are very characteristic of Carl Philipp Emanuel's style. Their influence went as far as Felix Mendelssohn in his symphonies for strings. The twists and turns of this symphony are well realised by Les Talens Lyriques.

The last piece, the Concerto for transverse flute and orchestra in D (BR WFB C15) by Wilhelm Friedemann, is the least-known item on this disc. It has been recently discovered, as it was part of the archive of the Berlin Singakademie, which disappeared during World War II and was located in Kiev in 1999. Of all the sons of Bach Wilhelm Friedemann remains stylistically most close to his father. His oeuvre shows a kind of conflict between 'old' and 'new'. This concerto is an example: the flute part is certainly not baroque anymore, especially as it moves through two octaves within a short span of time. But the thematic material isn't exactly easy on the ear, as so much music of the time. The largo is unusually long, and the players need great skills to keep the attention of the audience. The players here don't quite succeed in that, I'm afraid. Here again better recordings are available, by Musica antiqua Köln ('Bachiana' – Archiv) or by the Freiburger Barockorchester (Carus).

A programme like this could have been much more interesting if the choice of compositions had been more adventurous, the music had been recorded in a more suitable venue and the performance had been more differentiated and rhetorical. Three of the four works on this disc are available in better performances. That is not a great score.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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