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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): 4 Overtures (BWV 1066 - 1069)

Concerto Köln

rec: May 23 - 27 & June 7 - 10, 2010 Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
Berlin Classics - 0300061BC (2 CDs) (© 2010) (1.26'02")

Overture No 1 in C (BWV 1066); Overture No 2 in b minor (BWV 1067); Overture No 3 in D (BWV 1068); Overture No 4 in D (BWV 1069)

Considering the fact that the four Overtures belong to the most popular works of Johann Sebastian Bach there is no need to write much about them. Everyone knows by now about the origin of the genre of ouverture-suites for orchestra and their character. Apart from Bach's four contributions to the genre we now have many recordings of such works by other composers, like Georg Philipp Telemann, Johann Friedrich Fasch and Christoph Graupner.

There is one issue which needs special attention. The Overtures have been preserved in manuscripts from Bach's period in Leipzig. This has led some scholars to believe they were written in Leipzig, probably with the exception of the first. But other scholars think Bach has written the Overtures before he went to Leipzig, either in Weimar (1708-1717) or in Cöthen (1717-1723). This is also the underlying view of this recording. This has had consequences for the choice of pitch. Sylvie Kraus, one of the violinists of Concerto Köln, writes in her programme notes: "It was fashionable at the time of the rampant France-fever to invite French woodwind virtuosi to the German courts, possibly leading to the acceptance of the French tuning pitch of a'=392-394 Hz". She refers her to the research of the American oboist and musicologist Bruce Haynes. This low pitch is also used in this recording.

Although Ms Kraus rightly shows some caution here - so far it is a theory, not an established fact - it is certainly an interesting experience to hear Bach's Overtures at this pitch. There is only one problem: if the Overtures were indeed originally written in Weimar or Cöthen, it is very unlikely the first versions were identical with the Overtures as we know them from the Leipzig manuscripts. Music was usually reworked or adapted to new circumstances if it was performed again. I only need to mention here the harpsichord concertos which also date from Bach's Leipzig years but were transcriptions of earlier works with a different scoring of the solo parts, mostly for violin or oboe. From this one has to conclude that the use of the low French pitch only makes sense when the Overtures are performed in their likely original form. Monica Huggett has made an attempt to do so in her recording of the Overtures with her ensemble Sonnerie, although without adopting the French pitch. But what we have here is a performance of the Leipzig versions at a pitch which was possibly used in Weimar and Cöthen, but certainly not in Leipzig at the time the Overtures were reworked and performed. (It is true that Bach used instruments in tief-Cammerton during his first year in Leipzig, but apparently only in sacred music. His public performances of instrumental music are from a much later date anyway.) Therefore this interpretation is implausible from a historical perspective.

Let us turn to the actual performances. Firstly I am pleased that the overtures of the four suites are played at full length, meaning that the two sections are repeated twice: ABABA. As a result the opening movements last about 10 minutes and as a consequence Concerto Köln needs two discs.The first disc begins with the Overture No 3 in D, for strings with oboes, trumpets and timpani. I like here the differentiation between good and bad notes, which underlines the rhythmic pulse. This Overture comes off best in this recording. And in the other three Overtures there are many things to enjoy, for instance some ornamentation from the various instruments. Now and then there is some flexibility in the tempo, but not very consistently.

There are several aspects which I didn't like very much. Some tempi are odd, either too slow or too fast. I fail to understand why the air from the Overture No 3 has to be played so slowly: this is no music for a funeral. The treatment of the pair of gavottes from this Overture is also questionable: the second is much faster than the first, and I can't see the reason for that. Strangely enough there is no such difference in tempi between gavotte I and II in the Overture No 1 in C. In the programme notes the character of the various dances is described, which is very useful. It is told the gavotte is 'graceful'. The problem is that they are not played very gracefully here. In particular the gavottes of the first and fourth Overtures are too brusque. In the menuet II from the Overture No 1 the harpsichord is too prominent; it takes almost a soloist role. I already referred to the ornamentation by various instruments. These are not always convincing, like the trills of the trumpets in the gavotte of the Overture No 4 in D.

Most disappointing is the Overture No 2 in b minor, which - as in most recordings - is played here with one instrument per part. The rondeau could have been more incisive, with stronger dynamic accents. The badinerie is dynamically too flat, and the whole Overture suffers from a lack of differentiation. The rhythmic pulse is also underexposed, and that is also the case in some other movements, like the courante and the second passepied from the Overture No 1 in C.

Although there is certainly much to enjoy here, and the level of playing is very good, there are too many parts which are musically unsatisfying. But the major blot on this production is the lack of synchronization between the performed versions and the chosen pitch.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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