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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): Keyboard Concertos

[I] "Harpsichord Concertos"
Pieter-Jan Belder, harpsichord
Musica Amphion
Dir: Pieter-Jan Belder
rec: Sept 5 - 7, 2013, Cologne, Deutschlandfunk (Kammermusiksaal)
Brilliant Classics - 94849 (© 2014) (64'30")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Concerto for keyboard, strings and bass in G (Wq 3 / H 405); Concerto for keyboard, strings and bass in g minor (Wq 6 / H 409); Concerto for keyboard, strings and bass in E (Wq 14 / H 417)

Rémy Baudet, Sayuri Yamagata, violin; Staas Swierstra, viola; Albert Brüggen, cello; Margaret Urquhart, violone

[II] "The Complete Keyboard Concertos Volume 18"
Miklós Spányi, harpsichord
Concerto Armonico
Dir: Miklós Spányi
rec: Nov 2011, Diósd, Phoenix Studios
BIS - CD-1787 (© 2012) (68'12")
Liner-notes: E/D/F

Concerto for keyboard and orchestra in F (Wq 43,1 / H 471) [1]; Concerto for keyboard and orchestra in D (Wq 43,2 / H 472) [1]; Concerto for keyboard and orchestra in E flat (Wq 43,3 / H 473) [1]; Concerto for keyboard and orchestra in c minor (Wq 43,4 / H 474) [1]

Vera Balogh, Beatrix Belovári, transverse flute; Sándor Endrödi, Tamás Gáspár, horn; Márta Ábrahám, Zsuzsa Laskay, Ildikó Lang, Balász Bozzai, Györgyi Vörös, violin; Tamás Cs. Nagy, viola; Csilla Vályi, cello; György Schweigert, double bass

[III] "The Complete Keyboard Concertos Volume 19"
Miklós Spányi, harpsichorda, fortepianob
Concerto Armonico
Dir: Miklós Spányi
rec: April 2012, Diósd, Phoenix Studios
BIS - CD-1957 (© 2013) (65'04")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto for keyboard and orchestra in G (Wq 43,5 / H 475)a [1]; Concerto for keyboard and orchestra in C (Wq 43,6 / H 476)a [1]; Concerto for keyboard and orchestra in G (Wq 44 / H 477)b; Concerto for keyboard and orchestra in D (Wq 45 / H 478)a

Vera Balogh, Beatrix Belovári, transverse flute; Sándor Endrödi, Tamás Gáspár, horn; Márta Ábrahám, Ildikó Lang, Tamás Tóth, Balász Bozzai, Piroska Vitárius, violin; Andor Jobbágy, viola; Csilla Vályi, cello; György Schweigert, double bass

Source: [1] Sei Concerti per il cembalo concertato, 1772


The versatility of the oeuvre of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is impressive. With the exception of opera he contributed to any genre in vogue in his time. However, he was first and foremost a composer of keyboard music, and for that he was and is most famous. No composer of the 18th century has written so many concertos for keyboard and orchestra as Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. The catalogue lists 50 solo concertos and 10 sonatinas, plus two concertos and two sonatinas for two keyboards and orchestra. They were written over a period of more than 50 years. Most of them were composed during Bach's time as harpsichordist in the service of Frederick the Great. However, it is unlikely they were performed at the court, as his employer appreciated neither the man nor his music. It was rather for performances in public and private concerts in Berlin that he created these works. He adapted some of them later for other instruments, mostly for transverse flute or cello, and some for oboe. These versions probably attest to the positive reception of the originals.

The discs reviewed here include some of the earliest and the two last concertos from Bach's pen. Pieter-Jan Belder selected three concertos which were written between 1737 and 1745. The Concerto in G (Wq 3) dates from 1737 and was revised eight years later. The Concertos in g minor (Wq 6) and in E (Wq 14) are from 1740 and 1744 respectively. There is quite some variety in the way the keyboard and the strings are treated in these concertos. The first movement from the Concerto in G opens with a motif in the strings which play in unison, in the slow movement from the other two concertos the strings play with mutes, in the Concerto in g minor they intervene with chords played forte. In the opening movement from the Concerto in E the tutti include some wide intervals. The keyboard parts reflect Bach's own brilliance as a performer. The middle movement from the Concerto in g minor includes long passages with trills whereas the poco adagio from the Concerto in E ends with an episode with many arpeggios.

The date of composition of these concertos suggest the use of the harpsichord. Belder plays a copy of a Blanchet of 1730/33. The ensemble performs with one instrument per part which probably reflects the line-up in private concerts in Berlin. It also results in a largely satisfying balance between the harpsichord and the strings. Even this small ensemble is able to realize to full effect the sudden dynamic contrasts which are very much a feature of Bach's music. The players have a good sense of his idiom with its many twists and turns. It results in very fine and engaging performances. There are not that many recordings of Bach's keyboard concertos in the catalogue, and these have to be ranked among the best.

Miklós Spányi is responsible for the only complete recording of Bach's keyboard concertos. With Volumes 18 and 19 the project comes to a close; the latter includes the two last concertos, the only which date from his Hamburg period. The largest part of these two discs are devoted to the six concertos which were catalogued by Wotquenne under number 43, indicating that they belong together. They belong to the few concertos which were published in Bach's lifetime, and were specifically intended for "connoisseurs and amateurs". In the announcement the composer did everything to increase the number of inscriptions. The concertos were called "easy" and they were "expressly directed towards the nature of the harpsichord" which was still the most common keyboard instrument at the time. Moreover, they would include written-out cadenzas and suitable ornamentation in the slow movements. Lastly it was insisted that the instrumental parts were ad libitum, meaning that the solo parts could be played without accompaniment. However, one should often take such announcements - and the title pages of editions - with a grain of salt. A number of Beethoven's piano sonatas included a reference to the harpsichord as an alternative to the fortepiano, but that was not much more than a commercial ploy. In the liner-notes to his recording Andreas Staier insists that these concertos are technically no less complicated than the concertos Bach composed for his own use. He also believes that playing these works "as solo harpsichord pieces from the keyboard reduction in any case represents a poor substitute".

There is a second reason that these concertos are remarkable: they seem to build a cycle. The opening and closing concertos are the most 'conventional' - if anything by Emanuel is conventional - and technically the relatively easiest. The two concertos at the heart of the set, the Nos. 3 and 4, are the most surprising and most daring. In all concertos we find many strong and often unexpected contrasts, and a number of movements are linked without any interruption. One finds many passages which are characterised by sudden and short interruptions of the orchestra, or short interventions of the harpsichord, sometimes just a couple of bars. These are the features of Bach's music, with its influences of Empfindsamkeit and Sturm und Drang. The fourth and fifth concertos have more to offer. It is questionable, for instance, whether the Concerto No 4 in c minor has four movements or is in just one movement with four different sections. The relatively short opening allegro assai suddenly turns into a poco adagio which then is followed by a strongly contrasting tempo di minuetto. The closing section is an allegro assai, just like the opening section.

The Concerto No 3 in E flat has its idiosyncracies as well. "The second movement, Larghetto, is in a radiant C major and seems to embody a bright alternative world to the dark, warm E flat major of the Allegro. But already after the first harpsichord solo something astonishing occurs: the tutti replies with the opening motif of the first movement" (Staier). Bach even goes so far as gradually replacing the motifs from this second movement with material from the first. The Concerto No 5 in G also holds a surprise: the first movement begins with a slow introduction, something we know from the classical symphony but is highly unusual in a solo concerto. The first movement is followed by an adagio which is an extended version of the slow beginning of the concerto. The first movement of the Concerto No 2 in D consists of a sequence of five sections: the basic tempo of allegro di molto is twice interspersed by sections with the indication of andante.

The performances by Miklós Spányi and Concerto Armonico are no real competition to Staier and the Freiburger Barockorchester. The many twists and turns in the orchestral score are much better conveyed by the Freiburger, partly due to more contrasting tempi. The Concerto No. 1 in F is a telling example: the Freiburger take 5'58" for the first movement, Concerto Armonico 6'44"; in the last movement it is 4'10" vs 5'04". The Freiburger Barockorchester plays with greater differentiation, also in the treatment of dynamics. Concerto Armonico is rather bland and dynamically flat. As far as the solo part is concerned, Spányi's performances are not very interesting and too straightforward.

There is a specific problem here which concerns the choice of the harpsichord. In his 'performer's remarks' in the booklet of Volume 18 Spányi states that these concertos were specifically intended for the harpsichord which made this instrument the most obvious choice for the solo part. But which instrument to choose? He refers to the popularity of English instruments in North-Germany. However, is it imaginable that even the majority of the subscribers to this collection owned such an instrument? Spányi adds that in his experience this type of instruments are perfectly suitable for these concertos. That is especially the case as the machine stop and the swell device on a number of English harpsichords are perfectly suited to deal with the dynamic markings in these concertos. The problem was that he couldn't find an appropriate English instrument. It is easy to understand that no original instrument in playable condition was available, but are there really no copies of such instruments around? I find that hard to believe. Anyway, considering the similarities between English instruments and harpsichords made in Antwerp in the late 18th century Spányi decided to use a copy of a 1745 Joannes Daniel Dulcken. However, this has not the devices of English harpsichords. So a swell device was constructed which can be placed into the instrument. I find this rather odd. I doubt whether this is really needed; Staier's harpsichord has no pedals to change dynamics, and I haven't noticed any problems in this regard in his performance.

The apparent popularity of English instruments has also inspired Spányi to use an English fortepiano in the Concerto in G (Wq 44). It seems unlikely that those instruments were of the type he uses here: a Broadwood of 1798. At the time this concerto was written (1778) the press reported about the composer performing a new concerto on the fortepiano. Considering the development in piano building in the last quarter of the 18th century it is unlikely that Bach at that occasion has played an instrument like this Broadwood. I find this instrument too heavy and its sound too strong for this concerto, even though Spänyi plays it well. Despite its anachronistic character I liked the performance of this concerto better than that of the six Wq 43 and the Concerto in D (Wq 45).

Wq 44 and 45 are the last concertos by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, and that seems to indicate that these volumes are the last in this series. It is great that with the completion of this project all the keyboard concertos are available on disc. I haven't heard all of them, but those which I have heard haven't given reason for real enthusiasm. In regard to interpretation I appreciate the series with solo works much more. That has everything to do with the contributions of Concerto Armonico which I find disappointing. I also think that Spányi makes a better impression on clavichord and tangent piano than on the harpsichord. Those who have a special interest in this repertoire will purchase these discs anyhow. And listening to these concertos one cannot avoid being impressed by the inventiveness of their composer. However, as far as the interpretation is concerned, it is to be hoped that other performers will turn their attention to this exciting repertoire and not confine themselves to a handful of rather well-known concertos.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

Relevant links:

Pieter-Jan Belder
Miklós Spányi
Concerto Armonico
Musica Amphion

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