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JOHANN ERNST, Prince of Saxe-Weimar & Johann Sebastian BACH: Violin concertos

[I] JOHANN ERNST, Prince of Saxe-Weimar (1696 - 1715): "The Complete Violin Concertos"
Anne Schumann, violina; Sebastian Knebel, harpsichordb
Ensemble 'Fürsten-Musik'a
rec: August 18 - 20, 2014, Blankenburg/Harz, St. Batholomäus-Kirchea; Dec 16 - 17, 2014, Leipzig, MDR (rehearsal hall)b
CPO - 777 998-2 (© 2015) (77'41")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Concerto in d minor (BWV 987)b; Concerto in G (BWV 592a)b; Concerto in B flat (BWV 982)b; JOHANN ERNST, Prince of Saxe-Weimar (1696-1715): Concerto I in B flat, op. 1,1a; Concerto II in a minor, op. 1,2a; Concerto III in e minor, op. 1,3a; Concerto IV in d minor, op. 1,4a; Concerto V in E, op. 1,5a; Concerto VI in g minor, op. 1,6a; Concerto VII in Ga; Concerto VIII in Ga

Anette Sichelschmidt, Klaus Bona, Britta Gemmeker, Cornelia Strobelt. violin; Klaus Voigt, viola; Heidi Gröger, basse de violon, cello; Felix Görg, violone; Sebastian Knebel, harpsichord

[II] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): "Violin Concertos"
Cecilia Bernardinia, Huw Danielb, violin; Alfredo Bernardini, oboec
Dunedin Consort
Dir: John Butt
rec: Nov 17 - 20, 2014, Edinburgh, Greyfriars Kirk
Linn Records - CKD 519 (© 2015) (60'00")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto for oboe, violin, strings and bc in c minor (BWV 1060R)ac; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E (BWV 1042)a; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in a minor (BWV 1041)a; Concerto for 2 violins, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1043)ab; Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21) (sinfonia)c

Seijie Chen, Sarah Bevan-Baker, Huw Daniel, Colin Scobie, violin; Alfonso Leal del Ojo, viola; Jonathan Manson, cello; Maggie Urquhart, violone; John Butt, harpsichord

Italy has been the birthplace of many musical developments and genres. In the early 17th century opera, monody and instrumental virtuosity were born there. In the mid-17th century Carissimi laid the foundation of the oratorio and in the late 17th century the trio sonata and the concerto grosso came into existence. Around 1700 the solo concerto was born and in the hands of Vivaldi it received the form which was to become the standard for the rest of the century.

In Germany Johann Sebastian Bach can be considered one of the first who composed solo concertos in the Italian style. However, it was an aristocrat, Johann Ernst Prince of Saxe-Weimar, who was largely responsible for Bach becoming acquainted with the Italian concerto. He was the second son of Johann Ernst IX of the Ernestine branch of the Saxon house of Wettin. He received violin lessons from G.C. Eilenstein, one of the court musicians, and keyboard lessons from Johann Gottfried Walther. In February 1711 Johann Ernst left for the Netherlands to further his education. In Amsterdam he heard Jan Jacob de Graaf, organist of the Nieuwe Kerk. He used to play Italian solo concertos in his own adaptations for the organ. This made such an impression on the young prince that he started to collect Italian concertos. Many of such pieces were published by Roger in Amsterdam. After his return to Weimar he started to compose concertos in that style and asked his teacher Walther and Bach - who from 1708 to 1717 was court organist - to make arrangements for organ or harpsichord.

Soon after his return Johann Ernst fell seriously ill. He continued to compose, though, and he himself prepared the publication of his concertos. In July 1714 he left Weimar for a spa cure which brought him to Frankfurt. Here he died in August of that year. Georg Philipp Telemann, since 1712 director of music and Kapellmeister at the Barfüsserkirche in Frankfurt, took care of the publication which includes a preface in French in which he sings the praise of the Prince. The collection of six concertos op. 1 came from the press in 1718. In 1715 Telemann had already published a set of six sonatas for violin and bc which he dedicated to Johann Ernst. They are written in the Italian style which the Prince so much loved.

Johann Ernst was a brilliant violinist, and the solo parts in these concertos bear witness to that, for instance through the inclusion of many episodes with double stopping. All but one concertos have three movements in the order fast - slow - fast. This was undoubtedly the influence of Vivaldi whose concertos op. 3, L'Estro Armonico, had been printed in Amsterdam in 1711 and which he must have known. The Concerto in d minor, op. 1,4 opens with a dramatic movement in which slow and fast sections alternate. Other movements are also divided into two contrasting sections, for instance the central movement of the Concerto in B flat, op. 1,1: adagio - allegro. The slow movement of the Concerto in g minor, op. 1,6 is called recitativo. The Concerto in e minor, op. 1,3 is a pastorella which has the typical features of such pieces as we know them, for instance, from Italian concertos for Christmas Eve.

As far as I known the CPO disc includes the first ever recording of the complete extant concertos from the pen of Johann Ernst. They are impressive demonstrations of his skills as a player and as a composer. Anne Schumann delivers outstanding performances which are technically assured and fully explore the musical qualities of these concertos. The dramatic moments in several concertos are convincingly conveyed.

It was a nice idea to include Bach's arrangements of three concertos by Johann Ernst which unfortunately are better known than the originals. Their inclusion allows a direct comparison and shows that Bach did more than just transcribe the original concertos. Manfred Fechner, in his liner-notes, refers in this regard to "densification of the texture and motivic concentration". They are nicely played by Sebastian Knebel on a two-manual harpsichord after Michael Mietke.

This disc is a great tribute to a highly skilled musician who died at a tragically young age.

His enthusiasm for the Italian style which he had become acquainted with in the Netherlands and in particular the concertos he had heard in Amsterdam played a pivotal role in the development of Johann Sebastian Bach as a composer of instrumental music. He had become acquainted with Italian instrumental music before as some keyboard pieces which are based on subjects from compositions by Tomaso Albinoni show. But the latter's music represents an earlier stage in the development of orchestral music. The concertos which Johann Ernst had in his luggage document the newest trends, and that goes especially for the concertos from Vivaldi's pen. Bach not only arranged concertos by Johann Ernst, but also by Vivaldi and Alessandro Marcello. They inspired him to compose his own concertos in the Italian, and more particular Vivaldian, style in Cöthen, although some of them may have been based on material from his Weimar years.

One is inclined to think that the violin concertos bear witness to that; and indeed for a long time it has been assumed that these were written in Cöthen. But the Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has suggested that they were composed at a much later stage, when Bach was director of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. It is known that Bach must have written quite a number of instrumental works in Cöthen, and Wolff has come to the conclusion that hundreds of compositions have been lost, due to various factors.

Bach's oeuvre includes only three concertos for violin(s) in their original form, either in autograph or in copies. He surely has written more, and a number of them were later transcribed to harpsichord concertos. Although Bach himself was an excellent violinist, it seems likely that these concertos were intended for other players. Vivaldi's influence is clear to see, in particular in the three-movement texture and the application of the ritornello principle. However, in Bach's concertos the ripieno strings play a more important role than in Vivaldi's concertos. Bach's concertos are also richer in counterpoint and more adventurous in harmony.

There is no lack of recordings of these concertos. They belong to the most popular of Bach's instrumental works. Recently several new interpretations have been released, although the choice of concertos varied from one disc to the other. Alina Ibragimova and Zsolt Kalló recorded only the two solo concertos and added some reconstructions of the harpsichord concertos. I was not very happy with them, in particular with Kalló's performances. The three concertos are also available in a recording by the Portland Baroque Orchestra, directed by Monica Huggett, about which I had also some mixed feelings. Only Concerto Copenhagen, directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, offers exactly the same programme: in addition to the three concertos BWV 1041 to 1043 the Concerto in c minor (BWV 1060R) which has only come down to us in the version for two harpsichords but has become very popular in the reconstruction for oboe and violin. I was impressed by this recording which I considered one of the best recordings of these concertos available. This new recording by the Dunedin Consort is pretty good but I don't rate it at the same level.

Cecilia Bernardini is a fine violinist who gives a very good account of herself in these concertos. She and her father - one of the finest oboists of our time - are a perfect match in BWV 1060, and Huw Daniels is her peer in BWV 1043. However, the interpretation is too moderate to my taste, probably in true Anglo-Saxon fashion. Concerto Copenhagen is more in German style: sharper articulations, stronger dynamic accents and a more pronounced differentiation between good and bad notes. In Mortensen's performances there are also stronger contrasts in tempi. The differences between Mortensen and Butt in the first and second movement of the Concerto in E are substantial: allegro 7'13" vs 7'40", adagio 5'52" vs 5'31". Mortensen also has the better tempo in the andante from the Concerto in a minor: 5'01" to 6'05" in Butt's recording. Despite my appreciation for the performances of the Dunedin Consort my preference of the recording by the Concerto Copenhagen stands.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Cecilia Bernardini
Anne Schumann
Dunedin Consort

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