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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714 - 1788): "Concerti per il Cembalo"

Rien Voskuilen, harpsichord
L'arpa festante
Dir: Rien Voskuilen
rec: July 2003, Klosterkirche Altenberg
Carus - 83.184 (© 2005) (70'10")

Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in c minor (second version) (Wq 5 / H 407) Concerto for harpsichord/organ, strings and bc in G (Wq 34 / H 444); Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in a minor (Wq 26 / H 430)

Today Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is best known for his compositions for keyboard solo, and these are indeed the core of his oeuvre. But he also composed more than 50 concertos for keyboard and orchestra, more than anyone in music history. Considering their quality it is rather surprising they aren't often played at the concert platform. A complete recording is in progress on the Swedish label BIS, with the Hungarian keyboard player Miklos Spányi and the Concerto Armonico. But this recording with three of Bach's keyboard concertos is most welcome nevertheless.

Most keyboard concertos have been composed in Berlin, where Bach was appointed as member of the court chapel of Frederick the Great. It isn't quite clear when he started working at the court, probably 1738. It wasn't the most happy time of his life, as he was hardly appreciated by the King, who preferred the brothers Graun, Quantz and Hasse. From 1747 on Bach tried to find another job as court or church composer, but to no avail. In 1755 he was sharply attacked by Christoph Nichelmann, second harpsichordist at the court, in a book which caused a fierce debate. Although Bach's complaints led to Nichelmann leaving the court it didn't result in any improvement of his relationship with the King. Bach increasingly mixed with cultural and business circles in Berlin instead. Another setback was the Seven Years War (1756 - 1763) when the King was seldom in Berlin and the economic situation became difficult. During the war Bach stayed in Zerbst with the family of Carl Friedrich Fasch (the son of Johann Friedrich), who had been appointed second harpsichordist at the court in succession to Nichelmann.

Most keyboard concertos seem intended to be performed in private circles, probably by Bach himself. The solo parts are not suitable to be played by amateurs, and only six relatively easy concertos were published (Hamburg, 1772; Wq 43, H 471-476). Several concertos were reworked years after Bach composed them, and some exist in two or three versions. The concertos on this disc are all for keyboard with strings and bass only.

That is the case with the first concerto on this disc, which dates from 1755 and was originally composed for Princess Amalia, sister of Frederick the Great. She was an avid organist, and owned a house organ. Bach composed six sonatas for organ for the Princess, and it is also this instrument for which the solo part of this concerto was originally intended. But several copies of this concerto indicate the harpsichord as an alternative. In addition there is a version for transverse flute (Wq 169, H 445). It is a delightful concerto and this recording shows a performance with harpsichord works very well.
The second concerto is an example of a work which was reworked: the first version dates from 1739, the second - which is played here - from 1762. In this concerto Rien Voskuilen plays his own cadenzas, as Bach's cadenzas for this concerto are missing from the manuscript with his cadenzas which is preserved in Brussels, and which has been used for the other concertos on this disc.
The second movement of the last concerto - composed in 1750 - is striking because of its unusual lyricism. The expression in the style of the 'Empfindsamkeit' is absent, and it is also longer than usual: it is almost as long as the first movement, whereas in other concertos the first movement is by far the longest. This concerto does exist in no less than three versions: keyboard, transverse flute and cello.

Rien Voskuilen and the orchestra L'arpa festante have grabbed the character of these concertos extremely well. Voskuilen's performance is vigourous and sensitive. The orchestral playing is vital and the strong gestures in the tutti are realised very well. Only the acoustics are less than ideal. This recording has been made in a church, and there is a little too much reverberation for my taste.
The choice of a harpsichord rather than a fortepiano is right: it was only in the 1770s when the fortepiano started to outshine the harpsichord. I'm not saying that the latest concerto on this disc (c minor, H 407) can't be played on the fortepiano, but the natural balance between keyboard and strings supports the choice of the harpsichord here.

Johan van Veen (© 2007)

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