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CD reviews

Cello concertos from the mid-18th century

[I] Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH, Johann Adolf HASSE & Johann Wilhelm HERTEL: "Cello Concertos"
Alexander Rudin, cello
Musica Viva
Dir: Alexander Rudin
rec: July 2 - 4, 2014 & May 24 - 25, 2015, Moscow, Mosfilm Tonstudios
Chandos - CHAN 0813 (© 2016) (71'13")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in a minor (Wq 170 / H 432); Johann Adolf HASSE (1699-1783): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in D; Johann Wilhelm HERTEL (1727-1789): Concerto for cello, strings and bc in A; Concerto for cello, strings and bc in a minor

[II] Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): "Cello Concertos"
Nicolas Altstaedt, cello
Dir: Jonathan Cohen
rec: Nov 24 - 26, 2014, London, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb
Hyperion - CDA68112 (© 2016) (64'37")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in A (Wq 172 / H 439); Concerto in a minor (Wq 170 / H 432); Concerto in B flat (Wq 171 / H 436)

Scores CPE Bach

The word 'cello' was used for the first time in 1665 by Giulio Cesare Arresti, an organist and composer from Bologna. That doesn't mean that the instrument he referred to did not exist before; it was probably just a new name given to an already existing instrument. In the first half of the 17th century no fewer than 24 different words were used for a string bass instrument. These don't always refer to different instruments; several words may have been used for one and the same but it is very hard to establish what kind of instruments are meant.

The cello has probably a more complicated history than any other instrument. Therefore it is hardly surprising that authors of liner-notes to recordings of music for the cello come up with different views on several aspects of the instrument and its development. Michael O'Loghlin, in his notes to the Chandos disc reviewed here, states that "[the] seventeenth-century instrument, also known in Italy as violone and north of the Alps as basse de violon or bassetl, was larger than the modern cello and capable of producing a robust bass line, but not suited to virtuosic playing in the high register." However, Marc Vanscheeuwijck, in his essay on the cello and its history (Cello Stories, Alpha, 2016) writes that players of the 18th century still made use of that older type of string bass, alongside other types, such as the five-string cello and the modern four-string instrument. He emphasizes that in different places across Europe different instruments may have used. It depends on the character of the music which instrument was used for performance.

Since the early 18th century the cello became increasingly popular, especially in Italy. One of the main composers of music for the cello was Antonio Vivaldi, who composed a large number of solo concertos. He also wrote sonatas for cello and bc, but those are modest in numbers. They were mostly written for or even at the request of skilled amateurs. One of the best-known of them was Prince Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn-Wiesentheid, who was an ardent lover and skilled player of the cello. His used his many travels to collect music for his instrument and also commissioned composers to write for him. One of them was Antonio Caldara; another was Giovanni Benedetto Platti who for some years was in his service. His large collection has been preserved and part of that is the Concerto in D by Johann Adolph Hasse.

However, it seems that with time concertos were mostly written for professional performers. That certainly goes for the other concertos which are recorded on the discs which are the subject of this review. They are also quite different from Hasse's concerto which is in the idiom of the baroque period and follows the order of the sonata da chiesa. Its movements follow each other attacca and the second has the form of a fugue. Considering that this concerto was probably specifically written for Prince Rudolf Franz Erwein von Schönborn-Wiesentheid, one wonders whether this should be performed with one instrument per part.

A larger ensemble seems appropriate in the concertos by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and Johann Wilhelm Hertel. The former's concertos are very much part of the standard repertoire of today's cellists. That cannot only be explained by the relative small number of solo concertos from the 18th century, but also by their quality. They appear in three different versions: for cello, for harpsichord and for transverse flute. Either the composer was happy with them and was eager to offer them for different scorings or he transcribed the solo parts because of their wide appeal. These concertos are written in the ritornello form which had been developed by Vivaldi. The Concerto in a minor is the most dramatic and reflects the Sturm und Drang which is so typical of Bach's idiom. In the Concerto in A we find the traces of the Empfindsamkeit, especially in the slow movement, with its many sighing figures. The most galant of the three is the Concerto in B flat. However, the many features of Bach's style, such as sudden pauses, unexpected modulations and a kind of nervosity, manifest themselves in all of them. Technically they are quite demanding and every concerto offers the chance to play a cadenza. They concertos date from 1750 and were likely written for one of the cellists of Frederick the Great's court chapel in Berlin.

The most remarkable pieces on the Chandos disc are the two cello concertos by Johann Wilhelm Hertel. He is one of the composers of the generation of the Bach sons who has hardly been given any serious attention as yet. There are signs that this is slowly going to change. In recent times some of his vocal works have been released by CPO. His oeuvre includes a considerable number of instrumental works, such as almost 50 sinfonias, at least 15 keyboard concertos, nine violin concertos and 22 concertos for various instruments, among them these two for cello. They are quite different in character. The Concerto in a minor has striking similarities with Bach's concerto in the same key, as O'Loghlin rightly observes. It is nice that these two works appear in the same programme which allows a direct comparison. It is unmistakably written in the same Sturm und Drang idiom. The Concerto in A is much more galant in character. For me these two concertos are real discoveries; they make me curious about his other instrumental works.

Although Bach's Concerto in a minor appears on both discs there is no direct competition between the two. As far as the repertoire is concerned the Chandos disc is the most interesting; the concertos by Bach are available in a number of recordings. Even so, I am happy with the release of the Hyperion disc as have really enjoyed the performances by Nicolas Altstaedt and the ensemble Arcangelo. They play with zest and imagination and the typical features of these concertos come off very well. That said, as far as the Concerto in a minor is concerned I have a slight preference for Alexander Rudin and Musica Viva. Its tone is a bit warmer and richer and the dynamic accents a shade more poignant. I feel that there is a little more temperament in their performances. The two Hertel concertos receive equally outstanding interpretations. Hasse is done well too, but here I think - like I said - that a more intimate performance with a smaller ensemble is to be preferred.

All in all there is every reason to recommend both discs.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Nicolas Altstaedt
Musica Viva

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