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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Keyboard Concertos"

Gary Cooper, harpsichorda, fortepianob

rec: Dec 14 - 16, 2009* & Feb 16, 2010** (live), Antwerp, AMUZ
Et'cetera - KTC 1477 (© 2014) (65'01")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto in d minor (BWV 1052)a **; Concerto in E (BWV 1053)a *; Concerto in f minor (BWV 1056)b *; Concerto in A (BWV 1055)a *

It is remarkable that there seems to be quite an interest in Bach's harpsichord concertos. They are well represented on disc, but it would be an exaggeration to say that they are regularly performed and recorded. Lately some new recordings have been released, and the present disc is another addition to the catalogue. Although it includes live recordings made at two different occasions about five years ago it was only released last year. It seems to be a tendency lately that recordings remain unreleased for a number of years.

The most recent recordings I reviewed here were those of Aapo Häkkinen and the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra (vol. 1; vol. 2). These interpretations are anything but conventional, especially because of the use of a harpsichord with 16' stop and - in the second volume - the pitch of a=440 Hz. Such challenging readings can be an interesting contribution to debates regarding performance practice and make us look at and listen to the music from a different perspective. That is the reason I welcomed them, although I didn't find them really convincing.

The present disc is also rather unconventional, but in this case I find it hard to welcome it. The production falls short of what we should expect. It is the first time that I have seen a booklet whose text has been copied from Wikipedia. The booklet editor didn't even bother to remove the captions [edit]. There is no specification of the keyboard instruments used here. What is more, we are not even informed that Gary Cooper plays the harpsichord in three of the concertos and the fortepiano in the Concerto in f minor (BWV 1056). One wonders what may have been the reasoning behind this choice, but we are not told in the booklet. There is no information whatsoever about aspects of performance practice.

I would have liked to know, for instance, why it was decided to play with more than one instrument per part. The members of the ensemble are not listed, but it is clear that we hear more than two violins and one viola in the string parts. The latter has become common practice in most recordings since Gustav Leonhardt's groundbreaking version, the first on period instruments. The fact that it is common practice doesn't mean that every performer has to follow it, but some arguments in favour of a larger ensemble would have been interesting. The result is not very convincing: the keyboard has too little presence in the tutti episodes. Historical considerations apart it is the balance between the keyboard and the strings which is the best argument in favour of a one-to-a-part line-up.

I also would have liked to know why Gary Cooper felt the need to add a long cadenza to the last movement of the Concerto in d minor. I can't think of any reason for that, and the score seems not to include any indication which points in that direction. Cooper is obviously inspired by the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 whose first movement includes a long and virtuosic cadenza for the harpsichord. However, Cooper's cadenza is not of the same standard, and seems to me whole bunch of notes without too much of a logical structure. In the adagio of this concerto he treats the notes Bach has written down rather freely. I am not in favour of slavishly following the score. Baroque composers expected the interpreter to add ornaments, but his freedom is not unlimited. Especially in the case of Bach there are good reasons for some restraint in this department as he has written down more details than most of his colleagues. I am not saying that there is no room for any additional ornaments, but Cooper exaggerates, and the effect is quite damaging.

Moreover, why does the harpsichord keep silent in the introductory bars whereas in other movements the harpsichord gets involved in the proceedings right from the start? In the first movement the strings play crescendi at several moments. That seems hardly in line with the aesthetics of the time but rather a feature of the style which would emerge in the time of Bach's sons, especially in the playing of the Mannheim orchestra.

If this is not enough, I have to say that the playing of B'Rock is not very subtle. I have heard better performances from this ensemble. This disc is definitely not recommendable.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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