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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Harpsichord Concertos

[I] "Harpsichord Concertos"a
Matthew Halls, harpsichord
Retrospect Ensemble
Dir: Matthew Halls
rec: Sept 27 - 29, 2011, Cambridge, St George's Church, Chesterton
Linn Records - CKD 410 (© 2012) (64'24")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

[II] "Concertos pour clavecin"b
Béatrice Martin, harpsichord
Les Folies Françoises
Dir: Patrick Cohën-Akenine
rec: Jan 2 - 5, 2009, Barcelona, ESMUC (Sala Sinfónica)
Cypres - CYP1661 (© 2010) (62'09")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto in d minor (BWV 1052)ab; Concerto in E (BWV 1053)b Concerto in A (BWV 1055)ab; Concerto in f minor (BWV 1056)b; Concerto in F (BWV 1057)a; Concerto in g minor (BWV 1058)a


Johann Sebastian Bach is rightly considered the inventor of the keyboard concerto. This genre would develop into one of the main forms of orchestral music of the classical era and the romantic period, and has held its ground well into our time. Seven concertos for one harpsichord and instrumental accompaniment are known from Bach's pen (BWV 1052-1058), a seventh has been preserved in fragmentary form (BWV 1059). In addition there are three concertos for two, two for three and one for four harpsichords. The whole body of harpsichord concertos dates from Bach's time in Leipzig and all of them are arrangements of concertos previously composed for various melody instruments, either violin or oboe/oboe d'amore. The Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 is often considered the very first harpsichord concerto Bach has written, because of the extended harpsichord cadenza in the first movement. This means that the form of the harpsichord concerto goes back to around 1720.

It is impossible to be absolutely sure when and for which occasion Bach created these arrangements. The solo concertos have come down to us in a single autograph manuscript which was compiled around 1737-39. However, it is quite possible that the arrangements were made earlier, and in that case Bach may have performed them in his capacity as director of the Collegium Musicum. Research has shown that Bach changed the procedure of transcription while working on them. The transcriptions of the concertos BWV 1058 and 1059 are the first, and here the right hand plays the solo part of the original concerto with the left hand doubling the basso continuo line. In the other concertos Bach adds embellishments to both hands. Sometimes he completely rewrote the basso continuo part and in some concertos also the string parts.

The first complete recording of the concertos for one to four harpsichords on period instruments dates from the 1960s. Gustav Leonhardt played the solo parts, joined by pupils and colleagues in the multiple concertos, and the instrumental parts were taken by his own Leonhardt-Consort. The line-up was one instrument per part, and that has become more or less the standard in period instrument performances. That is also the line-up of the ensembles in the two present recordings. Here only concertos for one harpsichord are played. There is certainly no lack of recordings, but I haven't heard many which really satisfy me. Often I find myself returning to the 'old' Leonhardt recording, despite the sound quality which is inferior to what is common standard these days.

These two recordings are not able to change that, I'm afraid, as I am not really satisfied with either of them. One factor is the string playing which doesn't impress me. It is mostly rather flat, with little colour and far too little dynamic shading. It is a returning problem in many recordings of baroque music. In the solo part and in the accompaniment there is also too little differentiation between good and bad notes. The effect is a rather weak rhythmic profile. That is the case in the Concertos BWV 1057 and 1058 in the Retrospect Ensemble's performance and in the Concertos BWV 1052 and 1055 in the recording of Les Folies Françoises. In the latter case that is especially problematic in the fast movements of Concerto BWV 1055, where the tempi are quite high. Because of a lack of differentiation they give the impression of being rushed. In the Concerto BWV 1052 the tempi of both recordings is almost the same, but here both Matthew Halls and the strings articulate much better. In this concerto Béatrice Martin tries to do too much.

On the whole I prefer her harpsichords, an original instrument of 1737 by Christian Zell and a modern copy of a Zell (the same?). It has more bite and a stronger sound, and this results in a better balance between the keyboard and the strings. I found the harpsichord of Matthew Halls - a copy after Ruckers/Hemsch - too weak in the opening Concerto BWV 1057. I didn't bother me as much in the next concertos, so maybe it is just a matter of getting used to the sound of this particular instrument.

To sum up: in Matthew Halls' recording the Concerto BWV 1052 comes off best, the Concerto BWV 1057 is most disappointing. In Béatrice Martin's recording the Concertos BWV 1053 and 1056 are most satisfying.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

Relevant links:

Béatrice Martin
Les Folies Françoises
Retrospect Ensemble

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