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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Concertos for harpsichord solo

[I] "Concertos for Solo Harpsichord (Complete)"a
Elizabeth Farr, harpsichord
rec: August 2008, Manchester, MI, Ploger Hall
Naxos - 8.572006-007 (2 CDs) (© 2009) (2.30'35")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

[II] "Six Concertos after Vivaldi"b
Olivier Baumont, harpsichord
rec: 1999, [n.p.]
Warner Classics - 2564 68966-5 (R) (© 2009) (60'40")
No liner-notes
Cover & track-list

Concerto in D (BWV 972)aba; Concerto in G (BWV 973)ab; Concerto in d minor (BWV 974)a; Concerto in g minor (BWV 975)ab; Concerto in C (BWV 976)ab; Concerto in C (BWV 977)a; Concerto in F (BWV 978)ab; Concerto in b minor (BWV 979)a; Concerto in G (BWV 980)ab; Concerto in c minor (BWV 981)a; Concerto in B flat (BWV 982)a; Concerto in g minor (BWV 983)a; Concerto in C (BWV 984)a; Concerto in g minor (BWV 985)a; Concerto in G (BWV 986)a; Concerto in d minor (BWV 987)a; Italian Concerto in F (BWV 971)b; Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 894)a

Scores Concertos

Bach's harpsichord transcriptions of concertos by - mostly Italian - contemporaries don't belong to the most popular part of his oeuvre. The list of recordings shows that individual pieces have been recorded quite often, but that the number of recordings of the complete set is rather limited. Some of these are probably not available anymore. Two of them were part of a Bach Edition at the occasion of the Bach year 2000: Peter Watchorn (Hänssler) and Pieter Dirksen (Brilliant Classics). The former I have not heard, the latter I have used as a comparison in this review.

There are five - not six, as Elizabeth Farr writes in her liner-notes - for organ and 16 for harpsichord. Make that 17, if you also count the Concerto BWV 592a, which is an arrangement of the organ transcription BWV 592. It is omitted in Ms Farr's recording (and Watchorn's), but is included in Dirksen's. These transcriptions all date from the years 1713/14 when Bach worked as organist at the court of the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar. It is not known for sure why Bach made them. It is often suggested that this was his way of becoming more acquainted with the style of the Italian concerto and developing his own skills as a composer. That doesn't explain, though, why he also transcribed pieces by Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar, half-brother of his employer, who composed concertos in imitation of the Italian concertos which he had brought along when he returned from his study period in the Netherlands. Also notable is that Bach transcribed a concerto by Telemann, and scholars suggest that the concertos whose original versions are unknown, may have been written by other German composers. Lastly, we know that Bach was especially interested in the Vivaldian concerto style. However, in this set we also find the transcription of a concerto by Giuseppe Torelli which is of a pre-Vivaldian structure in six movements. This piece is late example of the 17th-century concerto which reflects the stylus phantasticus with its sequence of contrasting sections. Some other concertos are in four movements, following the model of the Corellian sonata da chiesa, like the Concerto in c minor (BWV 981), a transcription of a composition by Benedetto Marcello.

Six concertos of the set are transcriptions of concertos by Vivaldi; those Olivier Baumont has selected for his recording. Three are taken from the op. 3 which was published in Amsterdam in 1711 under the title of L'Estro Armonico. There can be little doubt that these were among the concertos Johann Ernst took along when he returned to Weimar. The other three are from Vivaldi's op. 4 (La Stravaganza) and op. 7 which were published in 1716 and 1720 respectively. It is likely that they were circulating in manuscript - sometimes in early versions - and they could have been part of the repertoire of the Weimar court orchestra. After all, Bach's employer was a great lover of Italian music and must have expected his orchestra to play the latest fruits of the Italian concerto style.

The 12 Concerti a 5 op. 1 by Benedetto Marcello, published in Venice in 1708, could have been among these fruits. The Concerto BWV 981 which I have already mentioned is based on the second concerto from this set. Bach also transcribed concertos by Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar: two for organ (BWV 592, 595) and three for harpsichord (BWV 982, 984, 987). Two of these, BWV 982 and 987, are based on concertos from the Prince's set of Six Concerts à un Violon concertant, deux Violons, une Taille, et Clavecin ou Basse de Viole, op. 1 which were published by Georg Philipp Telemann in 1718. The Prince had already died three years before, at the age of just 19. According to his music teacher, Johann Gottfried Walther, Bach's cousin and town organist of Weimar, the Prince had written 19 compositions in total. The six of his op. 1 are the only pieces which have survived. The other transcriptions are based on concertos which have been lost.

Considering the relative small number of complete recordings which are available one would like to welcome the Naxos set. There are two reasons which make me hesitate to do so, though. First of all, the choice of harpsichord. Ms Farr plays an instrument by Keith Hill, which is based on a harpsichord by Ruckers from the 17th century. To this Hill has added a 16' stop. He rightly refers to the German 18th-century builder Hass from whom an instrument with a 16' stop has survived. But adding this to an instrument after Ruckers results in a fantasy instrument which has no historical foundation. It has little to do with historical performance practice. It would have been better to use a copy of a Hass, such as Andreas Staier has used in several recordings. That said, very few instruments with a 16' stop have survived, and it is very hard to establish how widespread such instruments were in the 18th century. From a musical point of view I find this choice of instrument largely unsatisfying. There is a clear contrast between solo and tutti in these concertos. Ms Farr conveys them by mostly using the 16' stop for the tutti. In the early 18th century instrumental ensembles were mostly rather small. Performing with one voice per part was probably the rule and using two or more per part the exception. Because of that the contrast in volume between solo and tutti wasn't that large. That should be taken into account when performing these transcriptions. By using a 16' stop for the tutti the contrast with the solo passages is exaggerated. Pieter Dirksen and Olivier Baumont show that one doesn't need a 16' stop to realise this contrast. Those movements where Ms Farr omits the 16' stop are the best of her recording, for instance the allegro from the Concerto in g minor (BWV 975) and the andante from the Concerto in b minor (BWV 979).

One may think that the use of a 16' stop makes the performances more dramatic. That is not the case, and that brings me to the second reservation regarding the Naxos set: Ms Farr's interpretations. Despite the lack of a 16' stop Baumont's performances are certainly not devoid of drama, but he realises it in a generally more convincing way. Part of the tension within these concertos is the result of the contrasts in tempo between the movements. Ms Farr's tempi are more or less middle-of-the-road, whereas Baumont's fast movements are considerably faster. His slow movements could have been slower, such as in Dirksen's recording; there the tempo contrasts are most satisfying. Ms Farr rather varies the tempo within movements: she consistently slows down and speeds up the tempo. Basically I am all in favour of differentiating the tempo within a movement, for dramatic reasons, but here it has no dramatic effect. It has turned into a mannerism just like the frequent desynchronisation of right and left hand. Very odd is the second adagio from the Concerto in c minor (BWV 981), which begins with a sequence of chords. Ms Farr changes manuals from one chord to the other.

In the six Vivaldi concertos I prefer Baumont, although not all is well here too. I have already mentioned the tempi of the slow movements which I find a shade too fast. He also plays staccato now and then, like in the opening allegro of the Concerto in C (BWV 976) and the closing movement from the Concerto BWV 972. It is at odds with the hierarchy of the notes. The hammering chords in the closing allegro from the Concerto in C (BWV 976), without any differentation, isn't very nice to listen to.

The choice of additional music is different in both recordings. Ms Farr has opted for the Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 894) which dates from the same period as the transcriptions. It contains material which Bach would use later in his Triple Concerto BWV 1044. Ms Farr again makes frequent use of the 16' stop. Baumont has chosen the well-known Italian Concerto which is of a much later date, but is modelled after the Italian concertos which are also the subject of Bach's transcriptions. In both cases the choice of the additional material makes sense. Baumont gives a good account of the Italian Concerto.

On balance I have reservations in regard to both recordings. From a historical and musical point of view I prefer Baumont, but he offers only six of the 16 (or 17) concertos. All in all Pieter Dirksen's recording satisfies me most: it is complete - he has recorded all 17 -, he uses a copy of a Ruckers harpsichord and delivers musically convincing performances in which the contrasts in tempo and between solo and tutti are well conveyed.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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Olivier Baumont

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