musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Concertos

[I] "Concertos"
Alice Rossi, sopranoa; Jan De Winne, transverse fluteb; Mayumi Hirasaki, transverse flutec; Lorenzo Ghielmi, harpsichordd
La Divina Armonia
Dir: Lorenzo Ghielmi
rec: Sept 7 - 10, 2015, Peglio (CO), Chiesa parrocchiale di San Vittore ed Eusebio
Passacaille - 1019 (© 2016) (74'09")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E
Cover & track-list

Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in A (BWV 1055)d; Concerto for transverse flute, violin, harpsichord, strings and bc in a minor 'Triple Concerto' (BWV 1044)bcd; Concerto for violin, strings and bc in E (BWV 1042)c; Non sa che sia dolore (BWV 209), cantata for soprano, transverse flute, strings and bcab

Mayumi Hirasaki, Esther Crazzolara, Mauro Massa, Yayoi Masuda, violin; Corinna Golomoz, viola; Marco Testori, cello; Vanni Moretto, double bass; Lorenzo Ghielmi, harpsichord

[II] Concertos
Dorothea Seel, transverse flute; Andreas Helm, oboeb, oboe d'amorec; Shunske Sato, violind; Anne Marie Dragosits, harpsichorde
Barocksolisten München
Dir: Dorothea Seel
rec: July 11 - 12, 2015, Stift Stams (A), Bernardisaal
Hänssler Classic - HC16006 (© 2016) (66'39")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Concerto for oboe, violin, strings and bc in c minor (BWV 1060R)b; Concerto for oboe d'amore, strings and bc in A (BWV 1055R)c; Concerto for transverse flute, violin, harpsichord, strings and bc in a minor 'Triple Concerto' (BWV 1044)ade; Overture for transverse flute, strings and bc in b minor (BWV 1067)

Shunske Sato, Elisabeth Wiesbauer, Fani Vovoni, violin; Florian Schulte, viola; Robin Michael, cello; Kathrin Lazar, bassoon; Christine Sticher, double bass; Anne Marie Dragosits, harpsichord


The two discs to be reviewed here both focus on one aspect of Johann Sebastian Bach's compositional output: the solo concerto. However, if you have a look at the list of pieces included on these discs you may wonder whether that is correct. La Divina Armonia recorded a cantata and the Barocksolisten München one of the overtures. That is easy to explain. In Non sa che sia dolore the transverse flute plays a major role: in the opening sinfonia it is treated like the solo instrument in a concerto and in the two arias it is involved in a kind of dialogue with the soprano. The Overture in b minor is the only of the four orchestral suites which has a true solo part, again for the transverse flute. In that respect it is not fundamentally different from the solo concertos.

Bach's ensemble music is the subject of much research and debate. Many concertos raise questions regarding the date of composition and their original scoring. One of the few original pieces is the Concerto for violin in E (BWV 1042). It was in particular during his time in Cöthen that Bach wrote a large number of instrumental works, including the six Brandenburg Concertos. This violin concerto most likely was also composed there. In Leipzig Bach arranged it as a concerto for harpsichord and strings (BWV 1054 in D) for performances by the Collegium Musicum. Other concertos we know only in this scoring, such as the Concerto in A (BWV 1055) and the Concerto in c minor (BWV 1060). Only in some cases it is obvious for which instrument these concertos were originally intended.

A number of these concertos have been reconstructed; they are worthwhile additions to the catalogue, even though they are largely based on speculation. The Concerto in A is mostly played on the oboe d'amore and that is also the way it is performed by the Barocksolisten München. I have only heard one recording of this concerto on the violin, by Alina Ibragimova and Arcangelo, directed by Jonathan Cohen. In my view that version is rather unsatisfactory, especially because of the low tessitura of the solo part which much better fits the oboe d'amore. There seems to be no disagreement whatsoever about the Concerto in c minor (BWV 1060); I don't know any other versions than with oboe and violin as the solo instruments.

The so-called Triple Concerto was probably written for the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig but again it is not an original work. The two fast movements are arrangements of the Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 894), a harpsichord work which Bach may have written in Cöthen or in Weimar. The slow movement is an arrangement of the adagio e dolce from the Sonata in d minor (BWV 527), one of the six sonatas for organ which Bach wrote for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann and which date from around 1730. The triple concerto was probably put together in the late 1730s, the time Bach regularly performed in public with the Collegium Musicum.

There is no unanimity in regard to the date of composition of the four Overtures or orchestral suites. Some believe that at least three of them were written before Bach's period in Leipzig, others date them in Bach's early years in Leipzig. There seems to be more or less unanimity that the Overture in b minor (BWV 1067) dates from the late 1730s. The liner-notes to the Hänssler Classic disc state that "[the] surviving orchestral parts indicate 1738/39". But it is assumed that early versions of the overtures could have been scored differently. In the case of BWV 1067 the Bach scholar Joshua Rifkin has suggested that the solo part of an earlier version may have been scored for violin. The American oboist Gonzalo X. Ruiz also thinks that an earlier version existed, but then with a solo part for the oboe. We will probably never know for sure. There can be little doubt that in its present form it seems the most modern of the set, also thanks to the major role of the transverse flute which had become very fashionable in the 1730s and 1740s.

This also explains the scoring of the cantata Non sa che sia dolore; its date of composition is not known but it was written after 1729. The reason for the composition and its addressee have given reason for speculation. The text refers to Ansbach and therefore two persons have been mentioned: Johann Matthias Gesner who had been Rector of the gymnasium in Ansbach and was Rector of the Thomasschule from 1730 to 1734, and Lorenz Christoph Mizler von Kolof, a scholar, composer and littérateur who had been a pupil of the gymnasium in Ansbach, studied in Leipzig from 1729 to 1734 and later founded the Correspondirende Societät der Musicalischen Wissenschaften. It has been pointed out that the lyrics - a compilation of texts by Guarini and Metastasio - are written in rather imperfect Italian which raises the question why they used and who compiled them. In this case it is especially the flute part which is relevant; its important role bears again witness to the popularity of the instrument at the time.

We are used to rank Bach's concertos and overtures among the genre of 'orchestral music'. But strictly speaking orchestral and chamber music are not different categories in the baroque era. If a piece is scored for two violins, viola and basso continuo it can be performed with one instrument per part but also with larger forces. In the two performances reviewed here the concertos are treated like chamber music. La Divina Armonia plays with four violins and the acoustic lends these performances a strong amount of intimacy. The ensemble as a whole and the soloists individually deliver refined performances. Articulation and phrasing are very natural and the dynamic differentiation between good and bad notes results in a strong rhythmic profile. The tempi are well chosen but the slow movement of the triple concerto is a bit too slow. Alice Rossi is responsible for one of the best performances of Non sa che sia dolore I have heard in recent years. She hardly uses any vibrato, takes the right amount of rhythmic freedom in the recitatives, gives much attention to the text and her ornamentation is well judged. Only in two cases she goes a little too far here.

When I turned to the disc of the Barocksolisten München I got the impression that the ensemble was a little larger than La Divina Armonia. But in fact it is the other way around: they use only three violins. The sound is somewhat larger and that seems due to a more reverberant acoustic and probably also a different miking. Because of that the articulation seems a little less pronounced. But I certainly have enjoyed the performances as much as those of La Divina Armonia. The Triple Concerto appears on both discs; I don't have a real preference, except in regard to the tempo of the slow movement which is more satisfying here (4'42" vs 6'11"). The Concerto in c minor is not one of my favourite pieces; too often I have heard pretty dull performances but here we get a very fine interpretation. Andreas Helm and Shunske Sato play the solo parts with much zest. The former is in top form in the Concerto in A and produces a gorgeous sound on his oboe d'amore. The Overture in b minor also receives a good performance but now and then I wondered whether the interpretation isn't a bit too rigid, for instance the first bourrée where the dynamic accents are too strong. I probably would have preferred a little more elegance; the galant idiom clearly manifests itself here. And as exciting it is to hear such a fast performance of the closing badinerie I again could imagine a more galant style of playing.

However, both discs are very enjoyable and if you are a lover of Bach's music you can't go wrong with either of them.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Barocksolisten München
La Divina Armonia

CD Reviews