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BACH Family: "three keyboard concertos"

Pieter-Jan Belder, harpsichorda, fortepianob, organc
Musica Amphion
Dir: Pieter-Jan Belder

rec: 2006, Deventer, Doopsgezinde Kerk
Quintone - Q06001 [2010] (62'52")
Liner-notes: E/F/N/J
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Concerto for organ, strings and bc in G (Wq 34 / H 444)c; Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795): Concerto for keyboard, strings and bc in E flat (BR JCFB C 29)b; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Concerto for harpsichord, strings and bc in d minor (BWV 1052)a

Rémy Baudet, Sayuri Yamagata, Kees Koelmans, Paulien Kostense, Elisabeth Ingenhousz, violin; Staas Swierstra, Esther van der Eijk, viola; Albert Brüggen, cello; Maggie Urquhart, violone; Siebe Henstra, harpsichorda

Johann Sebastian Bach has the reputation of being a brilliant, but rather conservative composer. The latter is true insofar as counterpoint is concerned, which remained an essential element in his compositions until the very end of his life. In other respects he was rather modern, though. That is certainly the case in regard to the role of the harpsichord. In Bach's formative years it was restricted to accompanying instruments or singers. He was the first to give the harpsichord an independent role in the ensemble, as his fifth Brandenburg Concerto shows. He was also the first to compose concertos for harpsichord with instrumental accompaniment, and even concertos for two, three and four harpsichords. These date from his time in Leipzig, and were mostly reworkings of concertos for other scorings probably written in Cöthen. It is no exaggeration to say that Bach laid the foundation for a genre which would be one of the most prominent in the history of Western music: the piano concerto.

His sons followed his example: all of them composed a considerable number of keyboard concertos. It makes sense to include specimens of their forays into this genre alongside one of the most brilliant concertos by their father. The Concerto in d minor (BWV 1052) is generally considered one of Bach's earliest concertos, originally probably scored for violin. The solo part in its harpsichord version is technically demanding and the fast movements contain a considerable amount of drama. I liked the way Pieter-Jan Belder raises the tension towards the end of these movements. I would have liked a more differentiated treatment of the tempo, though; some rubato wouldn’t have gone amiss. The playing of the strings - one instrument per part - is a bit disappointing, in particular because dynamically it is rather flat.

With the concertos of the two Bach sons we are in a different world. The features are sudden contrasts in dynamics and mood, drum basses and plenty of expression in the slow movements. It is telling that in Johann Christoph Friedrich's Concerto in E flat the strings are muted. This is a common feature of orchestral music of the time.

Carl Philipp Emanuel's Concerto in G was originally composed for organ, and afterwards arranged for harpsichord and for transverse flute. The original version dates from 1755, and it seems likely that it was written for Anna Amalia, the youngest sister of Frederick the Great. Emanuel also composed his organ sonatas for her. She was an enthusiastic organ player but not able to play the pedals. Therefore neither the sonatas nor the organ concertos include a pedal part. Belder uses a small organ by Henk Klop, which seems well suited to playing the basso continuo, but lacks character for the solo part in this concerto. Apparently the disposition is too limited to allow a variety of registration between the various movements. An organ like the one Wolfgang Zerer uses in his performance of one of Emanuel's sonatas would have been preferable. Belder plays the concerto well, though, and the orchestra - this time with five violins and two violas - is more engaging and more receptive to the concerto's dynamic contrasts.

The last item is the Concerto in E flat which until fairly recently was attributed to Johann Christian Bach. It was published in Riga in 1770 and shows a strong similarity to the keyboard concertos of Carl Philipp Emanuel. Right now it is assumed that this concerto was written by his second youngest brother Johann Christoph Friedrich, the so-called Bückeburger Bach. It is rather odd that Belder refers to this in his liner-notes, but the track-list still mentions Johann Christian as the composer. I have corrected this in the header. It is again the choice of the keyboard which raises questions. In 1770 the fortepiano had not fully established itself as an alternative to the harpsichord. That doesn't exclude the possibility that it could have been played at such an instrument. The choice of a copy of a fortepiano by Anton Walter from 1795 is hard to understand. This is definitely not the most appropriate instrument for a concerto printed in 1770. A Silbermann fortepiano or even a table piano would have been a better option. That said, the performance is very good, from the soloist and the ensemble.

A word about the booklet. The recording dates from 2006 and the biographies of Belder and his ensemble include information about recording plans which were realised some years ago. This suggests that this recording has been released before, but I am pretty sure this is its debut. If that is correct Quintone should have updated the information. The liner-notes should also have been edited.

Le me sum up. This is certainly a disc to enjoy, especially as far as the concertos by the two Bach sons are concerned, despite the disputable choice of keyboard instruments. Emanuel's organ concertos are not that well-known anyway, and the concerto by Johann Christoph Friedrich could well serve to improve the reputation of its composer. It is a shame that the Concerto in d minor by Johann Sebastian isn't completely satisfying.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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