Notes and Editorial Reviews
J.C. Bach – music that is charming, easy on the ear, cleverly composed and beautifully performed.
When one thinks of the so-called ‘classical period’ - which school pupils normally compartmentalize as from c.1750-1810 - the names of Mozart and Haydn leap to mind. After them you think of Gluck (the Reformer of German opera), then might come the somewhat maverick genius, C.P.E. Bach and only after that J.C. Bach. Yet having heard all six hours or more of this set I am again convinced that he is in many ways the archetypal composer of the classical period.
In the booklet to the sixth volume in this part of the CPO J.C. Bach series (there are 22 CDs in all of which these six address the Symphonies
Concertantes) there is an extra essay by Peter Wollny entitled ‘Orchestral Music by Johann Christian Bach’. In it he quotes C.P.E. in 1768 as saying “There is nothing behind my brother’s present manner of composing”. This reminded me of Oscar Wilde: “On the surface he seems possibly to be profound, but fortunately once underneath one soon realizes that that he is entirely shallow”. That’s pretty much how I perceived J.C.’s music. However Leopold Mozart, not without wisdom, reminded Wolfgang Amadeus that “What is slight becomes great when it is written with a natural flow and in a light hand”. Not surprisingly Mozart went to London and studied with J.C. and was possibly present when J.C. gave the first known piano recital in London.
Each disc in this series of six has the same introductory essay by Ernest Warburton. His conscientious scholarship and research has in recent years discovered scores and parts long thought lost. His reconstructions of the scores have brought much of this music to our attention but only comparatively recently. He offers biographical notes on J.C. and then on the Symophonia Concertante as a form. Each work is described and sometimes lightly analysed. Only in the sixth booklet, as indicated, does Peter Wollny add an analytical essay.
Anthony Halstead who has obviously devoted so much loving care on the conducting also makes a literary contribution. A 22 disc assignment to record the music of just one composer - and not a great one - takes a huge commitment and monopolises a massive chunk of your life. Sadly Ernst Warburton died just a short time before the recording project was completed in 2001, it having started six years before that.
Now this collection of six discs of the Symphonies Concertantes have been gathered together having previously been released separately. They allow us a real chance to delve into the mind of this still little-known composer.
The worry I had when confronted with this set was ‘Would all twenty works be exactly the same, in form, style, performance and texture?’. Well that fear proved unfounded almost from the start. As you can see from the above listings each CD is slightly different in type and content. For example, several ‘Symphonies’ are in three movements, fast(ish)-slow-fast (probably a Rondo). However, on disc 4, (the tracks are carelessly printed in the booklet), the first Symphonie in C has an opening elegant Andante in the French style (gallante) followed by a lively Allegro and that’s it. The following Eb work is similar in form whilst the later G major piece is in three movements. That particular disc features variation in texture. Two violins and cello - the most common instrumental grouping used by J.C. - are featured in the first. In the second the flute is added and in the Eb we have the flute with an oboe and bassoon. In between comes a Violin Concerto, the complex reconstruction of which, and its place in the canon, is explained by Ernst Warburton in the notes as are the other single concerto works listed.
I have already alluded to the French late Baroque style (Rameau, Couperin) which Bach sometimes employs but he is also prone to adopting the Italian style with its emphasis on melody and elegance and charm. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the A major work for two violins and cello on disc 3. This was a popular piece at the time and was published in 1775; only two others were published in Bach’s lifetime. This is a two movement work definitely written with the French taste in mind. Warburton describes it as having a “bluffer manner” than others and being “highly decorated” by which he means ornamented. The Italian style is exemplified by the D major Concertante on Volume 2, with its emphasis on virtuosity and on ritornello material, as happens in Vivaldi. Not only that, but the work is from a single manuscript copy found in Mantua.
The sixth disc has the last two ‘Symphonies Concertantes’ and has, as an bonus, a curious Keyboard concerto and a brief work simply called a ‘Cadenza’. The concerto is a different version of a published Concerto in G recorded a few years before (CPO 999 600-2) and its complex history is worth a little study. It is played on a sweet-toned fortepiano by Anthony Halsead himself who also improvises the cadenzas. It sounds more like chamber music with its accompaniment of just two violins and a cello. The final track, the ‘Cadenza’ for Oboe, Viola and Violoncello is attributed to J.C. and probably should be attached to the C major Concertante (C45). It is just a two and a half minutes long.
I can think of no better performers than ‘The Hanover Band’ – 26-strong – to present this music. They are all soloists and each appears to relish the chance to play solo whenever called upon. There is a superb sense of balance throughout between each of the original instruments even the flute which although not even-toned throughout its range is most sensitively handled by both Liza Beznosiuk and Brinley Yare.
I must end by adding that although I applaud the project and indeed the whole idea of the 22 discs of J.C. Bach, I do wonder how many times I will actually play it. It is charming and easy on the ear, cleverly composed and beautifully performed but it may well spend much of its time on the shelf not only at my home but at most Universities and Colleges. For this reason I am going to suggest that if you decide to hunt out single volumes only then you could do no worse than purchase Volume 2 and/or Volume 3. These have contrast and quality and represent, I feel, the heart of the Concertantes and of J.C. Bach himself.
-- Gary Higginson, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Sinfonia concertante(s) by Johann Christian Bach
Written: 18th Century
Notes: Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London, UK (1998 - 1999); Rosslyn Hill Chapel, Hampstead, London, UK (2001)
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