Notes and Editorial Reviews
C. P. E. BACH Symphonies Nos. 1–4, Wq 1831,13. String Symphony, Wq 182/51,13. Oboe Concertos: in E?, Wq 1652,7; in B?, Wq 1642,7. Oboe Sonata, Wq 135.3,7 Flute Concertos:2,8 in d, Wq 22; in A, Wq 168; in B?, Wq 167; in G, Wq 169; in a, Wq 166. Two-Harpsichord Concerto in F, Wq 462,3,12,13. Cello Concertos, Wq 170–1721,9,13. Harpsichord Concertos4,5, Wq 43/1–6; Wq 112/1. Prussian Sonatas, Wq 48/1–64. Württemberg Sonatas, Wq 49/1–64. Rondos10, Wq 56/1, 4, 5; Wq 57/1, 3; Wq 58/3, 5; Wq 59/4; Wq 61/1, 6. Organ Sonatas11, H 84–87, 133. Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu, Wq 2406,13 • 1Gustav Leonhardt, cond; Ton Koopman, (2cond, 3hpd); Bob van Asperen, (4cond, 5hpd); 6Philippe Herreweghe, cond; 7Ku Ebbinge (ob); 8Konrad Hünteler (fl); 9Anner Bylsma (vc); 10Alan Curtis (fp); 11Herbert Tachezi (org); 12Tini Mathot (hpd); 6Hillevi Martinpelto (s); 6Christoph Prégardien (t); 6Peter Harvey (bs); 6Ghent Collegium Vocale Ch; 13O of Age of Enlightenment; 2Amsterdam Baroque O; 4Melante Amsterdam • WARNER 256463492 (13 CDs: 640:47)
The record companies’ penchant for putting old wine in new bottles sometimes pays off big. Other times, you get a flop or a mixed bag. This set is the latter and, as usual, the mixed results come from combining several different artists with different approaches to the music. The recordings presented here were all made between 1977 (Bob van Asperen’s Württenberg Sonatas and Harpsichord Concerto Wq 112/1) and 1991 (Die Auferstehung und Himmelfahrt Jesu), although Alan Curtis’s 1980 recordings of the keyboard Rondos are presented here for the first time on CD.
The first disc in this set is a gem. In fact, I’ve had this record in my collection for at least 20 years if not longer. Gustav Leonhardt, one of the most interesting of the middle-period early-music harpsichordists, was also an extremely interesting conductor, and these performances with the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra are classics in every sense. Even if you chose not to acquire this boxed set, I would still put Leonhardt’s disc at the top of my recommendations for these symphonies.
The next three CDs I place a few steps down on the ladder of recommendation because of Ton Koopman, a good (small g) but not great conductor of early music. He was one of the first, in my opinion, to begin leading orchestral sound for historically informed performances away from that of a real orchestra to what I term a “MIDI sound.” Because of his extremes of straight tone, Koopman reduces the sound of his strings to a generic sort of mush, but is better than many of those who followed him because he does pay attention to dynamics and inserts a certain amount of inflection, particularly in slow movements. Happily, too, these discs contain concertos and not symphonies, and the soloists have really beautiful if somewhat bland and inexpressive tones. Thus one is able to at least imagine in one’s mind how good this music would sound if played by musicians who cared a bit more about the music and a bit less about straight tone. I give Koopman credit for at least trying to bring some feeling to them, but the Oboe Concerto, Wq 165, is much better served by the exhilarating performance of Frank De Bruine with Roy Goodman and his wonderful Hanover Band on RCA. Of the five flute concertos, the best of them is definitely Wq 168, and this work is better served by James Galway’s recording on RCA with Jörg Faerber and the Württemberg Chamber Orchestra. Oddly enough, one hears a considerable difference in the orchestral sound between discs 2 and 3. Though recorded only a year apart, the orchestra sounds more “real” on the 1986 flute concertos than on the 1987 oboe concertos, thus we can almost ascribe an exact date to the deterioration of Koopman’s orchestral sound. I also found flautist Hünteler’s playing livelier in rhythmic inflection than oboist Ebbinge’s. One of Koopman’s and Hünteler’s best performances is of the Concerto in a, Wq 166, a work that has much of the same kind of dynamic, thrusting sound, quirky pauses, and odd rhythmic gestures as his symphonies. As a filler on disc 4 we get the Two Harpsichord Concerto in F, with Tini Mathot joining conductor/harpsichordist Koopman. Again, the performance is good, but not as lively or energetic as the one recently issued by Miklós Spányi and Cirstiano Holtz on BIS 1967.
Disc 5, containing the three cello concertos, competes directly with Panclassics 10294 by cellist-conductor Antonio Meneses. The conductor here is Leonhardt again, the soloist Anner Bylsma who, at one time, was considered the sina qua non among historically informed cellists. For the most part, Meneses’s tempos are faster than Leonhardt’s. In addition, the recorded sound of the Meneses disc is brighter and more forward, so the orchestra has a bit more “bite.” In making an A-B comparison of the A-Minor Concerto, however, I found Bylsma’s tone, despite its completely vibratoless sound, mellower, more upbeat in feeling (although this concerto is in minor, it has an upbeat feeling, much like Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony), his bowing a bit less rough, and just nicer to listen to. A trade-off, then; but if you haven’t already bought the Meneses disc and wish to spring for this multi-disc set, you certainly won’t be disappointed.
The next five discs—clearly the lion’s share of the set—belong to Bob van Asperen, one of Leonhardt’s most famous pupils on harpsichord (he also studied the Baroque organ). In the harpsichord concertos he clearly comes into direct competition with Spányi on BIS, while in the Prussian and Württemberg Sonatas he competes with himself on Teldec 4694554 in both sets and with Mahan Esfahani on Hyperion in the Württemberg Sonatas only. According to ArkivMusic the Teldec is a single CD, which is wrong; on Amazon it is correctly depicted as a three-disc set for $21, which comes to $7 per disc, but if you buy this 13-CD set the per disc price is considerably less. Van Asperen’s playing is a bit airier and less dynamically inflected in the concertos than that of his mentor, and not quite as exciting as Spányi, but he is much closer miked in the sonatas and sounds excellent (as good as Esfahani in the Württenberg Sonatas). What impressed me even more in the concertos was his conducting style, brisk and energetic, which I liked very much. And again, the sonics are radically different between the sonatas (recorded in 1977–79), roomy, but crisp and clear, and the concertos (recorded in 1982), which are warmer but more diffuse and less clear. If anything, the Württemberg Sonatas (CDs 9–10) are even more exciting and modernistic than the Prussian Sonatas. If you played any of these pieces on a modern piano and didn’t tell your audience who wrote it, they’d be scratching their heads trying to guess. If C.P.E. had access to a quarter-tone keyboard, he’d probably have used that, too.
My readers know that Alan Curtis has been a favorite early music performer of mine since his days at the University of California Berkeley, not because he follows the HIP agenda to the letter (he actually doesn’t, really) but because he understands that all this HIP stuff is just a tool, that performing music is more important than the instruments used (although Curtis was responsible for having the first chitarrone and split-key harpsichord built in the 20th century). These Rondos are, musically, much simpler than the sonatas, and probably geared towards a general audience, yet they still hold one’s attention because of his irregular use of meter and phrasing. C.P.E. was a master at taking what sounds like essentially simple material and deconstructing it in such a way that one hears all of its interior structure before he puts it back together again like a quilt pattern. The same qualities also apply to the organ sonatas as played by Herbert Tachezi on CD 12. For some strange reason (particularly odd considering that C.P.E., like his father, was undoubtedly an excellent organist as well as a harpsichordist), these organ sonatas are less virtuosic than their harpsichord counterparts. This does not make them less effective as music, but in overall style I found them closer related to the keyboard rondos than to the sonatas, particularly those on CD 10. I had mixed feelings about the sound of Tachezi’s organ; I liked the bright, chipper sound to a point but was less than thrilled with its thin tone. It sounded, to me, more like a calliope.
The last disc is devoted to Bach’s sacred cantata The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus (1778), a 1991 recording reissued in 2010 on Virgin Classics 91498. The Gramophone review of the original issue gave the performance high marks, though feeling that Herreweghe lacked some of the “edge” and spontaneity of Hermann Max’s 1984 recording on Capriccio with Barbara Schlick, Prégardien, and Stephen Varcoe (spread over two discs and also including the Easter cantata Gott hat den Herrn auferwecket). There is also a version of this work conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken with La Petite Bande and soloists Uta Schwabe, Stephan Genz, and Christoph Genz on Helios. I haven’t heard the other two recordings, and could not find an online review of the Kuijken, but reviews of the Max recording are mixed. One critic felt that the Max performance had more spontaneity and that Schlick’s singing was better than Martinpelto’s, while another (William Youngren in Fanfare 15:6) felt that Schlick’s voice was more covered in tone and Max’s orchestra “weightier.” My readers know that although I am often fond of Herreweghe, I sometimes come down on him for a bit too much slickness of orchestral sound. At the outset of this performance, I thought I was hearing the same thing, but it turned out that this was just the nature of that specific, quiet passage. In the next section, when the stabbing strings and rolling timpani come on strong, I thought I was listening to Britten’s War Requiem. That’s how original and powerful this music is. During the bass’s ensuing aria, more of C. P. E.’s strangeness creeps in, as the music is constantly shifting in both tempo and rhythm, occasionally coming to a stop before progressing. This music sounds absolutely nothing like any other 1778 music I’ve ever heard. In fact, though it bears a strong resemblance to the mature Gluck of a decade later, it is even more innovative than that. The soprano’s slow aria bears a superficial resemblance to his father’s music in its use of dolorous strings and a minor key, but once again his odd rhythmic and phrase shapes make it sound quite different in its emotional impact, and there is an uptempo middle section in the major that sounds absolutely nothing like his father’s music. Both Harvey and Prégardien are expressive as well as technically secure singers, although for me the tenor has the more attractive and distinctive voice. I also found it very interesting, in her duet with the tenor, that Martinpelto gets music to sing that reaches down into the mezzo range rather than upwards into the stratosphere—once again confirming C. P. E. Bach’s maxim that, to him, emotional expression in music was its most important element.
What makes this set most desirable, however, is its price. At the time I reviewed it, it was selling for $50 on ArkivMusic and for $53.42 on Amazon, which breaks down to between $3.84 and $4.10 per disc (consider that the three-CD set of van Asperen’s sonatas runs about $21). I haven’t had the opportunity to hear or review Brilliant Classics’ 30-CD C. P. E. Bach set, which includes Hartmut Haenschen’s wonderful performances of some of the symphonies, but I don’t know who else is in that set. All in all, this one is a good bargain for what it is, and includes some of the composer’s best music that is not generally well known.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley