Site review by Geohominid August 17, 2012
Performance: Sonics (S/MC): /
|Clearly JSB thought a great deal about his collection of six Concertos for Harpsichord, BWV 1052a - BWV 1057. During 1738-9 he meticulously revised and converted some existing movements (possibly some from violin concertos and probably some from organ concertos), also going to the trouble of binding the autographs into a collection. This he used well into his later years for the weekly chamber music concerts of Leipzig University's Collegium Musicum, held at Gottfried Zimmerman's Coffee House, continuing to add revisions and corrections.
Finnish harpsichordist Aapo Häkkinen (a past pupil of Bob van Asperen, also mentored by Gustav Leonhardt) and members of the Helsinki Baroque Orchestra have consolidated a performing edition based on the autographs, including JSB's final thoughts, together with information from scores of earlier versions, for example from several of the Cantatas, where the more detailed marked up layouts provided important suggestions for character, bowing, articulation, registration, harmonisation and tuning.
For an up-to-date historically aware performance, the HBO have taken on board Richard Maunder's exhaustive research showing that Bach's keyboard concertos were for harpsichord with a one-to-a-part ensemble, but without a 16' string bass. They have been able to add further confirmation to this conclusion. As on Cera's disc with I Barocchisti (Bach: Cembalo Concertos - Francesco Cera, I Barocchisti), a violone is used for continuo bass, and also a very discreet chest organ, which is known to have been available at the Collegium meetings. There are some beautiful-sounding period instruments, not the least a magnificent 16" harpsichord which belonged to Igor Kipnis until his death. It is based on a Johann Adolph Hass double manual model of 1760-1 from the Yale University Collection, and represents the finest of Hass' work. Records of the Collegium meetings indicate that a 16' harpsichord was purchased for their concerts at an early stage. There are no fussy interpolations from continuo, and very little additional ornamentation in solo parts.
The first disc in Aeolus' forthcoming two-part issue comprises Concertos I in D minor, II in E major and V in G minor. We also have a superb example of another form of Harpsichord Concerto as consummately mastered by Bach, that of the stand alone solo Concerto, here represented by the Italian Concerto in F major, BWV 971.
While Cera and I Barrocchisti play the D minor concerto with great gusto and with very similar timings to the new performance, Häkkinen and his band find a new interpretive fire from their studies. Bach's Cantata BWV 146 has a long introductory orchestral movement which is very close to the D minor Concerto's first movement, but with the organ as keyboard instrument. It is a powerful construction, and is meant to relate the toil and tribulations required to be undergone in order eventually to reach the Kingdom of Heaven. It opens with a forceful unison section, repeated several times with diminishing intensity (presumably as the faithful become weary).
The D minor Concerto's autograph indicates strong rhythmicity, with many sharp staccato signs as well as normal staccatos, and a number of stark silences. Playing this passage literally, with strong bowing, produces a revelatory drama and powerful rhetoric which dominates the movement in the HBO's hands. The music moves in ritornellos through such angry periods, more secco (dry) than legato, each interspersed by monotonous note-spinning sections (tedium of toil?) and moments of contrasted repose, where delicate instrumental traceries perhaps envisage the distant Heaven.
I was puzzled and somewhat taken aback on first hearing of this almost peremptory movement in Häkkinen's hands, but am now completely convinced by it. The key of D minor was a specially emotional one for Bach; note the list of masterpieces in the key, such as the D minor Violin Partita, Double Violin Concerto, D minor Suite for Solo Cello, the D minor Invention, Prelude and Fugue for Organ in D minor and so on. Having raised the D minor Harpsichord's temperature, as it were, this new version seems to me to give it the right status, while many other RBCD versions skate quite limply over the piece's surface. The deep emotional content, or "Affekt" as Bach would have called it, is continued in the sorrow-loaded adagio, also top and tailed with a striking drudge-like unison passage. The final allegro, however, is brilliantly forward-looking and ebullient, the Heavenly goal perhaps in sight.
BWV 1063 in E major fully exploits its own sunny key, with playing of pointed-toe grace, charm and wit in a steady dance-world of sophisticated rhythms. Its slow movement is invested with tender melodies invested with the plangent upper register of the harpsichord, and the concerto's finale is Brandenburg-like in its insistent optimism.
BWV 1056 is also a winner, vibrant despite its minor key, and is distinguished by its inventive adagio, where the strings lay down a pizzicato carpet across which the harpsichord's treble spins seemingly endless descant melody. Its Finale has a hugely enjoyable game of pass-the-parcel between the strings and harpsichord.
For the Italian Concerto, Häkkinen pulls out all the stops on his Hass as a Rolls-Royce of instruments. He launches its prancing fanfare opening onto a piece which is all about grandeur, eloquence and Bach's mastery of tutti and solo on the mere two manuals of the instrument. The richness of the Hasse's layered overtones and depth of bass support are manifest in a performance which is inventive and stately, somewhat eclipsing Cera's still excellent one (Bach: French Suites, Italian Concerto - Francesco Cera) with a lesser species of harpsichord. I particularly enjoyed the slow movement, with the lute stop engaged to accompany the long-spun cantabile melody, and the finale is simply fireworks and a veritable storm of dazzling notes.
Compared with Cera's recording, with a very noticeable amount of resonance, Häkkinen's engineers have rightly given us the chamber perspective as required by the ensemble's small size, the harpsichord sounding inside the band (literally, as shown on a session photograph) and not in anyway spotlighted as if for a concerto of much later date. There is plenty of sound from the rear surrounds, but the Finnish church ambience is present but not reverberant, giving an intimate listening experience in 5.0.
Aeolus have included copious notes in English, French and German, housed in a triple Digipak with the booklet tethered to the back cover, and well-illustrated with photos, score extracts and graphics.
As with his much-praised Goldberg Variations (Bach: Goldberg Variations - Aapo Häkkinen), Häkkinen proves to be an inventively refreshing guide in Bach's music and has a vivid musical partnership with the HBO. I look forward to volume 2. In the meantime, there is plenty of choice. If you must have your Bach Keyboard Concertos on piano with a modern string orchestra, there is the award-winning Angela Hewitt (Bach: Keyboard Concertos 1 - Hewitt/ACO). Should you prefer a sparkling period orchestra with many more violins, there is Cetra and I Barocchisti. For the latest scholarship, a chamber performance of sometimes surprising force and ingenuity, with first class recording, Häkkinen is your man.
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