The Helsinki Baroque Orchestra offer a first installment of Bach harpsichord concertos, in their first volume. Included are:
- BWV 1052
- BWV 1053
- BWV 1056 (in G minor, not F minor as transposed for the NBA)
- BWV 971
I’d never heard of the Helsinki band before, nor its soloist and conductor, Aapo Häkkinen. What makes this recording stand out, among all those before it, on original instruments?
Häkkinen insists on a few things, to start:
- that Bach probably wanted a 16′ instrument to be used (coupled with 8′ pitch),
- the string ensemble should have some bite and character to it,
- the continuo could use some help, with organ,
- the bass string instrument should be a violone at 8′ and not a double bass at 16′
With that out of the way, how do they sound?
BWV 1052′s opening is excellent! The violins stick out just a tad here and there with oomph. No doubt, they’re led by Riccardo Minasi!
The harpsichord playing is well done, and the instrument used (built in the 1970s for Ignor Kipnis) sounds stand out among the instruments and within the texture orchestration, likely in good part, because of the 16′ foot register. The middle movement has some interesting takes on accented notes, which I can go along with. The third movement feels as solid and tight as the first, with a tempo that feels just right. I am not sure I’ve heard a version before where the harpsichord comes across quite so clear.
The Italian Concerto BWV 971 for solo harpsichord, of course, is not an orchestral piece. It’s played in a far more resonant and live location than the orchestral pieces. I think it would have been better captured in a more intimate surrounding, especially with the reinforced bass register.
But the use of the 16′ stop certainly does, when used, bring gravitas and contrast to this piece like no other I have heard. The sound at first is unusual, hearing notes so rich and low come from the instrument. But we know this configuration was used during Bach’s time. And for this work, more than the others, it really does work.
Hakkinen uses the lute stop in the slow movement, left hand to start. This further shows-off the tonal variety that is possible from the baroque harpsichord. His tempo, unlike so many, does not drag. I like it.
Bach’s E major concerto BWV 1053 has never been a real favorite of mine, among all the harpsichord concertos. Once the right-hand solo begins, I can’t help but hear an oboe. With this Helsinki band, however, I have a new appreciation for the work, especially with the harpsichord solo. I’ve simply never heard it so well articulated before, to the point where I can “hear” it all.
Like the Italian concerto, Hakkinen takes the middle movement at a pace that might scare a few. This is the only part that had me raise an eyebrow to the use of the organ; it can come across a little strong in the tutti sections.
BWV 1056 opens a little slow for me, but all the good virtues from the other works carry across just fine. The opening also reminds me we always hear Hakkinen breathe at the start of the works.
The famous Arioso adagio from this concerto is nicely done, again, through the use of different “articulations,” pizzicato, and single 8′ register on the harpsichord solo. The string sound from the orchestra is very transparent.
The tempo on the last movement is more to my liking, and the pizzicato effects return to great affect.
There’s not a lot to dislike here. I look forward enthusiastically to future volumes!