Jean Rondeau records concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach and his sons for Erato
There is a story to be told, and it has been told to be sure, about Bach's genesis of the "harpsichord concerto." It's significant because it tells the genesis of the piano concerto. (To be fair, Handel had composed concertos for the organ with orchestra.) And if we were to put ourselves, say, in Leipzig, surrounded by townsfolk, the ones that frequented the afternoon entertainment by college students at Zimmerman's Coffee House, we might have, say, around 1732, have experienced some of what's on this disc.
But there are a lot of recordings of Bach's keyboard concertos. That story isn't the one really told here.
This release features two of father Bach's concertos: BWV 1052 and 1056. We believe these concertos very well could have been arrangements of pieces for violin or oboe. We can't know precisely why they were re-written. It might as well have been the necessity for Bach to lead the ensemble at his own instrument in the role as virutoso. So they're arragements. That isn't the story here.
What did Bach's offspring do in this genre? Rondeau and his small ensemble feature another concerto by Johann Christian (?) in F minor (brilliant piece, whomever is the composer, some sources have listed CPE Bach), and a CPE piece, Wq 23 in D minor. In addition, to represent WF Bach, Rondeau includes his own arrangement of a movement by Bach's older son.
While slower movements are not my favorites, they seem to be where Rondeau shows the most creative spirit; the WF piece is a slow movement, a "Lamento," and either through his playing or direction, there's enough in the way of pauses, rubato, and either leanness or fullness in orchestral sound to know these musicians have a real voice.
Rondeau is known for being able to play fast and furious, but the faster movements from these concertos shy away from going full-tilt. The outer movement tempi for BWV 1052 feel "pretty fast," but some of the others hold back. Each choice seems to have been made to allow the main themes to shine. Listening to Rondeau, specifically when he's playing by himself, it all kind of works. There is an intricacy, after all, to all those notes Bach employs as a way to project the harpsichord.
The same could have been said for the opening of the CPE piece; I have an alternative recording I like that pushes harder on tempo. But despite the slower choice I have little complaint. These musicians appear to me to the wiser with their choices once the harpsichord takes on the main theme by itself.
The story, then, is one of a father who, despite looking backward for so much of his career, couldn't have helped himself but also become an innovator. And what did his sons do after that first idea was shared? The stylistic differences between father and sons is stark in spots. We might think they had a preference for minor keys. But the piece indicated to be by Johann Christian Bach is full of a drama that, to me, is not unrelated to the style, born in a more Vivaldian-vein, that can be traced easily back to BWV 1052. The opening theme is simple and servantile to arouse our attention; it's the intricate writing by the keyboard alone that reveals a newer artistic voice, one that's ready for longer melody and less reliance upon counterpoint. The piece, I'll dare say, is my favorite of the recording. It lacks the better ideas carried in the CPE Bach piece, but nevertheless speaks to my emotions.
I am not sure the story is well-enough told with so few examples. Perhaps it will continue in a future release. I can't help but thinking that the opening theme to the CPE piece would have made J.S. Bach proud. I keep listening to more music by CPE Bach and he's growing on me. He was Bach's most gifted composer-son.
If there is more to be told from these musicians of this story I'd like to challenge the musicians in their choice of a one person-per part approach for the orchestra. In the J.S. Bach pieces, the lean orchestra seems appropriate. Nothing really is lacking from one string player per part. They add bassoon for the galant pieces. The double bass has enough voice, for instance in the first JS Bach piece (1052), to really give good balance to the sound.
But in the pieces by Bach's sons--all of them really--the orchestra to my ears is just too lean. Dynamics are no longer nicities, they are required. The playing by all is well done, I just wanted more sound, and more depth. That lack of depth with a larger string ensemble is my only criticism of the disc. It was their writing for a more dynamic orchestra, and perhaps the expectations attached with their own composition of concertos for solo harpsichord, that differentiated, to my ears, the sons from the father. To not have explored that more fully was to lose sight, I think, of an apt comparison of these pieces.
My listening to the other full-length concertos by JC and CPE with larger ensembles (and faster tempi) were apt comparisons; I think Rondeau gets the tempos right, but I can't help but appreciate what a larger ensemble does for insighting frissons of drama.