Jonathan Cohen conducts Cello Concertos by CPE Bach

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Cello Concerto in A minor, H342 Wq170; Cello Concerto in B flat, H436 Wq171; Cello Concerto in A, H439 Wq172
PERFORMER: Nicolas Altstaedt (cello); Arcangelo/Jonathan Cohen

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The ability to switch between Baroque and modern playing techniques is considered almost de rigeur among today’s cellists. In truth, only a handful achieve a convincing style in both. Nicolas Altstaedt is one of that elite group: here you would think he was a Baroque full-timer, his approach is so indefinably delicate, the phrasing of CPE Bach’s seductive lines limpid, the recitative hyper-articulate. The tawny warmth of his tone is perfectly attuned to the composer’s sound world; slow movements have an inward grace, while the fast are marked by vivid detail and natural effervescence.

CPE Bach’s three works form a crucial link between the Baroque and Classical concerto form, but stand apart in the mass of 18th-century cello concertos in their unidiomatic originality. (All three sound as well on flute and harpsichord, and it remains unclear which instrument came first in the composer’s mind.) This means the cello is often singing in its middle and lower rather than its more brilliant treble register, a challenge for any soloist. Here Jonathan Cohen, directing from the harpsichord, and Arcangelo prove inspired partners, lending disruptive energy without ever overwhelming Altstaedt’s often princely lyricism – including his own, heart-stopping cadenza in the A minor Allegro assai, harking back to ‘Es ist vollbracht’ – and allowing the most intricate solo passagework through the texture. Cohen, a cellist himself, and Altstaedt have worked closely for years, and it shows in their tight but mercurially creative ensemble, the former garlanding the solo line in exquisite, apparently spontaneous harmony. Strings add melting support in the A minor’s Andante, luminously graceful in Altstaedt’s hands, before entering into dramatic dialogue with the cello. Where others turn the proto-sturm und drang turbulence into something aggressive and hard-edged, here a sense of dance is never distant. This is particularly true in the darkly commanding Adagio of the B flat Concerto which is here intriguing rather than bombastic, an ideal preparation for the manically modulating mayhem of the Allegro.

The recording balance captures all the fiery wit of orchestral-soloist banter, particularly in the capricious B flat concerto, without falsely magnifiying the cello. Written later than the others in 1753, the A major Concerto has a breezy amplitude and high-kicking virtuosity that feels almost Haydnesque. While Pieter Wispelwey and the Winterthur Chamber Orchestra (EPR) are perhaps more virile in attack, where Alstaedt and Arcangelo score is in its poignant Largo. Muted and marked ‘mesto’, they plumb the depths of its secret grief in daring portamenti sobs and an unforgettably dark purity of sound.

Helen Wallace

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Listen to an excerpt from this recording here.