Vivaldi: Sinfonia in G, RV 149; Violin Concerto in E flat, RV 253 (La tempesta di mare); Violin Concerto in C, RV 180 (II piacere); Concerto in D minor, RV 540; Concerto in A, RV 552; Concerto in C, RV 558

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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Sinfonia in G, RV 149; Violin Concerto in E flat, RV 253 (La tempesta di mare); Violin Concerto in C, RV 180 (II piacere); Concerto in D minor, RV 540; Concerto in A, RV 552; Concerto in C, RV 558
PERFORMER: Academy of Ancient Music/Andrew Manze
JS Bach’s concertos for two and three harpsichords played, as in this newly recorded set, on modern pianos may raise purist eyebrows. Yet we should sound a cautionary note before jumping to conclusions. In all but one instance -that of the Concerto in C, BWV 1061 – Bach transcribed these pieces from earlier concertos for other solo instruments, principally the violin. Hardly had he finished doing so when he began to take an active part in the development by Gottfried Silbermann of a new kind of keyboard instrument, the fortepiano; eventually, Bach was even to act as an agent for Silbermann’s fortepianos in 5 Leipzig. Given this lively interest in S pianos, scientific and practical, it seems highly unlikely that Bach would have been other than fascinated by the sound of our instruments of today and their expressive range.

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Taken on its own terms, the approach heard on these discs is eminently practical, based on what these instruments are capable of expressing rather than the aping of stylistic conventions which arose out of an entirely different instrumental discipline and tonal palette. Great art is seldom confined by the stylistic language of its time and Bach’s music, perhaps more than that of any composer of the Baroque, is rich in subjective and emotional possibilities. Inasmuch as these intangible qualities are explored, above all in slow movements, the approach is Romantic, yet Andras Schiff, Peter Serkin – the main solo protagonists in this programme – and their fellow musicians are careful not to overlook matters of form and structure. These are ‘interpretations’ which reveal poetic qualities in Bach’s often highly contrapuntal writing frequently hidden by performances which rely too much upon orthodoxy and not enough upon expressive content.

Bach’s interest in keyboards and keyboard concertos was shared by his four musically gifted sons. Three of them feature in a programme recorded by harpsichordist Christine Schornsheim with the one-to-a-part string ensemble, Berliner Barock-Compagney. This playing sparkles with energy which is harnessed to make the most of the stylistic conventions of the early Classical idiom. A distinctive feature of the concertos by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, both of them highly original, is provided by the ethos of the ‘Empfindsamer Stil’, with its individual gestures, inner tensions and mercurial temperament. This is well understood by all five members of the Ensemble whose informed and imaginative playing infuses the music with unusual vitality and caprice. The Concerto by Johann Christian Bach is of an entirely different character, with its graceful rococo contours and greater lyricism. Sometimes I felt the need for reinforced upper string texture, but the bowing is so clean and incisive that it hardly seemed to matter.

Shortly after Bach had been exploring the possibilities of the harpsichord concerto in Leipzig, Handel was busy in London on a related form which was to a great extent his own invention. This was the organ concerto, which he devised mainly as entr’actes for his theatre performances of odes and oratorios. Organist Simon Lindley, with the Northern Sinfonia directed by Bradley Creswick, has recorded the six concertos of Handel’s first set, published in 1738 as the composer’s Op. 4. The organ is a softly spoken, clear-voiced instrument in Newcastle upon Tyne. It suits the music perfectly, and the sprightly playing of the Northern Sinfonia provides a sympathetic, well-balanced complement.

Concertos by Vivaldi, one of the greatest Baroque masters of the form, are pretty thick upon the ground, and there are no pieces new to the catalogue in the attractively titled ‘Concert for the Prince of Poland’. But a particular coherence is bestowed upon the recording by the programme itself which was given in Venice in March 1740 to honour the visit of Frederick Christian, Prince of Poland and Prince Elector of Saxony. The concert took place in the Ospedale della Pieta, the women’s orphanage with which Vivaldi, as composer, music director and instrumental teacher, was associated on and off for almost all his life. Four works by Vivaldi performed on this occasion have been preserved, though a serenata by another unidentified composer, for which these pieces provided an introduction and interludes, has been lost. In choosing them, Vivaldi clearly intended to demonstrate his originality as a highly expressive composer.

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Andrew Manze and the Academy of Ancient Music bring a sense of occasion to the music, exploring the composer’s invention and deftly wrought instrumental sonorities with affection and lively imagination. This is a veritable pageant of colour in which recorders, chalumeaux (antecedents of the clarinet), mandolins, lutes and strings all make an appearance.