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Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Concerti per il Cembalo
Concerto in G (Wq34/H444) [22:32]
Concerto in C minor (Wq5/H407) [24:46]
Concerto in A minor (Wq26/H430) [22:11]
L'arpa festante/Rien Voskuilen (harpsichord)
rec. July 2003, Klosterkirche Altenberg, Germany. DDD
CARUS 83.184 [70:10]



Today Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach is best known for his compositions for keyboard solo, and these are indeed the core of his oeuvre. But he also composed more than fifty concertos for keyboard and orchestra, more than anyone in music history. Considering their quality it is rather surprising they aren't often played on the concert platform. A complete recording is in progress on the Swedish label BIS, with the Hungarian keyboard player Miklos Spányi and the Concerto Armonico. But this recording with three of Bach's keyboard concertos is most welcome nevertheless.

Most of the keyboard concertos were composed in Berlin, where Bach was appointed as a member of the court chapel of Frederick the Great. It is unclear exactly when he started working at the court, probably 1738. It wasn't the most happy time of his life, as he was hardly appreciated by the King, who preferred Quantz, Hasse and the brothers Graun. From 1747 onwards Bach tried to find another job as court or church composer, but to no avail. In 1755 he was sharply attacked by Christoph Nichelmann, second harpsichordist at the court, in a book which caused a fierce debate. Although Bach's complaints led to Nichelmann leaving the court it was to be no improvement in his relationship with the King. Bach increasingly mixed with cultural and business circles in Berlin instead. Another setback was the Seven Years War (1756-1763) when the King was seldom in Berlin and the economic situation became difficult. During the war Bach stayed in Zerbst with the family of Carl Friedrich Fasch (the son of Johann Friedrich), who had been appointed second harpsichordist at the court in succession to Nichelmann.

Most of the keyboard concertos seem intended to be performed in private circles, probably by Bach himself. The solo parts are not suitable to be played by amateurs, and only six relatively easy concertos were published (Hamburg, 1772; Wq 43, H 471-476). Several of them were reworked years after Bach composed them, and some exist in two or three versions. The concertos on this disc are all for keyboard with strings and bass alone.

That is the case with the first concerto on this disc, which dates from 1755 and which was originally composed for Princess Amalia, sister of Frederick the Great. She was an avid organist, and owned a house organ. Bach composed six sonatas for organ for the Princess, and it is also this instrument for which the solo part of this concerto was originally intended. Several copies of this concerto indicate the harpsichord as an alternative. In addition there is a version for transverse flute (Wq 169, H 445). It is a delightful concerto and this recording shows that a performance with harpsichord works very well.

The second concerto is one of the reworked pieces: the first version dates from 1739, the second - which is played here - from 1762. In this concerto Rien Voskuilen plays his own cadenzas, as Bach's cadenzas for this concerto are missing from the manuscript which is preserved in Brussels, and which has been used for the other concertos on this disc.

The second movement of the last concerto - composed in 1750 - is striking because of its unusual lyricism. The expression in the style of the 'Empfindsamkeit' is absent, and it is also longer than usual: it is almost as long as the first movement, whereas in the other concertos the first movement is by far the longest. This concerto exists in no less than three versions: keyboard, transverse flute and cello.

Rien Voskuilen and the orchestra L'arpa festante have grasped the character of these concertos extremely well. Voskuilen's performance is vigorous and sensitive. The orchestral playing is vital and the strong gestures in the tutti are realised very well. Only the acoustics are less than ideal. This recording has been made in a church, and there is a little too much reverberation for my taste.

The choice of a harpsichord rather than a fortepiano is right: it was only in the 1770s when the fortepiano started to outshine the harpsichord. I'm not saying that the latest concerto on this disc (C minor, H 407) can't be played on the fortepiano, but the natural balance between keyboard and strings supports the choice of the harpsichord here.

Johan van Veen

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