Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s three cello concertos were written
at a time when the genre was pretty thin on the ground. They
were written between 1750 and 1753, when the cello was still
more of an accompanying than a solo instrument. With the exception
of the Vivaldi concertos, and the pioneering six Suites for
unaccompanied cello by C.P.E. Bach’s father, Johann Sebastian,
there was not much solo cello repertoire to build on. These
three works demonstrate C.P.E.’s originality as a composer,
and also the wide emotional range for which his music became
famous. The fast movements are often flighty and capricious,
the slow movements grave and sometimes tragic, while the finales
are as energetic as those of the Haydn symphonies. I find it
difficult to supply a comparison to those unfamiliar with C.P.E.
Bach’s style. Occasionally one is reminded of early Mozart:
the slow movements have passing echoes of Vivaldi and Handel;
but generally, he doesn’t sound quite like anyone else.
The solo writing in these concertos is often quite virtuosic,
with extended passages of arpeggios and unusual syncopated rhythms.
The soloist in this recording, Truls Mørk, is certainly equal
to these technical challenges. I had the good fortune to hear
Mørk perform the Schumann concerto in Melbourne, and can testify
to the intensity and musicality of his playing, and his strong
projection. This fine Norwegian cellist contracted an infection
of the central nervous system five years ago; this recording
was the first he has released since his return to the studio.
I was therefore keen to hear what he would make of these flighty
and colourful concertos. The orchestra is the Quebec original
instruments ensemble Les Violons du Roy.
The A major starts off with a characteristically bouncy orchestral
ritornello. Mørk shapes the long arpeggio passages nicely, and
plays the minor episodes in a lyrical fashion. The second movement
features carefully contrasted dynamics from the orchestra; Mørk
makes the most of the lamenting solo part, which allows him
to show off his beautiful legato playing. The finale is a high-spirited
affair; perhaps one feels that Mørk’s approach is a touch deliberate
in this movement. The end comes abruptly, without any ritardando,
in the style of Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
The B flat major concerto has a much more melodic solo part,
and Mørk sounds a little happier with this material. He takes
care to vary his tone, playing occasionally near the bridge
for more intensity. Mørk’s exchanges with the continuo cello
in this movement are quite delightful. The slow movement again
features an orchestral introduction of great dynamic variety;
throughout this movement, the orchestra and soloist shape their
phrasing in a most expressive way. The movement ends in a hushed
atmosphere; a half close leads straight into the vigorous finale.
The A minor work features more of C.P.E.’s characteristically
flighty style, dramatic pauses and repeated short rhythmic motifs.
Mørk adopts a slow burn approach, gradually increasing the intensity
of his playing. The pizzicato writing is played with delicate
precision. Mørk again brings a beautifully rich tone to his
solo part in the second movement. The finale includes some sharply
clipped staccato playing from the orchestra; Mørk negotiates
the virtuoso passage-work with wonderful security.
My comparison is with a set originally recorded on Hungaroton
with Balász Maté on cello, and Concerto Armonico, directed by
Péter Szüts. Maté is a relaxed-sounding player with a slightly
resinous tone. He and the orchestra, which is described as playing
on original instruments, negotiate these concertos in an assured
fashion. Timings are very similar to Mørk and Labadie; there
is perhaps less dynamic variety in their approach, which is
pretty straightforward. This recording is part of a 7 CD Brilliant
Classics box set called Classical Cello Concertos (92198),
which also includes twelve of the Boccherini concertos, the
Haydn concertos, and six by Leonardo Leo, an Italian composer
unknown to me before I heard these works, but well worth getting
to know. This is an extremely good value set; the Boccherinis
are unfortunately a bit dull, but it is still worth hearing
the concertos in their original form before Grützmacher butchered
several of them to form the Frankenstein’s monster known as
the “Concerto in B flat major”.
I am not quite sure why I was a bit disappointed by this set.
Mørk and the orchestra play in fine style throughout, and the
recording quality is very good. Mørk is possibly at his best
in works of more emotional depth; his performance of the Brahms
E minor sonata with Hélène Grimaud (DG 00288 477 5718) has great
intensity, and is one of the best duo performances I have heard.
Perhaps C.P.E. Bach needs a bit more animal high spirits to
really come off. Mørk did seem to loosen up a bit in the A minor,
but for all the sophistication of the playing I felt there was
something just a bit cautious about it, like a party where everyone
is on their best behaviour. This quibble aside, we have here
a very stylishly played set of cello concertos which should
disappoint only the really hard to please.