Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788)
Cello concerto in A major, Wq. 172 [19:05]
Cello concerto in B flat major, Wq. 171 [22:52]
Cello concerto in A minor, Wq. 170 [26:12]
Truls Mørk (cello)
Les Violons du Roy/Bernard Labadie
rec. 24-27 November 2008, Palais Montcalm, Québec.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6944920 [68:25]

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.

Guy Aron

Very stylishly played set … should disappoint only the really hard to please.